So Many Musical Icons Have Died Recently—but Aretha’s the One I Can’t Stop Crying About

Photo: Getty Images/Michael Ochs Archive
Liking Aretha Franklin, or not liking Aretha Franklin, never seemed like a choice. For a kid growing up in the ‘80s, her hits of the ‘60s and ‘70s were like background noise, used in approximately 99 percent of movie trailers (I may be exaggerating slightly). “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” was a rallying cry used in countless movie montages, showing the hero getting his or her act together. And “Sisters are Doin' it for Themselves”—just try and read that line and not start playing the song in your head.

She was so popular, way before I was born, that you couldn’t say she was cool, exactly. Undeniable was more like it. And as she moved into her badass elder statesman years, it was her diva-ness (could anyone casually drop a fur coat onstage better than she did?) that sparked conversations, not her artistry. Maybe because after a while her singular, remarkable voice became such a part of the landscape that it stopped surprising us—it never wavered, it just was. Like the moon and the sun and the stars, Aretha felt elemental.

Today, that changed, of course. And when I heard the news about Aretha’s death at age 76 this morning, I surprised myself. I cried. Like, real tears, screwed-up face, the whole thing. And I’ve cried a couple of times since.

Let me put that in context: I don’t cry about celebrity deaths. Even the ones that have left me feeling heartbroken, bereft, and stunned. So what is happening to me today? The only thing I can think is: David Bowie dazzled and inspired us. Prince electrified us. But Aretha healed us.

David Bowie dazzled and inspired us. Prince electrified us. But Aretha healed us.

Yes, as the daughter of a prominent Detroit pastor, Aretha knew how to take us to church from a young age. But what I’m feeling today transcends any specific religion; it’s like she was giving us all a giant sound bath for her entire life. And now that it’s ended, the feeling—and the loss—is palpable. It’s physical.

It’s like we were all characters in those movies with Aretha-heavy soundtracks, moving through life with her fierce sweetness pushing us along, as steady and real as our own beating hearts. She may not have been topping the charts every year, but she was radiating Aretha-ness. And that’s only obvious now that she has stopped.

“Being a singer is a natural gift. It means I'm using to the highest degree possible the gift that God gave me to use. I'm happy with that,” she once said. See, that’s the thing I never realized I was learning from Aretha all these years: the world-changing magic of just one person being her true self to the utmost of her ability. (Of course, her utmost was the utmost-est.) And that’s even more inspiring than her sanctified, shaking-the-rafters voice, if you think about it. RIP Queen, we’ll all have to take up the slack in the love, art, activism, and all-around gift-developing department. But first, one more good cry.

If you're in a teary mood, too, here's why crying to sad music may make you feel better. Or try this sound healing session from Sara Auster, if you need it today. 

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