Why We’re Still Watching That Video of Aretha Franklin
The Internet received a late Christmas gift when a video of singer Aretha Franklin performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the 38th annual Kennedy Center Honors began making the rounds on December 29, shortly after the concert was shown on prime time TV. The event, which recognizes achievements by Americans in the arts, was recorded on December 6, 2015 and honored songwriter Carole King, filmmaker George Lucas, actress and singer Rita Moreno, conductor Seiji Ozawa and actress Cicely Tyson. The cyber groundswell started immediately after the broadcast, when a gamut of websites — including New York magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Slate and Just Jared, among hundreds of others — shared a video of Franklin’s performance on their Facebook and Twitter feeds, where it quickly spread like wildfire and grabbed millions of views.
In the clip, King (known for penning more than 100 pop hits over the past fifty-five years — including Franklin’s aforementioned 1967 smash) sits next to the FLOTUS and POTUS in the Kennedy Center’s balcony as Chilina Kennedy (who currently plays King in the biographical Broadway musical, Beautiful) introduces the Queen of Soul on stage. Dressed in a full-length fur coat, the 73-year-old Franklin then strolls to a grand piano, takes the audience to church with her rendition of “A Natural Woman” and turns the ensuing four minutes into instant legend. Immediately, news outlets and celebrity Tweets blanketed the digisphere with phrases describing the awesomeness of Franklin herself (“She slayed!”), but few bothered to expound upon the myriad other ingredients that rendered this musical moment into a perfect storm of history and hope. Here’s why the video went beyond viral to mirror our emotions on one of the last days of the year — and why it mattered:
Intergenerational bonding was in full-effect on December 29. The holidays are a vulnerable time when many people are looking for light and meaning, or at least companionship at gatherings of family and friends. For those who were alone over the holidays, perhaps the clip was a form of comfort food; more than just a virtual share, watching it felt like a communal experience. Because it exuded familiarity and inclusivity to all ages, the song brought generations together during the holidays. On Facebook, it seemed as many Millennials were sharing the post as often their parents or grandparents. Perhaps even a hip grandmother’s affinity for a new artist like Adele can’t compete with the flood of memories that Franklin’s five-decade-old hit evoked in this performance: When “A Natural Woman” peaked on the Billboard charts in the fall of 1967, Cleveland’s Carl Stokes was the first black mayor to take office in a major American city; the Battle of Dak To began in Vietnam; and second-wave feminism was in full effect as NOW (National Organization for Women) lobbied for the Equal Rights Amendment.
She’s called the “Queen of Soul” for a reason. On a dark night in December, when our souls were “in the lost and found” (as a line from “Natural Woman” states), Aretha Franklin came along again to claim them. The first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has a supernatural talent deeply rooted in her background as a church singer, a girl with a pastor father who experienced a challenging childhood — marked at age 10 by the death of her mother and at 14 by the birth of her first son. Record executive Jerry Wexler, who signed Franklin and shares a writing credit on “A Natural Woman” with King and her late husband and lyricist Gerry Goffin, reportedly often described Franklin’s voice as “holy.” Repeated viewings of the Kennedy Center clip reveal a peace and presence Franklin’s modern-day successors such as Mary J. Blige or Beyoncé aim to emulate. When a song flows from Franklin with such grace and ease, it feels like evidence of another world. We can imagine that the joy on Carole King’s face during the performance is not unlike that of someone who experiences religious ecstasy.
Carole King is a killer songwriter. Google her name and marvel and the long list of memorable songs she’s written, from The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to the Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” to James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.” She writes to the full potential of the piano, the primary instrument capable of blending gospel, blues, pop, rock and folk. The “A Natural Woman” arrangement used at the Kennedy Center made fantastic use of the song’s waltzing ¾ time signature, King’s best melodic tricks and Franklin’s genius phrasing. The lyric, written by Goffin and reportedly inspired by Wexler’s fascination with the blues music concept of a “natural man” (perhaps originating biblically in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians), contains classic rock and roll double-entendres combining spirituality and sexuality. The making of the song, as recorded in New York City by Franklin (reportedly with her two sisters on backing vocals) and members of the famous Muscle Shoals “Swampers,” is in itself a great story: in the midst of the ongoing American Civil Rights Movement, black and white musicians worked together to create a color-blind soulful sound.
Algorithms can’t make us feel. No amount of “melody math” could render a performance as natural and affecting as Franklin’s on the Kennedy Center stage. When she dropped her fur coat to the floor to free her arms and belt the ending of the song, we reveled in her divadom. Yet, we were actually also cheering the triumph of music: in a year in which the pop charts were dominated by a small handful of songwriters who often use data methodologies to scientifically trick our brains into submission to their repetitive earworms, along comes a simple ol’ song written on a piano. And it touched us to the core. Franklin’s live performance wasn’t obscured by superfluous staging, either: each player contributed a vital part to the sound, including the inspired four-part harmonies of the backup singers, which wrapped our wintry hearts like a fuzzy fleece blanket.
Music is bigger than all of us. We witnessed our art and artists being amazing during this performance, a feeling which made Americans — and likely everyone else who saw this video — remember that the music that bonds us is so much stronger than the political, religious and racial issues that often tear us apart. In the 21st century, American songs and artists continue to be some of our country’s most important global ambassadors. The video is meta-viral because it reflects the way we Americans want to see ourselves, unified regardless of age, race, gender or class. For four minutes, we achieved that unity, and it was a glimpse of our greatness.
This piece also appears on Huffington Post.