Aretha Franklin’s music was my rite of passage into womanhood

On January 3rd, 1987, Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here, a contributor reflects on how Aretha provided the soundtrack to her life as she grew up and experienced her first heartbreak.

I wasn’t even born yet when Aretha Franklin became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but less than two months later, I would make my premature entrance into the world—a Black girl child raised on Aretha’s music. Aretha started singing at a very young age, performing in her father’s church, and her career in secular music began at the age of 18. Aretha would go on to create a universe out of her emotions, her power, her will, and her heart. And although she had already been an active musician for decades before I arrived, it would be her voice that would guide me into the most important transition of my life.

Aretha Franklin’s music was a sonic guide for my entry into womanhood—specifically as a woman in love for the first time.

Having the experiences to match her lyrics allowed me to fully understand her music and was my right of passage. Her voice is a gospel in itself, and her mission embodies all of my first heartaches and first encounters with romantic love.

As a child of the ’90s, my life was filled with Disney movies and cartoon sagas, stories of princes cast as the lone saviors of princesses who need to be saved. In contrast, Aretha Franklin taught me about the realities of love—not just the fairytales. And while I would come to learn that it’s okay to be rescued, Aretha was proof that you can also just rescue your damn self.

I didn’t know what heartbreak sounded like until I heard “I Never Loved A Man (The Way I Love You).” When Aretha shrieks at the song’s end, it feels like her chest and throat are on fire—not from sickness, but from pain. And it’s a specific kind of pain.

When I first heard it, my greatest romantic ache was my third grade crush teasing me about my head size. When I listen to it now, I’m reminded of being 24, spending a break at work crying in the backseat of my car because the love of my life was marrying someone else that day. Her voice welcomed me into heartbreak; it was a welcome that I had never expected to meet, but Aretha already knew it would happen eventually.

When I was in the fifth grade, my best friend and I wore out the Waiting To Exhale movie soundtrack because of Aretha. Her song, “Hurts Like Hell”—so brilliantly produced by Babyface—was the reason why. We sang and cried our little hearts out to that song, mainly because it’s impossible not to feel something when she sings, and partly because our crushes were being airheads.

Now, this song reminds me that our perspective of a beautiful thing can become tainted over time, especially when it comes to relationships. If you had told me back in 2008 that I wouldn’t end up with my college boyfriend, I wouldn’t have believed you. Now, as a woman who has outgrown tons of different relationships and situationships, I know that, sometimes, our “firsts” don’t last forever. And that’s okay.

No love story is perfect, but I aim for a love that embodies “Call Me” and “Day Dreaming” instead of “Dr. Feelgood.”

The Queen of Soul always controlled her own narrative, determined to express herself and make her own decisions. Whether her songs were happy (“Wonderful”), sad (“Ain’t No Way”), political (The Blues Brothers version of “Think”), or proclamations of her faith (her Amazing Grace album is now a Sunday staple), Aretha always made sure that she was heard. She was not afraid to tell you what she was and was not going to do.

Aretha had full autonomy—not just over her body, but over her mind, her feelings, and her expressions of pain.

She wrote and arranged the blueprint for my womanhood, and prepared me for experiences that would test my heart, my soul, and my power. Each time I choose to ignore what society thinks I should do or how I should feel, I remember Aretha. She was proof that my life and my choices are up to me.

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