How I Keep Calm: Aretha Franklin’s Tribute to Carole King

Has anyone ever done anything better than Aretha Franklin singing ‘Natural Woman’ at the Kennedy Center Honors?

I don’t know how it feels to wear a floor-length mink coat, and I’ll probably never know how it feels to drop one on the floor of the Kennedy Center. But I get an inkling every time I watch Aretha Franklin’s iconic rendition of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” a tribute to the song’s co-writer Carole King at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors.

If you’re among the video’s other 38 million viewers, you already know the broad strokes: Aretha starts at the piano, then she’s up and wailing high Fs, the mink hits the floor, King freaks out, Obama cries. The audience gives her a standing ovation three minutes into the four-and-a-half-minute song.

But the video is so much more to me than “a peerless performance” (as Franklin herself described it). As a teenager, I always felt most like myself while making music. Yet I knew to pursue music further, I’d have to subject myself to constant comparison — especially with other women, and often on the basis of appearance. When I watch the “Natural Woman” video, I get to briefly inhabit a universe in which comparison is beside the point. What Franklin and King create is too singularly arresting to be compared to anything else, and it exists only because each woman’s distinct talents and musical backgrounds encounter one another in all of their magnificence.

As a Jewish girl stumbling my way through “Ode to Joy” and dragging various instruments down the aisle of the school bus, Carole King was my superhero. I was fascinated by her proficiency in pop, rock, and soul, and her ability to write songs that brought out the best in other performers while remaining true to her characteristic style. “Natural Woman” demonstrates King at her best. She wrote the demo as a mid-tempo pop piano song, but Franklin, whose earliest vocal performances were in the Baptist church where her father was a minister, transformed it into a soul anthem. The song has evolved with chameleonic resilience ever since, finding new life with everyone from Mary J. Blige to Rod Stewart to Whitney Houston.

Aretha Franklin’s performance was so joyful precisely because she didn’t imitate any version of the song — she made it her own. Franklin set things up exactly as she wanted to and just let it rip. The event organizers didn’t usually allow back-up singers, but Franklin included them. She played piano, which was a rarity in the later years of her life, and brought her purse on stage because she “didn’t want to just leave it with anyone.” She also wore an unforgettable mink coat she’d bought as a Christmas present to herself. When she was finished with the coat — ready to sing higher, ready to lift her arms and face upward — she let it drop, because the only right way to perform a song about inhabiting one’s truest self is to do it exactly as you want to.

This sense of freedom and comfortable mastery is what moves me most about the performance, and I believe it’s what moved Carole King and everyone else in the room that night. My life’s mission is to find the B-cameraman at the Kennedy Center that night and ask for the full footage of King’s reactions; she exhibited a dorky thrill in the performance of a song she’d sung and heard thousands of times. It didn’t matter that there was a medal around King’s neck, she sang along with Franklin’s back-up singers and waved her arms in a frantic “keep going” signal when it appeared the song might end.

I tear up a little bit when I watch Carole King so psyched by Franklin’s performance, and that’s partially because I know that King had a complicated relationship with giving up her songs to other artists — it’s why she eventually embarked upon a solo career. “Natural Woman” was released in 1967, at a turning point for King’s personal and professional life. After a decade co-writing hits with her husband Gerald Goffin for other performers, in 1968, King divorced Goffin, moved to Los Angeles, and began writing and performing by herself. She released her massively successful album Tapestry three years later, which included her own rendition of “Natural Woman.”

To me, this makes her adoration of Franklin’s version all the more meaningful. After Franklin’s death in 2018, King said of the song, “Many great female singers have recorded it. But nobody can do it better than she can.”

I’ve been watching this video even more frequently than usual while quarantined. It reminds me of the way music made me feel when I was a little kid: overwhelmed by excitement, waving my arms around because I wanted more. Franklin’s performance ever so briefly alleviates the machinations and calculations and comparisons that took root as I got older and which have cranked into high gear during the pandemic. It replaces them with the ease, joy, and satisfaction of Aretha Franklin doing what Aretha Franklin was born to do. More than anything, it gives me that transcendent feeling you get while experiencing something so good that it’s not even worth comparing to anything else.

I think Franklin knew that’s what she achieved. When asked in a 2016 Vogue interview how she would rate the performance, she responded, “I don’t want to rate it. I just enjoyed it.”

how I keep calm

How I Keep Calm is our series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail submissions@heyalma.com with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.

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