Aretha Franklin, who died on August 16th at age 76, recorded more than 40 full-length albums in her six-decade career. It’s a deep catalog, crowded with indisputable classics and hidden gems. Rolling Stone’s music staff is paying its R.E.S.P.E.C.T.s to the Queen with tributes to our favorite Aretha LPs. Next up: Christopher R. Weingarten on a mid-1980s peak.
The tectonic shift to MTV’s 24-hour videodrone was kinder to some legends than others.
Of the first 35 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, only the Rolling Stones fared better at navigating the video Eighties than Aretha Franklin – and even their attempt at New Wave was the solid but ultimately footnoted “Undercover of the Night.” Boomer legends like Robert Plant, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac and Paul McCartney all tried on musical skinny ties of varying length, to varying degrees of success. Aretha Franklin, however, transformed into a spiky-haired diva, her pink Cadillac speeding past Bruce Springsteen’s into Cyndi Lauper’s pool. She was never a dancer like Tina Turner, Mick Jagger or Michael Jackson; she didn’t turn herself into a post-modern alien like ZZ Top. But for about two years, she became an MTV star nonetheless.
The reason was Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, her thirty-third(!) album. It’s so much more than an asymmetrical New Wave hairstyle on a soul icon. It was tuned-in pop, contemporary but not cloying, banking on a reliable brand (Aretha!) but not dependent on it. Though robust and explosive, she didn’t fill the album with too many of the pyrotechnic vocal fireworks of hits like “Think” or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” – producer Narada Michael Walden said she hadn’t been singing seriously for a while, when she was taking care of her ailing father. Instead, Franklin just delivers most of these songs with a giddy enthusiasm. (The obvious exception that proves the rule is the soaring ballad “Sweet Bitter Love.”)
First up was “Freeway of Love,” a track where producer and drummer Walden gives everything the future-shock of Thomas Dolby, except for his own drums, which channel Booker T and the M.G.s’ Al Jackson Jr. In the music video, the jumpsuits and assembly line imagery weren’t a Devo-style arch critique of capitalism, but instead a celebration of Aretha’s native Detroit – at once conjuring industry, success and sex. “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves,” however, is political enough to have a party platform (“Equal pay, hear what we say!”) and lyrics that might as well have been from Bikini Kill (“Now this is a song to celebrate/The conscious liberation of the female state”).
That decade was a minefield for Sixties legends finding their way around – see the cover art of Bob Dylan’s Empire Burlesque, for starters. But Franklin was comfortable in New Wave, just as she would seem a perfect fit for neo-soul and house music in the Nineties, with opera at the 1998 Grammys, and with an Adele cover in her final years. Was there anything that voice didn’t sound great on?