Respect has been getting a lot of airplay in the past week as the tributes to iconic vocalist Aretha Franklin pour in. Sometimes the hyperbole surrounding the death of a celebrity is over the top. In this instance the praise is warranted.
A few days ago I saw a clip of Aretha singing the national anthem. She got as far as “Oh say” and I already had chills going through my body. There has never been anyone whose voice so captured, simultaneously, the joy and the pain of life. I believe that is what makes her voice so magnetic, so powerful.
When you hear Aretha Franklin you are hearing it all, the full scope of life’s experiences. You hear the valleys. You hear the mountain tops. Her voice goes deep to a place inside that recognizes what is true for all of us. Life hurts. Life is wonderful. Life is hard. Life is thrilling. It’s all there.
About fifteen years ago I saw a TV special hosted by another iconic female singer (who shall remain nameless) known for her strong voice and vocal gymnastics. She made the unwise choice of sharing the stage with Aretha for a duet. Let’s just say she did not fair well in the comparison. It was startling to hear the difference. Aretha’s was truly a stand-alone talent.
Singing about Respect
I was struck this past week by the fact that the greatest female vocalist of our time had the biggest hit of her fifty-year career singing about respect. So much of the popular music of the last thirty years has been degrading and disrespectful towards women.
As the father of a daughter, a son, and two granddaughters I yearn deeply for our contemporary culture to be one that respects women rather than seeing them as objects. Of course, I want men to be respected as well. That is the heart behind a project like Somebody’s Daughter, and songs like The Apology and Child of God.
I believe in the power of music to transform lives. I also believe music can motivate and inspire people to respect themselves and others. That is why we invest our time at Music for the Soul writing and producing healing songs – songs that encourage and lift up and speak truthfully about life’s challenges and ways to overcome them.
Unfortunately that power can be used for ill. In general the content of our public discourse and our entertainment media, both music and film, has become more coarse and vulgar over the past twenty-five years. Except in the most extreme cases, I don’t think most of the popular music that is created is intentionally designed to be harmful. But a great deal of it is. I think this is the natural by product a youthful artist base reflecting the culture in which they are raised combined with an industry whose priority is to make money. And there is no adage more reliable than “sex sells.”
Music that is to come
Any powerful medium can be used positively or negatively. There is no better example of that than the Internet.
I’ve spent the last thirty-five years writing and producing music and seen its power to impact lives, shape culture, and galvanize movements. In the wake of Aretha’s passing I would hope and pray that young artists would be inspired, not only by the tone of Aretha’s actual voice, but by the message of her most celebrated song.
I encourage young artists to think about the impact of the lyrics they write, the messages their songs carry, and the influence those songs have on the people who listen to them.
I encourage listeners of all ages to be discerning about the artists and songs they choose to listen to. As you are what you eat, you are also what you listen to. And the songs you listen to stay with you a lot longer than yesterday’s cheeseburger.
I encourage radio programmers and recording industry professionals to think about how the songs they choose to record and play help create a tone for our national dialogue and for the development of ideas and behavior.
I encourage parents to be more proactive in knowing what and who their children are listening to. Songs and recording artists have a special kind of authority with young people. A parent who wants to know what is going in their teen’s life would do well to begin by finding out who their favorite recording artists are and asking what they like about them. Then listen to their answer.
In the end, I would hope and pray that healing songs, inspiring songs, uplifting songs, joyful songs, and sad songs that speak to the deepest places in us with compassion – that all of these may emerge from the popular culture in the music that is to come.
And thanks to Aretha Franklin for leaving us a legacy of respect.