The music world has lost one of its all-time greats.
After a battle with advanced pancreatic cancer of the neuroendocrine type, the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin departed the mortal plane in the early hours of Thursday, August 16 at the age of 76. And in the aftermath of her passing, much ink has rightfully been spilled about an unparalleled career, an unmatched catalog of hit songs and indelible moments that’ll ensure that, though she’s left us to live in a world without her, she’ll never truly be gone.
As we celebrate the life and mourn the loss of a singular talent, one thing stands out and that’s Franklin’s incomparable impact on the music landscape and the legion of musicians who climbed the ranks in her shadow, unmistakably influenced by one of the greatest vocalists of this or any time.
In ways both subtle and glaringly obvious, after Franklin rose to fame in the early ’60s, she began to shape a sound that has still stands as the paragon of virtue for “real singers” to this day. Those melismatic runs you hear from R&B and pop artists as varied as Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, and Ariana Grande? You know, the ones that every single contestant on The Voice or American Idol tries to replicate (often to poor return). Those are all Franklin, whose brought her church-raised gospel stylings to the world of pop.
When you listen to a deeply-felt emotional track, full of bombast and anguish, and you can’t help but proclaim that the singer just took you to church? The performance has Franklin’s fingerprints all over it, whether the artist in question knows it or not. (The good ones, the students of music history, do.)
But beyond just introducing and influencing a sort of sonic nirvana, Franklin inspired some in more direct ways. When Kelly Clarkson got to work on her 2017 album Meaning of Life, her first out from under the thumb of her original American Idol contract, there was only one artist she had on her mind. “What if Aretha was born now and made a record today,” she asked, distilling her inspiration into one simple query for The New York Times.
“People like her, you hear them sing and it’s almost as if they don’t need words. It’s the sound, the tone, the ache in their voice. Maybe it’s because I went through a few things growing up, but I really fed on that,” she further expounded with Rolling Stone last year. “‘Ain’t No Way,’ all those songs, her tone and her voice were almost their own story. There’s very few singers like that…Aretha is a flawless vocalist, and they didn’t have Auto-Tune then. It was all feeling. And when it was slightly off-key, it was perfect. It was heartfelt.”
For Jennifer Hudson, who was anointed by the Queen of Soul herself to portray her in an upcoming biopic, the influence didn’t begin as early or directly as it did for Clarkson, but the connection has come to define her career nonetheless. “You know, I’m going to be honest: I did not actually grow up listening to Aretha Franklin the way most people think I have,” the Oscar winner admitted to Time Out New York in 2015 when her involvement in bringing Franklin’s story to the big screen was merely a rumor. “I grew up listening to my older cousins, and they were obsessed with Aretha. They were heavily influenced by her, and I took it from them. But I love her now. I love all her music. I just love that era. Atlantic, Motown—I wish we made music like that today.”
In her own way, J.Hud is doing her part to make sure that we still do.
“I will Say while teaching me about your life, u taught me so much about life and schooled me in mine,” she wrote on Instagram after she learned of Franklin’s passing. “I will never forget those teachings.”
Mariah Carey was lucky enough to share the stage with Franklin a handful of times throughout her career, most notably during the very first VH1 Divas Live 20 years ago. But as the singer explained on Twitter after news broke of Franklin’s passing, the impact began long before that. “Aretha Franklin. The Queen of Soul. The Icon. The ultimate singers’ singer. The greatest singer and musician of my lifetime. The power of your voice in music and in civil rights blew open the door for me and so many others. You were my inspiration, my mentor and my friend,” she tweeted, before adding, “You showed me I could sing the songs I wanted to sing and bring God with me. You’ve inspired millions everywhere yet never left home, never left church.”
Whether they were following her lead and incorporating their version of her melisma into their vocals, or following her lead and making sure their art also stands up as advocacy, or following her lead and writing their own material—”Respect” may have been handed to her, but “Think,” her equally fierce and feminist follow-up was all hers—Franklin has inspired a legion of singers to follow in her footsteps as only a true queen can.
The Queen of Soul may now be dead, but through her legacy and her continued impact and influence on an industry of admirers, she’ll be with us forever. Long live the Queen.