By Julie Parent
By now you’ve probably heard about the spectacular performance by Aretha Franklin at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors which was telecast on December 29. In tribute to one of the honorees that evening, singer and prolific songwriter Carole King, Ms. Franklin sang the song (co-written by King and the late Gerry Goffin) that she made into a huge, iconic hit, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
Here’s a YouTube link if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHsnZT7Z2yQ
Or, you can catch the entire show at cbs.com (the King tribute is the last of the five): http://www.cbs.com/shows/kennedy_center_honors/video/3B46BD11-F62B-A68F-C39B-EB54202549BC/the-38th-annual-kennedy-center-honors/
It’s almost a cliché to say that Ms. Franklin stole the show with her performance—in the time since so many people have expressed this opinion. “Wow!” was the only thing I could say in response to viewing it. Later, though, I found myself haunted with the question, “Why?”
Named after President John F. Kennedy who was always an ardent supporter of the arts, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts remains a bastion for art in our country. What makes the annual Kennedy Center Honors telecast so enjoyable for me is that it’s in tribute to art (performing art, in this case) for art itself. Seasoned, polished performers lovingly pay tribute to their hero and heroine artists honored that evening. It’s two hours about the art and the artist, and it’s always a great show.
So why was Aretha Franklin’s performance so especially spectacular among this gathering of wonderful artists? The song wasn’t just magnificently sung. I couldn’t help but feel that Ms. Franklin gave us something much more.
Perhaps, though, there’s an easy explanation for why so many of us were blown away by the performance:
Theory #1: We were all swept away by the nostalgia. Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul after all and she sang the song she made into big hit all those years ago.
But James Taylor (another American treasure, in my opinion) earlier sang “Up on the Roof,” which was a hit for him. Okay, not as big as “Natural Woman” but his version of another King classic, “You’ve Got A Friend,” was a #1 hit.
Theory #2: There’s been talk in recent years that Ms. Franklin’s voice is fading so I and everyone else was amazed at how unexpectedly great and polished she sounded at the Kennedy Center Honors.
Perhaps, but that still doesn’t explain why Carole King (and the rest of us) couldn’t manage to pick up our jaws until after the song had ended. Plus, the cast of Beautiful (the musical about Carole King now on Broadway) is full of talented, polished singers, so polished that there wasn’t a wrong step among them, and the other performances to honor King by Taylor, Janelle Monáe and Sara Bareilles were all top-notch.
While these theories likely explain a part of my “Wow!” over Ms. Franklin that night, here’s the ironic truth of the matter: Aretha Franklin’s performance wasn’t very polished at all, nor was it dependent on our sense of nostalgia for a beloved artist. On the contrary, it seemed to be made up on the fly, almost improvised, but in the hands of a woman completely at ease with herself.
Watch the video, but to recap: Franklin strides out onto the stage in that big fur coat, sparkly clutch purse in hand. She takes a seat at the piano and pounds out the first few chords of the song to everyone’s recognition. Then sings the first few words as though she was a pipe organ in the grandest of cathedrals. At this point, Carole King is absolutely flabbergasted and remains so throughout the performance.
Ms. Franklin continues the song with organic precision—as though it could not have come from her (or anyone else) in any other way. At one point, she rises from the piano, somewhat clumsily removing the microphone from its holder, labors to not step on her gown and long coat, and moves to center stage, all the while never parting from or struggling with the music she is making. Another less clumsy move—the removal of her coat—reveals a lighter, freer self to soar with the song pulsing through her.
There’s a sense of ease and inevitability with the song, in spite of (and perhaps highlighted by) the stage business with the microphone, gown and coat. It’s a rare occurrence when the art comes through manifest while divorced from any sense of exertion, struggle or effort from the artist.
Most of the time even the best artists struggle with their work—be it music, dance, a drawing or a piece of writing. We employ craft to work with our inspiration and make conscious choices to resolve forks in the road. Every so often, though, something happens that simply must be and, if we’re lucky or aware enough, we know to get out of the way.
For Ms. Franklin, no craft was necessary. There was no need for polish. She had absolutely no trouble getting—and staying—out of her own way.
Some call this inevitability in art a spiritual experience, or an accident, or just plain luck. Whatever the view, these are the moments when all training, practice, and experience are set aside. Some may say that this inevitability transcends the self but I think Aretha Franklin teaches us that our “selves” are still very much there, just effortlessly put aside.
Another irony though: putting our “selves” aside is when we actually show up.
The song wasn’t just magnificently sung. Ms. Franklin did give us something more. Something beyond top-notch. She showed us how art is at once together with and separate from the artist. She showed us how the artist steps aside to allow the art to live.
Fully and without reservation, in spite of silly, everyday obstacles, she showed up.
Photo credits: cbs.com. http://www.cbs.com/shows/kennedy_center_honors/video/3B46BD11-F62B-A68F-C39B-EB54202549BC/the-38th-annual-kennedy-center-honors/
Julie Parent spent many years as an actor of classic, contemporary and improvisational theater before turning to writing. Her short play, Beauty, was a semi-finalist in the Queer Shorts Festival at Stage Q in Madison, WI. Julie has an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College and has taught writing workshops in Vermont and New York City. She was the founding Editor of Clockhouse and now serves as Consulting Editor for the journal (http://www.clockhouse.net).