R-E-S-P-E-C-T For Feminism

Hannah Johnson

“I just lost my song. That girl took it away from me.” These are the famous words that Otis Redding uttered after first hearing Aretha Franklin’s cover of his song “Respect” in 1967. (Havens) While most people today consider Aretha Franklin to be the owner of the song, for two years it was something that Otis Redding alone prided himself on. Contrary to Redding’s version of the piece which depicts a man coming home to his wife and essentially demanding respect from her, Franklin’s adaptation flips the script on something that was initially more demeaning towards women. “Respect” wildly grew in popularity after Franklin sang it, and has been an anthem for black women, women in general, and any minoritized people. At a time when black people in America were fighting segregation, racism, discrimination and more, Franklin’s adaptation was a powerful message. Standing up against those in power and not just asking, but ordering them to change the way that they treated minorities was a courageous thing for Aretha to do, and while she spoke through her music, it was equally as influential as words. Her version of the song was released around the time of the Civil Rights Movement and women’s rights movement, during which black women were lacking representation. By releasing something much needed during a pivotal point in history, offering the perspective of women and altering the gender of the song, adapting the lyrics, utilizing a strong vocal delivery, revamping the accompaniment and publicly standing up for what she believed in, Aretha Franklin adapted Otis Redding’s song to be an empowering female anthem.

Although Aretha Franklin was intentional about her changes to the original song, she was not expecting for it to become such an important asset to the Civil Rights Movement. (Malawey, Page 18) With all of the political unrest and struggles for social justice during the 1960’s, whether knowingly doing so or not, Franklin released her recording at exactly the right time. With second wave feminism and the Civil Rights Movement sweeping the nation, those who were fighting for equality needed something to empower and uplift them, and “Respect” was just that thing. Women were fighting tirelessly for equal rights during this period, and combating the post World War II gender stereotype that their place was in the home raising children. Despite constant criticism from both men and other feminist opposers, second wave feminists were not asking for anything ludicrous or extreme. Rather, they simply wanted to be granted the same freedoms that men were given and be able to participate in other areas of life in America outside of their homes. When Aretha Franklin took a song that initially had the message of men being the breadwinners and deserving respect from their wives, and transformed it into a statement of women demanding that same level of respect as well, she helped to elevate the voices of those fighting and gave them hope that their efforts were not in vain. The lyrics alone were representative of the whole purpose of feminism and the Civil Rights Movement, which was the inherent right of respect for everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, economic status, or other factors. The timing of her 1967 release played a crucial part in the significance of the song due to all of the activism and social justice protests that were already occurring throughout the United States.

In addition to the timing of the release of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” the reversal of the gender of the singer/performer as well as the effect that it had on the lyrics completely altered the meaning of the song as well. While in the first verse of Redding’s version he asks for, “a little respect when I come home,” from the male perspective coming home to his wife, Franklin’s version is, “a little respect when you come home”. Even if women still didn’t have the rights to be working and earning the same wages as men, the lyrics asked that the husband would still be courteous towards his wife when he returned from work. Moving on to the second verse, Franklin alters the lyrics, “you can do me wrong honey if you wanna,” to, “I ain’t gonna do you wrong while you’re gone”. In some ways, Aretha Franklin’s song appears to act as a response to the original by simply giving the female perspective of the scenario Redding created in his lyrics. However, many of the original lyrics are kept intact in Franklin’s version, thus giving a new meaning to the same words solely because the gender of the singer changed. For example, Otis’s lyrics in the third verse state that he wants to give his wife all of his money, so all he wants in return is respect from her. Rather than changing the lyrics to, “you’re gonna give me all your money,” she chose to sing, “I’m about to give you all my money”. This suggests that the woman is giving the man her money, which could mean a number of different things including that the woman is working and earning money for her family, or it could be referring to the times when women were like property and that upon marrying a man, he owned everything that was hers. Regardless of what Aretha intended here, simply by being a woman and by changing the pronouns in the lyrics to fit the female perspective, she transformed the song in a way that empowered women.

