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Find Out What It Means To Me

Aretha Franklin’s Answer Song

by Jennie Gruber
illustration by Aaron Farmer

WHEN I first listened to Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, I always made a point to gingerly drop the stylus on the heartbreaking “Drown in My Own Tears,” skipping the ubiquitous Otis Redding-penned opening track.

I grew up associating “Respect” with the bloated VH1 diva Franklin had become, hearing her boisterously voice a plea for gender equality and empowerment. I’ve got no problem with that message, and I always love a little backup “sock it to me,” but repeated listening had drained the track of meaning for me. What could a song that everyone on Earth has heard a gajillion times possibly have to offer?

Eventually I forwent the song-skipping habit in favor of laziness, and imagine my surprise when I “found out what it means” to her: “Your kisses are sweet like honey. But guess what? So is my money.” Snap! Love that sass, Aretha! But I honestly didn’t remember this song being about money:

I’m about to give you all of my money
And all I’m askin’ in return, honey
Is to give me my profits
When you get home.

Give me my profits? What kind of overlooked double entendre was this?

I began to regret all the times I’d bypassed the song, and realized that overplayed pop hits often provide the most acute reflection of our cultural consciousness. Pop culture has bizarre methods of feeding on itself, and this self-digestion can distort and distill a pop artifact like an R&B hit until it exists independent of its implicit meanings. Infectious, positive and easy to remember, “Respect” is repeated daily on countless radio stations and CD comps, and glorified in VH1 lists and gushing Rolling Stone 20th-century round-ups. But one of the great joys of appreciating pop music is rediscovering something new in a song everyone thought they had all figured out.

Returning to the Otis Redding original on my iTunes playlist only reinforced my realization that beneath the preeminent female empowerment song of the 20th century lay a thinly disguised dirty joke.

Redding’s version is faster-paced and more desperate than the cover which overshadowed it. He fairly pleads his way through the song. “I’m going to give you all my money,” he assures his partner, “and all I’m asking… is for a little respect when I get home.” He’s got to got to have it.

Franklin’s cover, on the other hand, is aggressive and demanding as hell. In her signature move, she spells it out for you: “R-E-S-P-E-CT, take care, TCB.”

In other words, the woman wants—no, expects—S-E-X when she gets home. Just a little bit.

Respect, in this case, does not explicitly mean gender equality, or communication, or compassion. It stands for fucking.

Redding’s song insists that if he goes to work all day, and shares all his money with his woman, he expects to get laid from time to time. Since it follows that the song is about power relations between heterosexual partners, it follows that what the man really wants is a B-L-O-W-J-O-B.

It’s easy enough to chalk up Franklin’s cover to a female reclamation of that relationship. It was certainly no small accomplishment in 1967 to cut a record that would become the ultimate 20th-century theme song of a woman’s right to demand respect. Though it’s praised for inverting the gender of the narrator, Franklin’s interpretation is even savvier than the proto-feminist anthem that exists in the cultural imagination.

By subtly tweaking Redding’s lyrics, Franklin turned the object of the song into the subject, and answered his plea with her own message. In conversation with Redding’s original male subject, Franklin’s female speaker asserts that she will certainly not do her man wrong while he’s gone, will earn her money herself, thank you very much, and still expects to get her pussy eaten before bed. She transforms the female character into both the bread-winner and the one demanding respect.

Now, this is not to suggest that Franklin’s lyrical cleverness undermines its place in feminist iconography, nor does this sexual interpretation make the cover less worthy of consideration as a great rock ’n’ roll song. On the contrary, the specific nature of the song’s sexual and seriocomic politics are even more relevant precisely because song is accepted with a more reductive interpretation in the cultural imagination. Conservative watch dogs are rabidly on the lookout for sexual explicitness and “radical feminist brainwashing” in mainstream entertainment, but complex songs like “Respect” prove that the joke is on the watch dogs. The frank sexuality and call for financial independence of an African-American woman is on display in a song accepted and listened to by legions of unsuspecting pop consumers. An artist’s genuine sexual expression resonates through a call for sexual respect, and through songwriting that transforms that expression into infectious soul. Pop, it seems, will continue to eat itself, even when it has no idea what’s really on its plate.

Jennie Gruber lives in the Bay Area and plays in the band the Most.

Posted in Louder Than Words

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