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.
Listen to this track by supremely gifted American pop song artisan and singer-songwriter in her own right Carole King. It’s “It’s Too Late”, a smash single coupled with another song, “I Feel The Earth Move”, as a double A-side, and featured on her classic 1971 record Tapestry. The song was co-written with lyricist Toni Stern, who penned the words after a break-up with a mutual friend of King’s, fellow singer-songwriter James Taylor.
Carole King herself had written for many other artists from Bobby Vee, to The Chiffons, to The Monkees, a role that took up quite a bit of her time from the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s after only a few solo singles under her own name by the beginning of that decade. By then, she’d evolved considerably as a writer and performer. “It’s Too Late” reflects a more mature perspective on the end of a relationship compared to many of the break-up songs she’d written in the previous decade. It adds a level of musical sophistication too, with jazz-inflected guitar and soprano sax adding additional voices to King’s resigned lead vocal and lush piano lines.
But very importantly, it’s also a key song that comes from a woman’s point of view during a time when certain social changes were only just beginning to make their way into the broader cultural conversation. Read more
Listen to this track by rock n’ roll and pop powerhouse Pat Benatar. It’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, a gargantuan hit single as taken from her breakthrough 1980 record Crimes Of Passion, her second and biggest selling album to date.
The song was a top ten hit in on the US charts, and scored similar success around the world, being a hard rock song with a pop aftertaste while never sounding corporatized or manufactured a la the profusion of corporate rock at the time. The album was huge, scoring a number two placement on the charts, only bettered chartwise by John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy. She even got a Grammy for best female rock vocal performance of the year in 1981 .
One thing that stands out to me past the lyrical surface of the song, and past the mainstream success the song had, there is an important subtext to be found here that goes well beyond the material as it was written. Read more
Listen to this track by producer, rapper, and genre-crossing hip hop auteur Missy Elliott. It’s “Get Ur Freak On”, a monster hit single as taken from her third album, Miss E … So Addictive from 2001. The song is a bona fide classic by now, and covered by many from Eels who made this song a staple during their 2003 tour, to Britney Spears during her Vegas residency, to FLOTUS Michelle Obama featured in her recent appearance on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, with Missy Elliott herself joining in while riding in the backseat. Talk about cultural reach!
“Get Ur Freak On” borrows heavily from bhangra in terms of its rhythmic make-up and with music of the Asian continent generally in terms of its texture. That latter aspect is particularly reflected in its use of the very sticky six-note riff sampling what sounds like a koto, that being a 13-stringed instrument used in traditional Japanese music. Other sources say it’s a tumbi, which is something akin to a Punjabi one-string banjo. Either way, that’s pretty far from just an 808 programmable drum machine and a microphone.
In that regard alone, “Get Ur Freak On” represents an evolutionary jump for hip hop in general, going beyond urban America and into whole new geographical and cultural territories by the early two-thousands. It opened the gates culturally speaking, and it has wider implications thematically, too; that of empowerment, and on all kinds of levels. Read more
Listen to this song by international citizen and crossover R&B/Hip Hop/dance-pop maven Neneh Cherry. It’s “Buffalo Stance”, her biggest hit and featured on her landmark 1989 album Raw Like Sushi. The song was a smash success all over the world, scoring big numbers on the pop and R&B charts in the US, the UK, and even here in the Great White North.
The song itself is an almalgam of musical styles, and isn’t really affliliated with any one of them. There are some pretty broad strands of musical traditions that can be plucked out of this song. Soul, electro, and hip hop are certainly among them, with those strains of music growing more and more in stature as it was imported from the United States to scenes in the UK where it was also developing domestically by the end of the eighties. I think a lot of post punk textures can be found pretty prominently in here as well, with lots of light and dark textures weaving in and out of each other. Along with all of these ingredients, “Buffalo Stance” proved to be pretty adaptable to all kinds of musical channels, popular as a video, a single on the radio, and certainly in the clubs.
But, what is this song actually about, and what is its real relationship with its singer? It is certainly rooted in ideas about finding common ground, and finding likeminded people with whom to surround oneself. But, it also has an aspect to it that is often missing in pop music that is made to dance to; a political edge.
Listen to this track by Los Angeles-based folk-rock trio featuring ingenue singer Linda Ronstadt. It’s “Different Drum”, a 1967 single as taken from their second album, Evergreen, Vol. 2, which would turn out to be their most successful release.
The song was penned by Michael Nesmith, a member of the Monkees of course, but written in 1965 before his profile was raised by the weekly TV show that made him famous. Even before Stone Poneys got a hold of it, it had been recorded by bluegrass outfit The Greenbriar Boys. Nesmith himself would record his own version of the song on his And The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ album in 1972.
In the summer of 1967, this proved to be the first hit single (#13 on the Billboard Hot 100) that singer Linda Ronstadt would enjoy in a solo career that would yield several as the sixties turned into the seventies, and even beyond. Maybe the song’s subject matter inadvertently pointed to the fate of the group; that each member was ultimately headed in different directions to the others before the end of the decade.
Yet I think more interestingly, this take on Nesmith’s tune as re-interpreted by Ronstadt says a lot about its current era of the sixties and how things were changing especially when it came to the roles of men and women. Read more