Listen to this track by irreplaceable Queen of soul Aretha Franklin. It’s “Respect”, a huge hit for her as taken from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. This song, actually a cover version, helped to solidify her status as a giant of modern song.
When people think of this song today, it’s Aretha’s version that immediately leaps to mind, with the signature push-pull between her lead voice and those of her sisters backing her up. That’s a musical dynamic familiar to even the most casual listener by now. Even its writer Otis Redding, who was and is also a giant of popular song, agreed that Aretha Franklin took this song to another place. At his historic appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, he affectionately described it as “a song a girl took away from me”. It certainly captures the vernacular of the time with it’s “sock it to me!” and “take care of TCB!” exclamations being a real high point that helped to make this song what it is. Since, it’s become interwoven into pop culture with references to it being too many to count.
Culturally speaking, Franklin’s take on this song goes even further still even by virtue of the fact that she’s the one singing it. This is not only down to her identity as a woman, but specifically as a black woman. In an era full of conflict and in a society that was coming to a head where all kinds of social structures were concerned, this song is more than just a catchy hit single. It was, and still is, culturally resonant and downright important.
Redding’s original is pretty great too, of course. It’s full of grit and earthiness that helped to define a whole subgenre of pop music. But in some ways, Redding’s original is pretty traditional, too. It’s the story of the hard-working man coming home to his wife and demanding a certain amount of respect in exchange for being the breadwinner. That was the cultural sea out of which this song came, and was pretty widely understood along these lines.
But, Aretha’s version is something other.
This is a woman talking. In the sixties. Because of that, she’s talking about respect in a different light entirely, and one that presented new vistas for listeners of the time to consider. At this point in time, the narrator’s position of being at home while her husband was out making money was not heralded as one of personal sacrifice in quite the same way as the picture of the male breadwinner going to work every day. That reality and gender dynamic was just a given, the natural order of things, with a wife’s contribution being largely invisible to her husband, and to society as a whole. In some ways, and in many households today, this is still the case with the contributions of men achieving greatness out in the working world and women in supporting roles at home remaining to be decidedly unequal in value in the eyes of many.
But in this song, she expects her “propers” when he gets home. She wants him to know that he couldn’t do what he does without her, that without her contribution, the burden on her man would be that much greater if not entirely unbearable. That’s what respect means here; to be valued, to no longer be invisible, and to have one’s needs acknowledged and addressed. By the end of the 1960s, this was a new idea when it came to the contributions of a woman in a household. As such, beneath the funky surface of this song (with a truly underrated opening riff from guitarist Cornell Dupree!) this song was and is culturally resonant as much as it stands as a tune that gets people dancing. More than that, it’s socially provocative on more than one front. Gender and accepted gender roles is only a part of the equation.
During the civil rights era, the idea that black people being owed for unpaid work in building a nation into a superpower and as the originators of new art forms credited to the whole nation was a pretty new idea, too. There are certainly parallels to be found in this song with the question of gender, and with many of the same dynamics at work having to do with being invisible, under-valued, and completely marginalized. At this stage in history too, the concept of respect was also at ground zero, with many people having to fight to have their full humanity recognized by mainstream (read: white) culture even apart from their contributions to society as they stood, male or female.
I think this has all kinds of implications that are attached to how the idea of respect is processed and then applied based on who is hearing the word as it’s (literally!) spelled out in this song. We may even hear this as a revolutionary statement before we come to the conclusion that this song is really about basic rights that are not being rendered, not unreasonable demands of special treatment. Shades of Black Lives Matter, and all of the reactionary “All Lives Matter” statements against it, then.
Even during the time “Respect” came out, it was looked upon as something of a radical and even subversive statement as sung by someone like Aretha Franklin. She didn’t see it that way at all when asked about it in interviews. To her, wanting respect is common to everyone regardless of gender or race, and she was and is completely right about that. And yet, it stood out as a political message when she sang it in 1967. Because, tragically, it was.
Even more tragically, it still is radical.
It’s still political even now.
Aretha Franklin is an active singer and performer today. There’s a new record out, A Brand New Me just released on November 10 which has Aretha backed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, matching her 1960s-era vocal recordings with new arrangements.
You can learn about it on the official Aretha Franklin site.