Aretha Franklin is a veritable musical icon. Crowned the Queen of Soul, the R&B singer had a whopping 112 Billboard hits, making her one of the most charted female artists in history. Thanks to her musical prowess and unparalleled talent, she became more than just a legendary artist. Indeed, she also played a central role in bringing women’s rights to the forefront of cultural conversation as early as the 1960s.
The Queen recorded several songs throughout her career that included some of the catchiest choruses of all time. But beyond being catchy, these songs contained important messages relating to social justice. Through her music, Franklin became a true champion of civil rights, laying the groundwork for the generation of activists to come.
“Respect,” Franklin’s most popular song, was a rendition of the Otis Redding original. Even though it was originally written by a man, Franklin’s “Respect” quickly became a feminist anthem. It hit the airwaves in the early 1960s when the women’s rights movement was in its infancy. The song empowered female fans worldwide, overshadowing Redding’s version by far. In fact, many listeners to this day don’t realize that Franklin’s rendition was a cover.
The original lyrics tell the story of a man willing to give his lover anything she wants, even if she cheats on him, as long as she respects what he brings to the relationship in terms of his earnings. In her Grammy-winning cover, Franklin flips the script, choosing to tell the story of a strong and independent woman who demands respect from her man because she is the best lover he’s ever had.
By re-writing the lyrics, Franklin becomes an unapologetic advocate of the feminist movement. At the time, women were uniting in their demand to be seen as equal to men. The song empowered them to ask for the respect that they craved. According to writer Caryn Rose, who covered “Respect” in the “Women Who Rock” anthology, Franklin knew the impact the song would have before she even recorded it. Its ultimate message was highly intentional.
Years after its release, in 1987, Franklin’s classic was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The Library of Congress even gave Franklin’s version props by immortalizing it in the National Recording Registry. Today, the song is often used in television commercials and movies to highlight striking instances of gender inequality. A timeless classic, to say the least.
You Make Me Feel Like
Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” came out in 1967, and though decidedly different from “Respect,” it carries a powerful feminist message. It is a love song through and through, but it also celebrates the unique allure of femininity. At the time, the song gave Franklin an outlet to celebrate the way her partner made her feel (“like a natural woman”). It is uplifting and spirited, and pays tribute to the beauty of a romantic relationship between a man and a woman.
A Rose Is Still A Rose
The impact of Franklin’s message endured well beyond the golden days of her career and into the late ’90s. Her late hit “A Rose Is Still A Rose” tells the story of Franklin witnessing the ways in which a woman changes when subjected to the abuse or ill treatment of a man. “Baby girl, you’re still a flower/He can’t lead you and then take you,” she sings. Again, her message is one of empowerment: “Darlin’ you hold the power.”
Though Franklin wasn’t the one who wrote or produced it (that honor went to Lauryn Hill), it was her soulful voice that propelled the track to fame. It ended up hitting 26 on the Billboard Hot 200, and became Franklin’s final Top 40 hit. A touching, emotional plea for the young woman recovering from an abusive relationship, this song is as relevant today as it was then.
The Queen of Soul departed our world having made significant change, calling for men to respect their women, uplifting the ideals of femininity, and offering comfort to young, lost women. Franklin became a steadfast champion of women’s rights at a time when few women were truly convinced of their value. And she did all this while still providing listeners with some of the most exciting, toe-tapping tunes she possibly could have – and even without her in the world, her feminist legacy lives on. The next time you spell the word “respect,” be sure to thank Aretha for making the song her own, and then giving it to all the mighty women of the world.
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