COMMENT: I'm ashamed to admit it, but I once thought that The Beatles' songs were the height of uncool. I turned my nose up at Pink Floyd and rolled my eyes whenever my mother played Tina Turner. Being a child of the 90s, I thought that anything pre-dating the Spice Girls was lame. How much I had to learn.
Thankfully, after a teenagehood of eclectic musical experiences, I broadened my horizons. Now, the older I've become, the more I've come to appreciate music from yesteryear. Not all of it, mind. I still think that Rod Stewart sounds like a strangled cat and the news that The Eagles' Greatest Hits album (yawn) had overtaken Michael Jackson's Thriller as the best-selling album of all time made me profoundly mad. But I'm starting to think that the further back you go, the better it gets.
Apart from the baroque period. Bach reminds me a bit of the cassette tape. Useful and important in the trajectory of musical progress, but who would actually choose to listen to them?
I can't imagine a time, however, when people wouldn't choose to listen to Aretha Franklin.
I'm in grave danger of sounding like a young fogey, but the news of Aretha's passing made me feel nostalgic for the days when music was as tuneful and soulful as the many records she put out. Her catalogue is timeless, and it's hard to think of a more iconic song than R-E-S-P-E-C-T (she didn't write it, but who cares?). Aretha was music royalty, and she represented a fading, golden age of songmaking.
Does the queen have an heiress? The obvious candidate would likely be Beyonce, already anointed Queen by her voluminous "Beyhive". Voices and artistic sensibilities like Aretha's and Beyonce's don't come often, so the succession is fitting, but I would venture that Beyonce is actually more of an enigma in today's musical landscape than Aretha was in hers, and that makes me wistful.
Powerhouse singers with masterfully crafted songs are now the exception, not the rule. As music has evolved, singing chops have become less essential. No one doubts the power of a truly great voice, but over time vocal prowess has become less of a priority. In Aretha's day, you had to be able to really sing. Nowadays, not so much.
I'm not about to bash every song on the Top 40 by calling them all "noise", but I for one wish there were more artists like Aretha on the airwaves now. Listening to her work over the past week has made me hanker for days long before I was born. There's something permanent about Aretha's songs. You could play them in 50 years, and they'd still be as wonderful. They come from a time when, or so it seems to me anyway, music didn't date as quickly as it does now.
They don't make songs like they used to. And I say that as someone who has loved too many flash-in-the-pan pop confections to count. There's nothing wrong with disposable music, but is it just me, or are we making much more of it now?
Some artists buck the trend. Beyonce would be one, and Adele another. I remember when Adele burst on to the scene (which will mark me out as being very old to many connoisseurs of current commercial radio). Her sound was so different. It was an unapologetic kickback against the over-produced status quo.
Adele pushed the boundaries of the mainstream's palate. Her music was refreshing, almost like a remedy to overstimulated ears. Her staggering success suggests that the kind of honest, unaffected songs that Adele has made her trademark were what the world was longing for without knowing it.
While every genre has its time in the sun, truly great songs sound just as good as they always did no matter when you listen to them. Aretha's do. Some of Beyonce's do. Adele's do. The best songs you could strip back to just a guitar or a piano and a singer, and their brilliance would remain intact. In fact, an acoustic treatment sometimes brings out beauty that was otherwise obscured.
It also simultaneously forces a singer out of her usual hiding places and gives her a chance to truly shine. That's the thing about formidable singers. There's no need for producers to be magicians or surgeons when the singer can bring an audience to its feet with her voice alone. Those golden vocal moments need only to be captured and polished, not constructed or adorned.
My ears long for more of that vocal glory. Maybe my nostalgia this week means I'm getting old. Or maybe it's indicative of my generation. We've been swimming in music since we were teenagers, riding the wave of digital technology and gorging ourselves on the limitless libraries of download and streaming services. Maybe it's just the dawning realisation that quantity is the poor cousin of quality.
Aretha had quality written all over her.
I heard a story about her this week that has stuck with me. Throughout her career, Aretha often carried her handbag on stage. Why? Apparently because she refused to perform unless she was paid up front, and those handbags were stuffed with cash. Whether it's true or just an urban myth, I think it's a fitting comment on what made her so wonderful. She knew her worth as an artist and she commanded respect.
Rest in power, your Majesty.