Franklin not only altered lyrics to support her new message, but she also added in entirely new lyrics and made changes to the form of “Respect” to make a bigger impact on the listener. While the song is best known for its iconic hook, “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me,” Redding’s original version did not contain this section. This incredibly catchy phrase grabs the attention of the audience because of its rhythmic punchiness and confident, demanding conveyance of a message full of indignation and desperation. The line is simple, yet powerful, making it perfect for crowds of people to sing or shout along with together. Much of the success of “Respect” can be attributed to this section of the song, and had it not been added by Aretha Franklin, who knows how successful the song would have been as an anthem for women’s rights and civil rights. In addition to the famous hook, Franklin added in background vocals by her sisters that were also part of the song’s success. The sisters sing, “just a little bit,” throughout the song, and also include the cheeky phrase, “sock it to me”. By including this gospel-inspired call and response style background vocal, the song is given a stronger sense of united female strength. Rather than Aretha singing these lyrics about wanting respect from men all by herself, she has the voices of other women behind her, supporting her message and repeating it over and over again. The strong female voices joining together in solidarity to share a message of desire for equality and proper treatment made the song perfect for a movement such as the women’s movement, which was focused on the equal and fair treatment of a historically minoritized group.

The powerful lyrics in “Respect” are backed up by an equally effective vocal delivery by Aretha Franklin. This, along with the changes she made to the melody, was crucial to the popularity of her cover of the song. Franklin melded together elements of the blues, gospel and rock and roll to create the soulful, passionate and commanding tone of her vocals. While Otis Redding sings the song in D major, Franklin’s rendition resides in the key of C major. However, she utilizes the blues scale and unlike Redding, Aretha puts a strong emphasis on the flat third of the key, which is E flat. The first note of Franklin’s melody is E flat, setting the tone for the rest of the piece that the blues elements are important to her style. While Otis also utilizes some blues notes, Aretha emphasizes them far more than he does and uses it to make the lyrics even more strong and spirited. When she sings “Respect,” Franklin delivers the lines with such energy and sass without coming across as straining the vocal folds. While Redding includes stylistic vocal rasp in his song, Aretha Franklin’s rendition includes vocals that possess more clarity and decisiveness. Each line that she sings is smooth, even when singing the emphasized lyrics with higher pitched melodies, and it is clear that she could portray the ability to sing difficult phrases with such ease and grace. By using her own style rather than simply covering the original song exactly as it was performed by Otis Redding, she offers up something new and interesting to listeners, and as the dubbed, “Queen of Soul,” highlighting her unique vocal qualities and abilities proved to be a successful way of gaining more traction.

However, Franklin’s vocals were not the only aspect of the music that set it apart from the original Otis Redding version and made the song into the anthem that it was. Throughout the process of learning and performing the piece before it came time to actually record, Aretha did much work to the accompaniment, mainly the rhythm and chords, to enliven the song. By changing the groove to become a more upbeat and fast paced rhythm, she gave the song the energy and emotion necessary to express all of the feelings that women and/or other minoritized people were experiencing. The driving rhythm represents a forward motion, one that is both pleasing as a listener and also symbolic of the direction that Aretha Franklin wanted to see society go in. Additionally, Franklin utilized funkier, more harmonically complex chords that gave a whole new depth of emotion to the sound. Through these lively instrumental parts, people could feel and display their rage, desperation, pride and determination. Aretha Franklin took a song that was already of high quality and amplified various musical elements to allow for complex emotional expression and understanding.

Along with all of the musical changes that Aretha Franklin made to “Respect” in order to make it the successful female anthem that it was and still is today, she also kept the subject matter of the song general enough that anyone could relate to it. In addition to being a feminist anthem and important part of the Civil Rights Movement, speculators have considered the song to be about several things such as sexual empowerment or the intrinsic human desire to be respected at least on a basic level. Franklin herself describes the multidimensional layers of meaning ascribed to her rendition of “Respect,” noting that, “So many people identified with and related to ‘Respect’. It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher – everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the Civil Rights Movement. The song took on monumental significance. It became the ‘Respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women, the inherent right of all human beings. (Franklin 1999, p. 112)” (Malawey, 17) Aretha Franklin herself recognized that with lyrics vague enough to apply to practically any person or circumstance, the song was able to take on countless meanings and be significant to so many people.

