"What was he -- a 40-year-old adult -- doing before 50,000 people singing about holding hands?"
thought attributed to John Lennon, during fictional Beatles reunion in Mark
Shipper's novel Paperback
Aretha Franklin -- now 47 years old -- has a new album out. And
objectively it's as fine as a good new California wine. The songs are fine.
The arrangements are fine. And Franklin's voice -- that volcanic voice -- is
pregnant with intimations of wisdom she hardly had in her great days 20 years
But then who -- except pedants or the prematurely dead -- listens to music objectively?
Subjectively speaking, the album ("Through the Storm," brought to us by Arista Records) is powered by some chilling kind of artificial electric life. Nothing can save it, not even an opening duet with Mr. James Brown, a peculiar embarrassment right from his opening grunts of "Hih! Hih! Hih!" (This duet dates from two years ago, by the way: it's not like James got furloughed from prison to record it.)
Each time I've played it, I've wished I could find some listener's equivalent of looking the other way. Because here are these vocal heavyweights -- in their prime, even spiritual heavyweights -- engaged in what sounds like a musical version of shuffleboard in some retirement home.
Or maybe they're like two Napoleons, jointly exiled to Elba, reminiscing about the long-gone days when they wielded real power. That's a more compassionate image, and more accurate, too, because they don't sound like they've lost any inherent strength. But they do sound irrelevant, like nobody's listening any more, or like they've lost any context in which their music still meant anything.
And their subject, transparently, is the glory of their past. That's not the official subject, of course: officially they're standing before millions of potential record-buyers, engaging in what's supposed to be some steamy flirtation: "Scratch my back, babe, like you mean it…You're my jam in a jar."
But they sound too old, too powerful, too wise: That can't be all they're singing about. And in fact it's not. "'Re!" she sings, "and Brother James B!" -- thus identifying both of them as the transcendently famous historical figures they are.
Or as he sings: "We go back, baby!" The song really is about their reputation, their history, their undying fame. It's a love song largely by convention, I'd suspect, because love is what pop songs are supposed to be about -- though the heft of their voices tells me that there's got to be lots more going on.
I mean, if I were a fly on the wall while 'Re and Brother James had a few drinks, would I want to watch them flirt? Wouldn't I rather hear what they really think about each other, their past, and the strange days of the present, in which -- with nobody about to dispute their status as mighty icons of popular (and black) culture -- they keep trying to restore an evanescent pop music success that isn't worthy of them ever when they succeed?
And why isn't pop success worthy of them? Make that "mere pop success," and the reason ought to be clear. Teenagers get records on the charts; with the stature of Aretha Franklin, you ought to sell 15 zugatillion records and dominate the field.
Because when you don't, here's what happens. On your album you sing a duet in current pop style with Whitney Houston, who does dominate the field. The song might be designed to accommodate inescapable differences between the two of you in age, experience, and corresponding vocal heft: You're rivals for the same man, and, as you sort it out, Whitney gets to be the Princess, while 'Retha gets to be the Queen.
You both -- as you bait each other in an extended spoken postlude you surely made up on the spot -- even seem to be having fun. But what's the result? In the sparkling ocean of today's pop/dance style, 'Retha sounds like an out-of-date (but for sure formidable) battleship, and Whitney sounds like a happy, wriggling fish.
Whitney's the one who sounds like she lives in an age defined by the song's musical style, an age of mini-malls, music controlled by computers, and impending high-definition TV. 'Retha sounds like she doesn't belong in it, or maybe more precisely like she hasn't figured out where she fits in it.
Granted, she's had that problem for a while, ever since her great gospel-pop years passed, and (as you can easily hear on her Atlantic Records "30 Greatest Hits" collection) she went out looking for a style. But the problem, I'd suggest, is not so much hers as it is a general problem with pop, which takes its energy from the immediate present, and then pulls the rug out from under even the greatest pop artists, once the age that made them great transmutes itself (as eras always do) into something else.
There are ways around that, as new work from other stars of the past can demonstrate. Dion, for instance, has a lovely new album ("Yo Frankie") steeped in fully acknowledged nostalgia for the place and time that made him great, New York in the '50s. David Bowie, in "Tin Machine," seems (like Lou Reed in his current album) to grapple with what he actually thinks about these days. And Carl Perkins -- though you'd never guess it from the title of his new record, "Born to Rock" -- seems to accept various consequences of being 57 years old.
One consequence is that rockabilly, the upstart style that propelled him 35 years ago to the top, has now settled down to become one comfortable strand among the many that make up country music.
And another is that he needs to sing about love with all the maturity evident in his voice (which he does, quite wonderfully, in the last cut on the album, "Love Makes Dreams Come True").
Aretha, meanwhile, seems to want pop hits that could just as well be sung by Debbie Gibson, or any other teenager -- a project branded as both trivial and absurd by the deep (though for all we know unexplored) experience of life anyone can plainly hear in her voice.
Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, 1989