This year, Rolling Stone Magazine published an updated version of their list of the top 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In the original list from 2003, Bob Dylan’s song “Like a Rolling Stone” topped the list, but this year Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” took the top spot, knocking Dylan down to number four.
Most people would say that there is not much significance to this list and that all lists are subjective. In a sense one is correct, but, in its subjectivity, one can find the objectivity in this list. The songs in Rolling Stone’s list are all songs that have made an impact on society and have influenced many artists beyond the initial release of the song, still influencing artists of the present day. But why Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”?
In 1967, there was a massive upheaval within the United States with the Civil Rights Movement as well as governmental issues stretching across borders with the Soviet Union and the horizon of the Vietnam War. The country was divided with many people fighting for peace and others fighting to continue containment of Communism as well as suppressing the Civil Rights Movement. But African American musicians began using music as a way to express the frustrations of this time period through their own lens and were able to reveal to many people across the world how African Americans truly felt under the racist confines of the United States.
Aretha Franklin released “Respect” on April 29, 1967, creating a revolution with the words of the song. “Respect” launched not only a revolution in the R&B genre of music, becoming a classic of the genre, but also propelled forward the feminist movements of the 1970s. R&B was not a genre of music that Franklin created, but instead one that she used to express her wants and needs in a way that can be understood and felt in her radiant and powerful voice.
R&B, or Rhythm and Blues, is a genre of music that has its roots in, of course, the blues, but also in music compositional forms such as Ragtime. At UNC Greensboro, I was able to go to a performance and presentation by musician Reginald Robinson who primarily studies Ragtime music. He explained in his talk that Ragtime introduced the method of syncopation that one would know in modern hip-hop tunes, as well as R&B. He explained that the syncopation used in Ragtime comes from the musical instrument claves, which he explains came from Africa and were brought over to the US during the slave trade. A teacher in the audience expressed that he had always been taught that the claves came from France but he greatly appreciated Robinson clarifying that the so-called French instrument was actually African. This is one of many examples throughout the history of music where African Americans do not get enough credit for their influence on modern-day music.
Robinson also gave examples of the syncopation used in Ragtime which is also used in rock and hip-hop tunes, giving musical samples from songs such as Bo Diddley’s titular song and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s “The Message.” The syncopation in both of these songs was on point with that of Ragtime music. Robinson also explained Ragtime is a precursor to jazz music. That evening after Robinson’s talk, I went to the jazz concert at UNCG. At the performance, the jazz bands played several tunes where the lead-in on the piano sounded exactly like that of a piece in Ragtime music. The appearance of Ragtime influence was uncanny.
UNCG has a program called the Miles Davis Jazz Studies, named after famed 20th-century jazz musician Miles Davis. Davis was heavily influential internationally for his work in jazz, specifically for the album Kind of Blue, released August 17, 1959. This album leads into the 1960s, where artists like Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and many others plowed the fields for modern-day music. Ray Charles almost single-handedly created modern-day R&B by mixing gospel and 1950s R&B, becoming the precursor to the hip-hop music we listen to today.
According to “Billboard Hot 100”, within the top 5 songs in 2020, three of them were by African American artists. In 2003, when the original Rolling Stone top 500 songs came out, the top 5 songs according to Billboard were all by caucasin artists. Therefore, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” taking the top spot on Rolling Stone’s list is very important, because it is showing that as time goes on people are beginning to realize that music is not for one particular race and that people are starting to accept that no matter what the color of your skin is, music is music and there is nothing that can change that. There is still a long way to go in this country: racism is still heavily within our system, and there is no easy way to end it. I would say just listen to Aretha Franklin and show some respect, but it is much more than that. Respect is one thing, but one must fully accept everyone for who they are. One must always continue to fight against the system, against the government, and fight to uphold the rights of every person; one must remember that racism is real and that one does not fight racism by pretending it does not exist. As said in the song “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy (Rolling Stone Magazine’s #2 song) “Make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be.”