Despite giving the song a universal theme that everyone could relate to, Aretha Franklin was still vocal about the issues that mattered to her regarding social justice, and this allowed many listeners to relate to her through “Respect”. With her father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, leading freedom marches and surrounding himself with the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., it was no secret that Aretha and her family were seeking change. Franklin recalls Reverend C.L. Franklin preaching on black pride for a long time, and instilling in her the fundamentals of what it is to be black and proud of that. Aretha even toured with King as a teenager, and got to see first-hand the messages that he gave regarding civil rights. (Brown, Page 2) As a black woman herself, singing about respect sent a message from her that there needed to be respect and care for the black women in the United States. With King gaining so much attention for his preaching, the majority of people most likely knew about Franklin’s connections to him, and therefore associated his beliefs with her. Aretha Franklin supporting a call for social justice so publicly, long before recording her rendition of “Respect,” ensured that when people tried to speculate about the meaning, they could draw some conclusions from her political and social alliances. After all, a general sense of respect was something that minoritized groups were, and still are, lacking.

From her changes to the lyrical content and form of the song, unique vocal delivery, energized instrumental accompaniment, universality of the message, exemplary timing of the song release and public support of the social justice movements she cared about, Aretha Franklin was able to adapt Otis Redding’s, “Respect,” to make it completely her own. All of these elements were successful in making the song both a feminist anthem and important asset to the Civil Rights Movement. As a black woman during the 1960’s, Franklin recognized something that her and those around her were not receiving, and used her platform to not just ask for it, but demand it. In the words of civil rights activist Ben Chavis, “‘. . . when Aretha came out with ‘Respect,’ we weren’t getting any respect. Black folks were being disrespected, being beat down, killed trying to get the right to vote. Being beat down and killed trying to get … civil rights.’” (Carter) Aretha Franklin recognized the necessity of a song representing how people were feeling, and the finished product became something that was used for a greater purpose. At the end of the day, “Respect” gave the oppressed a voice and helped them to feel seen and heard. While the song meant something different to each individual, Aretha Franklin’s reworking of it provided something beautiful and empowering for the women, more specifically black women, of the 1960’s and beyond.

Works Cited

Brown, DeNeen L. “How Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ Became an Anthem for Civil Rights and Feminism.” The Washington Post, 14 Aug. 2018. Gale General OneFile, https://link-gale-com.catalog.berklee.edu:2443/apps/doc/A550253091/ITOF?u=mlin_b_berklee&sid=bookmark-ITOF&xid=986f84f0. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

Carter, Kelley L. “Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’: How Sassy Song Became Anthem for an Era.” Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press, 30 Aug. 2018, https://www.freep.com/story/entertainment/music/aretha-franklin/2018/08/30/aretha-franklin-songs-respect/1133856002/.

Havens, Lyndsey. “The Best Quotes about Aretha Franklin from Other Singers: Etta James, Mariah Carey, Elton John & More.” Billboard, 16 Aug. 2018, https://www.billboard.com/music/pop/aretha-franklin-singers-praise-best-8470536/.

Hawk, Hannah. “The Musical Rhetoric of Aretha Franklin and Nina Simone and the Civil Rights Movement.” ScholarWorks@BGSU, 28 Apr. 2022, https://scholarworks.bgsu.edu/ms_smc/14/.

Malawey, Victoria. “‘Find out What It Means to Me’: Aretha Franklin’s Gendered Re-Authoring of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect.’” Popular Music, vol. 33, no. 2, 2014, pp. 185–207. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24736804. Accessed 6 Mar. 2023.

“Second-Wave Feminism (Article).” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/postwarera/1960s-america/a/second-wave-feminism.