August 20, 2018, by Emma Thorne
Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018
Holy Moses, I have been deceived
Now the wind has changed direction and I’ll have to leave
—‘Border Song’ by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, covered by Aretha Franklin on her Young, Gifted and Black album, 1972
Aretha Franklin’s breathtaking musicianship and unsurpassed ability to captivate and move listeners need no further elaboration from me. And her status as a symbol of civil rights and female empowerment is undoubtedly merited. Between 1967 and 1972 Aretha voiced her own deeply private struggles, hopes and fears in a uniquely powerful musical language that resonated perfectly with the very public unfolding of a new and especially troubled phase of the black liberation struggle. Though intensely personal, Aretha’s music of this period soundtracked with uncanny sensitivity the splintering of the civil rights mainstream of interracial, nonviolent protest into factions advocating armed self-defence, black separatism, and a whole range of Black Power philosophies from cultural nationalism to revolutionary Marxism. By 1972 the movement lay in fragments. That was the year of Aretha’s last great musical statement, the live gospel album Amazing Grace. Here, the Baptist minister’s daughter returned to her musical and family roots, as if to remind listeners of the black church’s foundational role in the civil rights movement. But it was a return to roots in a very different way, too. The album art depicted an Aretha who’d shed the glamorous gowns and wigs of her earlier pop career for the ‘natural’ look of Afro hair and African-style attire. She was making concessions to the new wave in black politics that rejected what some saw as the civil rights movement’s assimilationist stance for a ‘black pride’ ideology emphasising racialised notions of identity, cultural heritage and authenticity.
But Aretha’s heart wasn’t entirely in the new politics of identity, and her music quite abruptly lost its vital connection to the social currents that had nourished it. Her albums too often became exercises in following musical trends, looking for the next hit. And her subsequent fate was to become institutionalised as an ‘icon’—a national treasure and focal point for civil-rights, black-pride and women’s-liberation nostalgia as the social movements of the 1960s and early 1970s became distant memories in an age of political conformity and materialistic individualism. The lifeless medley of Chaka Kahn’s ‘I’m Every Woman’ and her own ‘Respect’ that Aretha recorded for her 2014 Sings the Diva Classics album showed that what had once been vital statements of collective struggle had been reduced to hackneyed anthems of blustering self-empowerment for the neoliberal era. The woman who had performed so electrically in the ideologically-charged heat of Martin Luther King’s funeral and at the politically fractious 1968 Democratic Party National Convention now gave lucrative private concerts for financial oligarchs (opening Donald Trump’s Trump International Hotel and Tower in 1997) and corporate behemoths (filling Radio City Music Hall for the Ford Motor Company’s launch of its new Taurus model in 1995). Meanwhile, Aretha became a regular in TV commercials. She shilled for Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Snickers—curious choices for a woman who battled food-addiction and body-image issues throughout her life. She also worked for the fossil fuel industry, Ford and General Motors, perhaps out of loyalty to the automotive culture of her home city of Detroit, which nonetheless filed for bankruptcy in 2013, its auto industry decimated by the criminal recklessness of deregulated finance capitalism.
Of course, all artists must earn a living and those who operate in the commercial marketplace, as Aretha did, are more vulnerable than others to the blandishments of the commodity system. But the arc of Aretha’s career highlights how popular music—able in the 1960s and 1970s to combine commercialism with artistic adventurousness and social engagement—is more tightly bound into that system than ever before, as are the movements for social change that emerged in that period. Antiracism and feminism have become official ideologies of neoliberal capitalism, underpinning its doctrines of equal opportunity, individual empowerment and meritocracy. They flourish even as western liberal democracies have undergone an historic explosion in economic inequality over the last forty years. Aretha Franklin came from a black bourgeois family (her father was a wealthy man who was once indicted for tax evasion) whose economic distance from the mass of African Americans was moderated by the common experience of de jure and de facto racial segregation and discrimination. Her artistic decline exactly coincides with the period in which the removal of de jure segregation, the passing of equality legislation, the introduction of compensatory admissions practices in the professions and higher education, and the globalisation and financialization of the economy enabled the black bourgeoisie and middle-class women to leave the rest of their respective social groups further and further behind. In such circumstances, emphasising racial or gender empowerment can quite easily conceal and even legitimise deepening economic inequalities within social groups as well as across them.
Tellingly, some of Aretha’s more heartfelt performances of recent years occurred in connection with two figures who most vividly illustrate the astronomical rise of the black elite since the 1960s—her friend, media oligarch Oprah Winfrey, and ex-president Barack Obama. Oprah and Obama embody the gender-blind and race-blind meritocracy so idealised by the propagandists of neoliberal capitalism and the American Dream. Both are notable for the way they drape their commitment to neoliberal principles, ideologies and policies (Obama presided over the greatest transfer of wealth from poor to rich in American history, with especially deleterious consequences for African Americans) in a cloak of social-justice rhetoric borrowed from the civil rights and women’s liberation movements of their youth. This rhetorical trick allows them to position themselves on the side of equality even as their own wealth and that of their class skyrockets and the incomes and life chances of the vast majority of Americans, regardless of race or gender, decline. I’d venture to suggest that some of the sadness we feel at the death of Aretha Franklin is nostalgia for a time when the best popular music seemed to have an organic connection to the important liberation struggles of its epoch, when the rhetoric of social justice was not an alibi for the self-advancement of elites, and when we thought that the legacy of the social movements of the 1960s might amount to more than a profoundly unequal capitalist ‘meritocracy.’
Nick Heffernan, School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies