A fourteen-year old girl is walking to school, listening to Aretha Franklin loud over headphones. The music she sings to is langourous, the slow motion that’s the flip side of the manic energy of adolescence, or of someone trying to prolong the time before they have to do something unpleasant. The girl doesn’t like school: she feels out of place there, doesn’t have the right fashions and gets made fun of. She has no friends to confide her fears and insecurities, and her unstable mother is “always crying,” fighting something in her mind that “sounds like broken glass.” So the girl talks to the music: “Aretha I don’t wanna go to school/Cause they just don’t understand me/and I think the place is cruel.”

Another voice enters the song, an adult voice: it could be the voice of Aretha itself, but I like to think it’s the voice of the mother during a lucid moment. “You’ve got the words,” this adult voice says to the girl; meaning, draw comfort from the music, but also strength. Make Aretha not just your pep talk but your blueprint, your game plan: “Raise your voice/Stand up on your own/Go out there and strike out!”

Three thousand miles away, in a small but well-maintained mobile home in England, a woman perhaps twenty years older is doing something routine, cleaning windows, making a pie. The music here is harsher, stark electric guitar chords, because the scene is harsher. This woman married young, ” before she was even entitled to vote,” married for love and the promise of a better life, but the marriage hasn’t worked out. Her husband has been mostly absent, but recently showed up out of nowhere, looking for money and sex. He stayed just long enough to “put a hole in her body where no hole should be;” watching him walk out the door again hurt her more than the physical abuse. This woman is as isolated as the fourteen-year girl, and like the girl finds solace in music:

When the world falls apart some things stay in place
Levi Stubbs’ tears run down his face

Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops, whose song “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one of the greatest statements of love and emotional support in pop music.

I have a friend who, when conversation lags, likes to ask groups of people to name a book that changed their lives. The answers are sometimes interesting, but I have to admit I don’t think books really do change people’s lives all that often (except maybe the books people say made them want to be writers). Books and music and other works of art can provide insight into lives you’ll never live, or suggest new possibilities within the life you’ve already carved out, or reinforce decisions you’ve made in carving out that life: but change your life, not so much. Now, if you asked instead about books or songs that made me feel less alone, or more connected to something bigger than myself, or were good friends through bad nights/years…

aretha

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