17 August 2018

Why We Need Her: Aretha Franklin

Spoiler Alert:  Today's post is on a non-cycling topic.

The other day, the Andrew Cuomo said something that will probably haunt him for the rest of his days:  "America was never that great."

Now, I just happen to think that Cuomo wasn't expressing a lack of patriotism.  Rather, I think the utterance shows, more than anything, that he doesn't quite share his father's intelligence or eloquence.

I'm guessing that he was trying to refute Trump's oft-echoed mantra:  Make America Great Again.  If anything, I would say that America was never great (rather than "not that great") because no nation in the history of this world has ever been great.  Some nations have been powerful, have been mighty.  Others have been prosperous; still others, influential.  A few nations have combined more than one of those qualities.

But no nation* has ever been great, including my own.

To me, the proof is this:  Aretha Franklin.  No one ever would have sounded the way she did had her nation, or any other, had been great.  In fact, nobody ever could have sounded like that, like her.

If any nation in history had ever been great, there never would have been any need for someone to sound like her.  And that's why, to me, almost all of her work is art of the highest order.

Yes, I said art.  I see no contradiction between it and popular music or other entertainments.  Shakespeare was popular in his own time; so were any number of painters and sculptors who received commissions from wealthy patrons and whose works we gaze at, with awe, in museums and galleries today.

Of course, we've all heard Natural Woman and RespectIn those songs, she combines vulnerability and strength, anger and empathy, joy and grief, need and the yearning for freedom, the need to sing and the urge to fly, better than just about anyone who's ever sung.  In other words, she captures the complexity--and the fearsome complications--of our existence.

For my money, though, her best expression of the gifts only she could bring us was on I Never Loved A ManOn the surface, it seems like just a song that expresses--if you'll pardon my appropriating the title of an '80s self-help book--the dilemma of a woman who loves too much, or at least seems to love the wrong man.  But, to me, it's really about being beaten down and beaten up by, not only another person, but by life itself--and realizing that the only choice is to move forward. The world is excruciating, people are mean, and her man is cruel--but she cannot do anything but love:  love him, love the world.  I think it's what W.H. Auden meant when he wrote, "We must love one another or die."

That song alone would place her in my pantheon of great American artists.  To me, it's worthy of Leaves of Grass, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Kind of Blue,Christina's WorldThe Great Gatsby Citizen Kane, Blue and Green Music, the first Godfather film and Rhapsody in Blue.

Now Aretha Franklin is gone.  Well, she--her body--has left us.  But not the body of her work.  As long as there are no great nations, we'll need it.  And if there ever is a great nation, we'll have the luxury of simply savoring it.

*--By "nation", I mean geo-political entities, which are not to be confused with the cultures or peoples contained within them, which often are great.

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