clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The political and cultural impact of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” explained

“It was the need of a nation,” Franklin wrote in her autobiography. “Everyone wanted respect.”

Aretha Franklin, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, shown here performing in 1970.
Aretha Franklin, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 76, shown here performing in 1970.
Gilles Petard/Redferns
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Aretha Franklin takes a breath. She thanks the audience for their applause. She begins to dance.

And then she launches into “Respect,” perhaps the most iconic — and influential — of her many, many hits.

At this 1967 performance of the song in Antibes, France, and many others, Franklin wasn’t just singing about a love affair. She was wrapping a statement about feminism and civil rights in the package of a chart-topping song, and paving the way for future musicians to unite politics and pop.

“Respect” is probably Franklin’s best-known hit. It hit the top of the Billboard charts in 1967 and won Franklin two Grammys. It’s appeared in more than 60 TV shows and films, from Scandal to Mystic Pizza. And when Aretha Franklin passed away on Thursday at the age of 76, critics and ordinary listeners alike returned to the song as a way to remember her. The history of “Respect” reveals just how revolutionary an artist Franklin was, and how much her impact endures to this day.

With “Respect,” Franklin created her own version of an Otis Redding song

“Respect” was first recorded by Otis Redding in 1965. The song is a request from a man to his lover: “All I’m asking is for a little respect when I come home.” Lyrically, it’s fairly traditional — as Hanif Abdurraqib writes at Vulture, “There isn’t much interesting in a man insisting on respect when he comes home from work.”

Franklin came to the song in 1967 and made it her own. She subtly shifted the point of view. Where Redding had promised, “What you want, honey you got it,” Franklin sang, “baby I got it.” And where Redding asked for respect when he came home, Franklin requested “a little respect when you get home.” In her hands, the song sounds like a call from a woman to man to acknowledge all that she gives him. That includes “all of my money” — the female speaker in Franklin’s version was apparently not just financially self-sufficient but able to support her partner. Proclaiming this fact proudly still feels revolutionary today.

Franklin also added backup singers, and what are now probably the song’s most famous lines:

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Find out what it means to me

She also added the lines “take care of TCB” (which stands for “taking care of business,” as she once explained to the Los Angeles Times) and “sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me.”

“My sister Carolyn and I got together,” Franklin said in a 1999 Fresh Air interview (her sisters Carolyn and Erma sang backup on the original recording). “Piano by the window, watching the cars go by, and we came up with that infamous line, the ‘Sock it to me!’ line. It was a cliché of the day.”

“Some of the girls were saying that to the fellows,” she explained, “like, ‘Sock it to me in this way or sock it to me in that way.’” Franklin added that the phrase wasn’t supposed to be sexual — it can simply mean something like “tell me” or “give it to me straight.”

In Franklin’s reimagining, “the call for respect went from a request to a demand,” music producer Jerry Wexler told her biographer. And in adding backup vocals using slang she and her sister had heard among women, she recast the song from a specifically female perspective.

“It’s a song written by Otis Redding, who is considered obviously one of the most iconic soul men of all time,” Reiland Rabaka, a professor of African, African American, and Caribbean studies at the University of Colorado Boulder and the author of The Hip Hop Movement: From R&B and the Civil Rights Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Generation, told Vox. “But Aretha snatches the song away and reinfuses it with these second-wave feminist sensibilities.”

The song became an anthem for feminism and civil rights

Released during a pivotal time in the feminist and civil rights movements, Franklin’s version of “Respect” became emblematic of both.

“So many people identified with and related to ‘Respect’,” Franklin wrote in her autobiography. “It was the need of a nation, the need of the average man and woman in the street, the businessman, the mother, the fireman, the teacher — everyone wanted respect. It was also one of the battle cries of the civil rights movement. The song took on monumental significance.”

The daughter of Rev. C.L. Franklin, a civil rights activist and friend of Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin “grew up in the movement,” Rabaka said. “Her work has a particular meaning for the black freedom movement, for the civil rights movement, for the black power movement, and for black women involved in the women’s liberation movement at that time.”

“Civil rights workers would see her at a fundraiser, right next to Martin Luther King Jr., raising funds for the movement, and then hear her records on the radio,” he added.

“Respect” also had a special meaning for female listeners. Franklin had her first child at 12, Rabaka pointed out, and was involved in abusive relationships. “This is pre-#MeToo movement,” he said, “but a lot of women knew that sister Aretha was singing from a pit of pain.”

“In a patriarchal society,” he added, “love is political.”

“Respect” was a massive mainstream hit

In addition to speaking specifically to listeners involved in the feminist and civil rights movements, “Respect” captivated audiences nationwide. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart and won Franklin two 1967 Grammys, for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording and a new category, Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Performance, Female. Franklin went on to win the latter category eight times in a row, so many it was nicknamed the “Aretha Award.”

As both political anthem and mainstream hit, “Respect” continued a long tradition. “Since the time of enslavement,” Rabaka said, “African Americans have created music that essentially has one meaning within the black community, and perhaps a separate, qualitatively different meaning once it leaves the community.”

“Just like with Ben E. King’s song ‘Stand By Me,’” he added, “a lot of things are coded.”

Franklin was also able to sing about women’s liberation “without ever labeling herself a feminist,” Rabaka said. “The ways in which Aretha Franklin however so subtly pushed back against patriarchy, that’s a lesson for us all,” he added. “She’s a political genius.”

Her work, both politically engaged and popular, was in some ways a precursor to albums like Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which deal with topics such as police brutality and Black Lives Matter while topping the charts, Rabaka said.

And, of course, “Respect” itself remains popular to this day. In the wake of Franklin’s death, the song has already inspired numerous analyses and tributes.

“Aretha knew to place emphasis on the word over the actual ask,” Abdurraqib wrote at Vulture, comparing Franklin’s version to Redding’s. “To spell it out, letting the demand hang off of each letter twice. The difference in the two versions is the difference between ‘give me what I want’ and ‘pay me what you owe me.’”

“The reason you learn ‘Respect’ is the way ‘Respect’ is sung,” wrote Wesley Morris at the New York Times. “Redding made it a burning plea. Ms. Franklin turned the plea into the most empowering popular recording ever made.”

Its impact will undoubtedly endure long after Franklin’s death, as new generations hear their own lives reflected in her words. As Rabaka put it, “That song will be relevant as long as there is a lot of disrespect in America.”

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.