Victoria Malawey

Vocal Elasticity in Aretha Franklin's Respect

Singing voices are notoriously difficult to analyse, yet they are central to listeners’ experiences, particularly in popular music genres. To better understand differences in vocal delivery styles that define artists’ idiolects, this presentation explores differences in ‘syllabic elasticity’—which I define as the marked contrast between syllables receiving relatively longer duration (agogic accent) and louder attack (dynamic accent) and fewer accentuated syllables—between Aretha Franklin’s delivery in her recording of Respect (1967) and that of Otis Redding in his original studio recording (1965). Although Redding emphasises some syllables, Franklin’s delivery features a greater number of emphasised syllables, which form a recursive pattern of elasticity in which each verse, parsed into four discrete segments, features more emphasised first and third segments, which alternate with less accentuated ones. Transcription and close analysis of metric placement and duration of syllables illustrate the key differences in syllabic elasticity between Franklin and Redding’s recordings. In addition, Franklin’s syllabic elasticity functions as part of a larger discursive strategy, akin to what Gates (1988) describes as ‘talking texts’, which is ‘a black form of intertextuality’ where “black texts ‘talk’ to other black texts” (p. xxiii).

Furthermore, The eagle stirreth her nest (JVB 61/63), one of many extant recordings of sermons by Aretha’s father, the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, demonstrates syllabic elasticity and an emergent phrasing technique that is remarkably similar to the segmented phrasing style in Aretha’s Respect, thus confirming the assertion scholars have made regarding the Reverend’s influence on Aretha’s style of vocal delivery. Further parallels between the Reverend and his daughter’s performative styles can be drawn: the congregation punctuates the Reverend’s phrasing with energetic interjections in a call-and-response style, and likewise in Aretha’s Respect, backing vocals mimic her father’s style of call-and-response by prominently articulating the downbeat.