MISSTEP FROM ARETHA

Adele’s music may be the closest thing in the past few years to carve out a place in the “Great American Songbook.” A perfect storm of crossover popularity and classic songwriting makes songs like “Rolling in the Deep” irresistible for any artist to cover. Check out versions of the song by Patti Smith, Linkin Park and Lil Wayne that range from pretty, to unnecessary, to downright unholy. Doesn’t it make sense that a song like “Rolling in the Deep” would reach its maximum potential in the hands of a real music legend, say, Aretha Franklin? Surprisingly, no.
The veritable Queen of Soul covered Adele’s hit for her new covers compilation set for release on Oct 21, and the results were a mild disaster. The collision of Aretha’s powerhouse pipes and the modern pop blueprint say a lot about the great divide between the music of her era and this one. It may even mark an end to artists who fit her mold.
On “Rolling in the Deep,” Franklin brings the same vocal gymnastics that every choir girl has studied since 1972’s Amazing Grace, but each flourish of her voice is smothered mercilessly by the backing track, produced by Andre 3000. Aretha, of all people, has to struggle be heard, and Autotune, of all things, wipes away the fine details of her performance. When she tries to soar on the chorus, more distractions are thrown into the jumble, from ear-sore synths to canned backup singers. The whole thing sounds strained, like Aretha is about to physically beat down Andre 3000 until he puts the spotlight back on her trademark Big Ol’ Voice.
The recording tech of the 60s and 70s gave musicians space. Even silence between notes that gave weight to every moment of a song’s duration. Slowly we learned to expect a constant barrage of sounds, a clutter of electronic witchcraft that misses no opportunity to cram in a hook. To say this style fails across the board would be myopic; Dusty Springfield would sound like a joke singing “Call Me Maybe,” and The Temptations could have never pulled off “Teenage Dream.” But the fact is that pop singers today lend their voices as fixtures in a much more complex apparatus than we ever heard during the renaissance of soul music. To be clear, Aretha’s voice is not a fixture. It’s the whole damn show. That’s where the cover of “Rolling in the Deep” went wrong.
Between the vastly different worlds that bore Aretha and Adele, it’s hard to imagine a middle ground where the former could really cover a modern pop tune. It’s even harder to imagine a young woman as talented as Aretha making the same rise to stardom without a magic genie for an agent. Talent scouts and record labels aren’t looking for someone to breeze through tricky runs; they’re looking for someone to dress up and be Autotuned to sing those runs. More optimistically, they’re looking for someone forward-thinking or genuine with a voice that can be recognized among all the clutter.
This trade-off can’t be called a “death of music” or even a net loss, really. This decade will end up offering something as brilliant as “Think” (I’d nominate Beyoncé’s “***Flawless” or Frank Ocean’s “Thinkin Bout You”), and so will the decade after that. Of course, you can always turn on a Jill Scott or Jazmine Sullivan record to enjoy one of the glorious RnB voices of this era, just don’t expect to hear their names in the mainstream. Music moves on, but the pop landscape will always feel a little empty without Aretha or her natural successors.
Who knows? There could be a little girl somewhere with a Big Ol’ Voice, too big to ignore, dreaming of the day she proves us all wrong.

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