Music Corner: Song Review I
Respect: Aretha Franklin
When looking for a song to review this week, I wanted to find something that was a little more upbeat and had a positive message – start the year off right, in a sense. I found that with the late, great Aretha Franklin’s recording of ‘Respect’ (1967).
I hadn’t heard the song before listening it to it for this series (perhaps I’ve had my head in the sand). It’s thought to be the song Franklin is most known for, and was an anthem for women’s rights (and civil rights more broadly) in the late 60s.
See here for full lyrics (was originally going to paste them in but they take up a fair bit of space).
The song was originally written and performed by the legendary Otis Redding, meaning that Franklin’s recording is actually a cover. (Redding’s lyrics are here.) However, while the structure of the song and the bulk of the lyrics are identical, Franklin’s version has small changes that dramatically change the meaning and therefore the purpose of the song.
In a nutshell, Redding’s lyrics are from the perspective of a man who seeks respect from his wife when he returns home from work. The implication is that his wife is free to do whatever she wants (i.e. spend his money, do anything and everything behind his back when he’s not home) as long as this respect is given. (I don’t think you need to be a rocket scientist to figure out what Redding’s getting at here).
On the flipside, Franklin’s version is altered slightly such that it’s sung from the woman’s perspective. However, Aretha crucially changes the little jabs in Redding’s version. The woman in her song is going to be giving her money to her husband for him to use for whatever he wants; she isn’t going to do any wrong to him when he’s away either.
Aretha’s backing vocalists also differ from Redding’s – she uses the refrain “just a little bit” extensively through her rendition, and she spells out R-E-S-P-E-C-T towards the end of the song. (In fact, typing the song into Google will have ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ popping up as one of the key search suggestions).
Gender Roles and Women’s Rights
It’s not difficult to see why Franklin’s version became an anthem for women’s rights; the woman’s turning the man’s demands back on him.
In fact, one might even argue that Aretha was born for this sort of activism – her father was heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and a personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr..
Indeed, some say that her rendition could easily be viewed as a black rights anthem as well, given that it stars black women demanding respect from an unnamed man who presumably respects them little.
Regardless of your interpretation, Aretha’s version is a clear, intentional statement of her desire for equal treatment.
Listening to this song makes you realise how much popular music has changed in the last 50 or so years. (I’ll also put my hand up and admit I’ve listened to very little popular music older than the 80s, so my assessment is also slightly skewed).
Aretha’s version is fairly fast – I’ve read it’s roughly 115-120bpm. This tempo, as well as the key of C, keep the song fairly upbeat as it rolls along.
There’s a very heavy beat, kept steadily moving by the drums and the keys in particular. Indeed, while Aretha does syncopate and move away from the beat in parts, she’s rarely does this for long stretches throughout the song.
A notable inclusion in the musical ensemble is the saxophone section. By ear, I could pick out the baritone driving the bass line in certain parts, and at least one other type of saxophone. Obviously, this would have been a major part of soul’s instrumentation, but it’s rarely, if ever, seen these days. I personally enjoyed it a lot! It was a nice change to hear something less electronic, particularly in the bass (as alluded to briefly). In fact, while the Wikipedia entry lists a guitar (not electric) and a bass, they don’t really feature significantly (I know, I tried to find a more official source but I wasn’t able to find anything online).
Another interesting touch was the way the backing vocalists were used. Obviously they’re used similarly in gospel music (and I would assume in most Soul) – they hold the rhythm and have their own lyrics. In more recent music, we might expect them to hold to the standard lyrics while the lead singer sings some sort of variation.
‘Respect’ is iconic, and for good reason. I enjoyed listening to it and reviewing it and can definitely see myself reviewing some more Aretha in the weeks and months to come. The arts are a vehicle for change, and this song certainly is a great example of that.
Sites and links
Links to lyrics are given in the body of the post
Featured photo by Unseen Histories on Unsplash
Note that this post is part of a series: in this post, I’ve outlined what I’m doing with it and what it entails.