What They Were Thinking During Aretha Franklin’s Kennedy Center Performance

The clutch purse tells all

Devorah Blachor
Dec 2, 2016 · 4 min read

One year ago today, Aretha Franklin blew our minds at the Kennedy Center Honors. Did you miss it? It was one of those life-changing moments where time stopped and everyone — including President Obama who famously shed a tear — felt really, really good for four minutes. CBS’s YouTube clip of the performance was viewed millions of times before they took it down, but if you feel like you need to be uplifted today, you can still find it here.

This rendition of You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman — which The Queen of Soul sang because the song’s writer, Carole King, was being honored — is officially legend, and now we are left with the question of what made it so special. Let’s get inside the the heads of those who were lucky enough to be present. What was going through fellow honoree George Lucas’ mind, for example? How about Cecily Tyson? In order to make sense of something so transcendental, let’s answer the question: What was everyone thinking?

George Lucas: Earlier in the evening, I’d tried to bring the President to tears by telling him what happens to Luke Skywalker in Episode VIII. For a moment I thought I’d succeeded but it just turned out to be an eyelash stuck in his sclera. He was completely unmoved which I thought meant he was either emotionally shutdown or not a fan of Star Wars so surely it must have been the former. Then, Aretha started singing. She’s a Jedi. No doubt about that.

Cecily Tyson: You know lately I’ve been telling people that age is just a number. And I am 91 so I know what the fuck I am talking about.

James Taylor: I thought I gave a pretty decent performance of ‘Up on the Roof’. I wish they had let me sing ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ but they gave it to Sara Bareilles. Most people associate me with that song but, whatever. Aretha slayed it, though. I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain but I never thought I’d see something like that. The Force was with her for sure.

Rita Moreno: Some of us spent our whole lives fighting stereotypes and working to earn the respect we deserve. On the children’s shows I did, we used to teach the kids how to spell and I was thinking, “Who here knows how to spell Respect? Aretha does!” A performance like that restores balance to the galaxy.

Seiji Ozawa: Cecily is right about the age thing. I’m 80. When Yoda fought the Sith Lord Count Dooku, he was 874 years old and would have beaten him if it hadn’t been for young Anakin’s rashness and stupidity. That’s a fact. And just like Yoda, Aretha killed it.

The Clutch Purse: Well. First of all I had no idea I was going to get chosen that night — she’d recently been partial to a Judith Lieber-y blue crystal number — so I was already pretty stoked. Then as soon as she hit the keys I said to myself, “Thank you God for letting me be here tonight.” As it went on I was trying to figure it out. What made it so special? Was it seeing a woman whose whole bearing screams, “I am entitled” in a world where women are encouraged to feel anything but? Was it that a woman who isn’t young or skinny or blond shined brighter than the twin suns of Tatooine? In a society in which we’re indoctrinated to accept and value a very limited notion of what a real woman should be, was it witnessing a powerful female who clearly doesn’t give a fuck about those damaging parameters? Was it that substance didn’t just trump image, it trampled it into the earth where it lay buried, at least for the duration of the performance? Or was it just the ability of one woman to commune with the deepest part of herself, with her spirit, and bring that spirit to the rest of the world so that we could all feel uplifted for four exalted minutes? Maybe it was that. Or maybe it was the fur drop — it’s hard to tell. Do you know what’s really weird? I’m pretty sure Carol King was thinking the exact same thing as me.

God: I was singing through Aretha which was super fun. The fur drop was all hers, though. Also, I quite enjoyed James Taylor’s performance of ‘Up on the Roof’ — it was supersweet to watch him after all these years. Like seeing an old friend! Also, just wanted to shout out to the Clutch Purse: You’re welcome!

Devorah Blachor

Written by

Author of The Feminist’s Guide to Raising a Little Princess https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/547280/the-feminists-guide-to-raising-a-little-princess-by-

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