Notes on Aretha Franklin’s “Think”
In the beginning the rumble of bass notes on a piano.
Then the word.
The word becomes imperative:
What process does the demand set in motion?
What meanings organize themselves around the word?
Before “Think” came the song nearly synonymous with her name.
“Respect” was written and recorded by Otis Redding in 1965.
Two years later Aretha covered it and flipped the gender.
She turned a plaint into a manifesto – spelled out and re-re-re-re-peated.
Though most of Aretha’s hits were written by others, she wrote “Think.”*
You better think (think)
Think about what you're trying to do to me
Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free
Then comes the bridge. And with it a key-change, rhythm shift, and soaring, ecstatic vocal:
Oh, freedom (freedom), freedom (freedom)
Oh, freedom, yeah, freedom
Freedom (freedom), oh oh freedom (freedom)
Freedom, oh freedom
Like “Respect,” “Think” constitutes a demand to be treated as a subject. But it penetrates even closer to the core of things. In “Think,” a change of attitude will not suffice. “Think” insists on an internal shift on the part of the other.
It also sounds a warning:
People walking around everyday
Playing games, taking scores
Trying to make other people lose their minds
Ah, be careful you don't lose yours
Effortlessly, the lyrics slide between interpersonal and social realms, and establish an oscillation between them. Hard and fast differences cease to be static and realign toward a survival-driven common interest.
You need me (need me)
And I need you (don’t you know)
Without eachother there ain’t nothing people can do
In two minutes and fifteen seconds “Think” radically upends the unthought premises on which the structures of race and gender relations are built. In doing so, “Think” echoes and distills a principal theme infusing James Baldwin’s literary work.**
After all, women and men, share a common history, as do the “races”:
Let’s go back, let’s go back
Let’s go way on, way back when
I didn’t even know you
You couldn’t have been too much more than ten (just a child)
I ain’t no psychiatrist, ain't no doctor with degrees
But, it don’t take too much high IQs
To see what you’re doing to me
Down the years, the needle skips in the groove.
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you!”
—Ana Maria Archila to U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, September, 2018.
Ms. Archila made her demand during the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. A video of Archila and Flake’s encounter in a capitol hill elevator captures him at first looking down, then raising his eyes to meet hers.
It is worth noting that the personal pronoun “me” as used by both women signifies the achievement of an “I.”
The “I” recognizes itself as a subject among subjects. Such an “I” potentiates the “We.”
Therein lies the special power of “Think”’s demand. Even as it chastens, it incites the liberatory possibilities of thought when it is deployed among fully constituted subjects.***
Yeah, oh baby, think about it now, yeah
Think about what you’re trying to do to me
Think (think, think)
Let your mind go, let yourself be free…
For the record:
Aretha Franklin. Born Memphis, TN, 1942. Died Detroit, MI, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aretha_Franklin
At his funeral in 2006, Aretha lauded Ahmet Ertegun as her musical and personal mentor. Born in Istanbul in 1923, Ertegun immigrated to the U.S. at the age of twelve, and subsequently co-founded Atlantic Records.
“Think” was produced for Atlantic Records by Gerald “Jerry” Wexler. Born in the Bronx of German and Polish Jewish parents in 1927, Wexler died in 2006. He is credited with having coined the term rhythm and blues. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Wexler
For the ear:
Otis Redding: “Respect”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvC9V_lBnDQ
Aretha Franklin: “Respect”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FOUqQt3Kg0
Aretha Franklin: “Think”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hsL9UL9qbv8
Sly & The Family Stone: “Stand”: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=sly+stand
The Staple Singers: “Respect Yourself”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1pYKdqD1ls
* Teddy White, Aretha’s then-husband, shares writing credit for “Think.”
** TJ hop skip and jump down the block. WT and Blinky right behind him. They pass the liquor store on the corner and they turn left. There the barber shop with the men standing in front of it and the men inside. There the dude outside who sells Muhammad Speaks. TJ’s father read Muhammad Speaks sometime, but then he say, “Don’t you believe everything you read. You got to think about what you read.” His Mama say, “But read everything, son, everything you can get your hands on. It all come in handy one day.”
TJ don’t really understand none of this yet, but she say, “Don't worry. You going to understand it.” [From James Baldwin’s illustrated novella, Little Man, Little Man: a story of childhood. New York: Dial Press, 1976; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018.]
*** “I will be even with you,” writes Whitman, “And you shall be even with me.”