Aretha Franklin's RESPECT used to be very, very different...

Aretha Franklin is an icon of American music.

And though she unfortunately passed last August, I think the present tense is very much still justified.

Not only an incredible vocalist, but a supremely talented pianist as well. She was a proud and outspoken woman of colour whose songs became unstoppable and eternal anthems for the feminist and civil rights movements alike. She was also a strong supporter of Native American rights. Someone who deserves every ounce of admiration that she earned in her over-70-year career. A career which spawned some of the most recognizable, and important, songs of the 20th century. Although none, perhaps, more important…

…than Respect.

What many people don’t know, however, is that Respect was not originally written for, or performed by, Aretha. No, it was written and released by Otis Redding, another soulful R&B artist of the mid-20th century. Otis Redding, however, being male, had written the song differently. And it’s kind of shocking to hear for those who are only familiar with Aretha’s (much more famous) version.

In Aretha’s version, the singer is empowered — having money of her own, a strong sense of will, a fully-defined sexuality, and an immutable demand for respect when she comes home. She then asks both of her husband and the audience to consider what this R-E-S-P-E-C-T means to her, and to make damn sure that they act on it.

Otis Redding’s version, however, is a little different.

In his version, Otis tells his wife that she has already everything she could need, and what he expects is respect when he comes home. Particularly because he’s going to continue to bring home money for her.

This kind of shortsighted and misogynist message was unfortunately not limited to Otis Redding, but was rather an overarching feature of many popular musical compositions at the time. The kind of music we listen to is related to the kind of messages we’re exposed to — and it makes a tremendous amount of difference.

This is not to make a villain of Otis Redding — indeed, he was a much beloved singer in his own right, and very much a product of his time. How lucky are we, though, that Aretha came along to reclaim what was previously an ignorant song, and turn it into an anthem of liberation, empowerment, and above all, respect.

I’d like to leave you with this performance — Aretha Franklin, at the age of 73, performing her song (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors. It’s a tribute to Carole King, who co-wrote the legendary piece of music — and undeniably one of the most moving moments in music history. Enjoy.

 

photo credits: parade.com/billboard.com; all music credited to Atlantic Records