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How Aretha Franklin made ‘Respect’ a feminist anthem

It may be the most rousing feminist anthem ever, but “Respect” — the song that made Aretha Franklin the “Queen of Soul” — was actually written about a man demanding a break from his wife.

Aretha Franklin
Aretha Franklin

Franklin’s genius was to turn the song — and the traditional values it espoused — on their head by some deft changes to the lyrics and by adding the stirring “R – E – S – P – E – C – T” chorus.

In so doing, she made Otis Redding’s 1965 lament of an exhausted working man demanding some slack from his woman into a rallying call for downtrodden African American women.

Rolling Stone magazine put her version in the top five greatest songs of all time, saying Franklin was a “woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority.”

And even Redding — who wrote other such timeless classics like “Dock of the Bay” and “Try a Little Tenderness” — acknowledged within months of Franklin’s recording that the song belonged to her.

His biographer Mark Ribowsky said that at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California, Redding joked to the crowd, saying: “This next song is a song that a girl took away from me.”

Five months later, the “King of Soul” died in a plane crash aged just 26.

Franklin was an almost unknown gospel singer from Detroit when she went into the studio to record “Respect” with her sisters Erma and Carolyn.

She speeded the song up and cooked up the provocative high-tempo “Sock it to me” refrain, producer Jerry Wexler later recalled in his autobiography, “Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music.”

“The fervour in Aretha’s voice demanded that respect,” he wrote.

But American musicologist Professor Victoria Malawey told AFP that Franklin’s take on the song was far more than a jazzed up cover version.

– A new soul –

She insisted that Franklin changed “the song so radically… that I would argue she re-authored it.

“It was not just her altering of the lyrics, or changing the point of view of the song from a male one to that of a woman, she also gave it an entirely new energy and soul,” the pop music specialist added.

Malawey, chair of music at Macalester College in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, credits Franklin with turning the song into an anthem for both the feminist and civil rights movement in the late 1960s.

“Not only did she add the R-E-S-P-E-C-T chorus, but her remaking of the song gives it a whole different empowerment message, both sexually and politically.

“In my opinion, the extent of her re-authoring grants her status as owner of the song, and makes it a whole new sonic experience. That is why multiple social movements have claimed Franklin’s ‘Respect’ as theirs” over the past half-century, she said.

The hit won Franklin the first two of her 18 Grammy awards, and went on to feature in more than 30 major films including “Platoon”, “The Blues Brothers”, “Mystic Pizza” and “Forrest Gump”.

Malawey said that Franklin, the daughter of a Baptist minister, always denied that there were sexual overtones to the lyrics she added.

– Sexual empowerment –

But Wexler begged to differ. “More respect also involved sexual attention of the highest order. What else would ‘Sock it to me’ mean?” he said.

Others who knew her said she was drawing from her tumultuous marriage at the time.

“Whatever the intention, people have taken a definite female sexual empowerment message from the song,” Malawey said.

“There is a long tradition of black female performers allowing for a variety of meanings from their lyrics to assert their sexuality. You see this right down to Beyonce.”

But Malawey said it was Franklin’s “voice, and the power and soul she gives the song, which has inspired and empowered so many people.

“It is something beyond lyrics or the melody that really moves us and that is all to do with Aretha Franklin’s own vocal delivery. That is what has made the song so powerful, so lasting and so relevant today.”


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