- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2006

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

“Aretha Franklin … was the diva who brought the tolling piano chords, dramatically slow-boiling songs, and explosive vocal expressiveness of African-American gospel and applied them to the secular subject of romantic love. It’s there in her greatest ballads: ‘Ain’t No Way,’ ‘Oh Me, Oh My,’ ‘Sweet Bitter Love,’ even lesser, latter-day songs like … her killer cover version of Lionel Richie’s ‘Truly.’ The emotional heft of these songs, and the power of Franklin’s musical genius, is self-evident.

“But there is more here. Political coding has been the norm in African-American music dating back to slavery, and the political dimension is especially pronounced in Franklin’s work, with its strong gospel overtones. You need look no further than her most famous song, ‘Respect,’ which, through the sheer power of her performance, Aretha turned from a plea for sexual gratification into a civil rights anthem.

“Of course, a feminist politics is implicit in all diva ballads, with their fervent demands for proper treatment by men — demands that carry special poignancy and moral force in the music of Franklin and her followers, given the historically heavy burden shouldered by black women … the spectacle of a black woman stormily standing up for herself can feel less like pop song convention, and more like a call to conscience.”

— Jody Rosen, writing on “The Greatest Song Ever Filmed,” Dec. 21 in Slate at www.slate.com

Hip-hop gap

“I don’t really expect the Liz Smiths of the world to ‘get’ hip hop. Hip hop has done more to fuel and deepen the generation gap than just about anything else. I don’t suspect that Liz Smith will find rap to be a silly, ephemeral fad for criminals at 74 and a rich, dynamic and influential indigenous American art form at 75. …

“I’m also amused that Liz Smith seems to see hip hop as a fad that’ll disappear imminently. Let’s see. Hip hop has been around for around 35 years. It’s been a national musical force for 26. It’s been a dominant commercial genre for at least 15. I’m sorry L.S. but it ain’t going away any time soon.

“Then again I suspect that the Liz Smiths of the world (and there are many, even among those who work in the media) never got hip hop and never will…. Its values are not only different from those of most septuagenarians but downright antithetical. The Liz Smiths don’t have to like hip hop or even respect it. But treating it like the musical equivalent of Pet Rocks is insane and delusional.”

— Nathan Rabin, writing on “Great Moments in Hilariously Reductive Misrepresentations of Black Popular Culture,” Dec. 13 in the Onion AV Club blog at www.avclub.com

Mozart’s myth

“The romantic myth of Mozart, exploited to some degree by ‘Amadeus,’ gives us a Mozart wan and wasted at the end, neglected by a Philistine public, struggling with undeserved debt, working desperately for money in his final days on an anonymously and mysteriously commissioned requiem that he came to believe would be for himself, dying destitute and therefore being buried in a pauper’s grave. …

“Not quite. It is true that Mozart never, whatever his fame — and he truly was famous in his own lifetime — landed the prestigious and financially secure appointment as a musician that he hoped for and thought he deserved. … But he did in fact receive a number of commissions and had public success with a number of his works, especially the operas. … His means in Vienna were not ample, but neither, it seems, were they as hopelessly inadequate as his debts implied.”

— Jon Pott, writing on “The Triumph of Genius,” in the November/December issue of Books & Culture

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