Last weekend, I road tripped to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. with three other girls. It’s about a nine-hour drive, which gave us all plenty of room to expose each other to our respective music tastes, and somewhere along the line, we decided that it wouldn’t be a trip to a Women’s March without an appropriate amount of empowering feminist music. Naturally, we turned to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” As soon as the beginning notes sounded through the speakers, we turned up the volume, already lifting our arms to start dancing in our seats.
I didn’t know it then, but I would go on to talk about that same song in one of my classes the next week. Apparently, “Respect” was originally written in 1965 by Otis Redding. The original lyrics surprised me: The man of this version of “Respect” is telling a woman he’s “about to give [her] all [his] money,” and pleading for her to give him “respect when [he comes] home.” For me, this was a sharp contrast with Franklin’s version from 1967, in which she assumes the power in the relationship and calls for a man to give her “propers when [he gets] home.”
Each song comes from the perspective of someone who wants respect, but Franklin’s version seems to have a more demanding message, and it was this version that was seized upon, across the country and around the world, as an anthem for respect. I already knew of its association with the feminist movement, but “Respect” also came to represent the struggles of the Civil Rights movement and of soldiers fighting overseas in Vietnam. It was widely popular and soon became Franklin’s signature song. At the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Redding was quoted referring to “Respect” as a song “that a girl took away from me.”
This got me thinking about the extent to which a song can be owned. I don’t mean in a business-related or monetary sense, but rather in terms of its association with a person. Redding wrote the song and was the first to record it, but ever since Franklin released her version, the song has been regarded for the most part as hers. But here’s the thing: In a way, the song has even gotten away from Aretha Franklin. In response to the song’s success, she has said that she didn’t initially mean for it to represent any of the movements with which it came to be associated. She was just singing about something that mattered to her: Respect.
Sometimes, of course, the link between an artist and a song that they release – that they “own,” in the eyes of the public — can turn out less favorably. It can become so strong, so singular, that the artist is dubbed a one-hit wonder and stuck with the song indefinitely. Lou Reed once made a joke about his own obituary starting out with the beginning notes of “Walk on the Wild Side,” and in the days before he met with more commercial success, Beck would sometimes refuse to play his hit “Loser” during live shows, or else change the words so that nobody could sing along. The artist’s tie to a song can also take the road that it did with Redding and be replaced, in the eyes of history, by another link between the same song and a different artist. “Hound Dog,” for instance, was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton but I didn’t even know this until last fall, because all over the world it is associated with Elvis Presley.
It is also this link that gives songs their identity, for better or for worse. For all the artist’s effort, at the end of the day, the appreciation of that song does not begin and end with its artist. I have grown attached to so many new songs just by hearing them on the radio and feeling, regardless of who wrote them or of why they were written, like I connected with what they were saying. I feel like – crowds of people will sing along with Hozier’s “Take Me to Church,” or Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion,” even when they don’t identify with the intended meaning of the song — and that’s okay. They wouldn’t sing along if there weren’t something there that they were connecting with, whether this connection was the kind the artist was hoping for or not.
I believe that this feeling of connection within Franklin’s version of “Respect” is what people from so many different movements caught onto. Driving on some highway through Pennsylvania last weekend, most of us in the car didn’t know that the song had in fact been done by Redding first. I listened to Redding’s version, and it’s good, really good, and I credit him for it — Franklin wouldn’t have her own version without it — but it’s a different song. Right then, on the road, we were listening to Aretha Franklin, we heard what she was saying, and we were responding to it, assuming the demand for respect in our own identities. And even if that wasn’t what Franklin — or Redding — intended, I thank them for it anyway.