dear moth's powder,
i remember the first time i actually listened to Aretha Franklin's a brand new me. though my parents bequeathed all their secular music to my brother and i when we were younger, i never paid much of the music much attention, save a Michael Jackson tune here or there, a Temptations song every now and again. i'd listen to those phonographs sporadically, if i needed to feel nostalgic - and the desire for that feeling was very rare, indeed, for what had a young person to do with nostalgia when every experience was so fresh and alive and vital and who wanted to reminisce when one had not yet lived at all, but one thought they knew everything about the world and its sorrows and joys, well. when i did finally listen to it and not just hear it, when i was attentive in ways that allowed me to groove to the sounds of the rhythm? well.
this short song begins with something sounding like a tap dance shoe tapping on wooden floors in a dance studio, large space with high ceilings and mirrors on all the walls such that the sound echoes with each short, staccato caaht caaht caaht; definitely not a mere tap sound but a bit more textured and lively and tarried and layered. (yes. i know. it's the drumstick against the rim of the snare drum. but bear with me.) drop the piano arpeggios and chording. then. her voice's clarity. and the melisma and the dew-wew-wew-hoo! well!
i finally understood why people were all into her as the Queen of Soul because whatever sorta life and love she had in her, she gave to the audience, singing with her all in studios and nightclubs and churches. with that light piano following behind her, i discovered what everyone else already seemingly knew. i was surprised that a song so short, so sweet could be so sensual and seductive because i generally think of the latter two as sounding out with trumpets and saxophones and low, melancholy voices and slurred speech, slowed rhythms. but, of course, at the end of her song, her daddy came out of her - he had breathed into her, one knows, by way of his preaching and whooping and the end of his sermons. well, a brand new me inhabited the same sorta sonic space, she took it to church with the minor and suspended chords. tension and release? maybe that's where libidinal materiality resides, always in excess of the regulatory and relegated. seriously. if we had a soundtrack to our lovemaking and fucking, well, it would definitely be the "preaching chords" and not "nothing music." feel me?
she knew something of moving an audience, working a crowd, engaging a congregation that she learned from what Baldwin always calls the first theater: church. and, well, church has certainly taught me to be attentive to motives and intentions with and against behaviors and actions. some would call Aretha's sorta cohabitation between the "church" and the "world" contradictory. i'd just say: she grew up baptist. or: there is a theology at play that makes possible certain forms of seemingly contradictory living. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, of course we know, was not as fortunate as Aretha, though one could (and maybe should, though few would) argue that she was one of the first major figures of gospel to break into the "world." while Aretha was still singing in her father's church Rosetta was already performing with her guitar and pentecostal blues on stages. and COGIC was already saying that she had backslidden. of course, when Aretha takes it to church in her secular music, it is thought an extension of who she is, of her life world and love. when Rosetta did it? not so much. she was seen as utterly problematic and in need of control and change. it's not that she saw her production of blues and honkeytonk as problematic but the social world to which she belonged, those folks around her, saw her movement from one space to another as the foil.
it's sorta like how there is the term falsetto that my friend says is the desire for a "new word, new world" because the falsetto "curiously rescues and abolishes" the word (and world) as we know it. and my friend N. played some Al Green singing love and happiness to prove his point. well. though he was certainly on to something, i'm all interested in how falsetto is generally a gendered term. we can speak about falsetto for men: Sylvester and Tonex and the Chi-Lites. but i've been thinking about writing an essay in response to the essay "Towards a Theory of the Falsetto in New World African Musics" that explores the relation of falsetto to gender. you know i teach. and i have this fantastic student writing a paper about Celia Cruz's voice, how it is like the falsetto in that it explores a new word, new world. but her voice is "lower" than expected, it reaches...downward. if there is something buried within the reaches, Cruz's voice is the limb that refuses phantasm, grasping through toward the underground, the underneath, the submerged. (i almost too quickly added the submarined because, let's face it, the voice shares a relation to water - no saliva, no substance, too dry to sing, maybe - and african musics no doubt know something of middle passages and boats; folks are down in the water; maybe Cruz's voice reaches for them?) i'm sure something of an analysis is there though, true, Cruz's voice is no lower than my Aunt Hester nor even, really if you listen, Rosetta's.
but what my student and i both noticed is that there is no term to succinctly discuss the lowered voice, there is no opposite or antithesis of falsetto. contralto might be the closest, though it is a general descriptor for the lowest female part though falsetto indexes what is unexpected, surprising, it is the unnaturally or artificially high-pitched voice or register, especially in a man. well. that is, there is no unnatural or artificially low and lowered voice, there is no voice submerged or buried for a woman. of course, maybe an analysis would also think about gender as performance, always false for a man singing a certain kinda way but always and only possibly true for a woman?
but, well, Sister Rosetta Tharpe's actions could only be understood spatially and this spatial organization was theological. to sing the lord's song anywhere other than the lord's church was to eclipse the possibility of being on the lord's side. well. this is me just being longwinded and obscure. but i do think there should be an analysis of the impossibility of the falsetto's opposite. and i do think there is a theology that inheres to this impossibility. if falsetto bears the trace of falsity, what such voice is true? and if truth is not possible for the voice, do women mark this by way of an irreducible contrariness (contralto, of course, is to be against the alto)? intriguingly, though Aretha sang about being brand new, it was Rosetta who had to, of necessity, remake herself after every such performance on a secular stage. a brand new me each and every time she rocked in the bosom of abraham...at the Apollo.
of course, i told you that i'd not write you ever again yesterday. that may have been false. i'm just being contrary.