She drank some. She had deep agonies in regards to severe childhood abuse. She was “moody”. She went through a horrible violent relationship. Afterwords, she liked to eat, smoke weed, and have lots of consensual sex. And did I forget to mention she was “moody”. She was not remembered too fondly by her two managers (who both admitted that Aretha claimed they owed her money.)
These are the indictments David Ritz lays toward Aretha’s feet. If this narrative stirs you to outrage over Aretha’s character, you need to get a hobby. Compared to Hemingway, Pound ( or Marvin Gaye, Ritz’s most famous biographical subject) Aretha comes off looking like Florence Nightingale. To be more specific, Aretha comes off as someone who handled a tremendous amount of trauma…remarkably well? Ritz wrote this as a response to not getting the book he wanted from her when she commissioned him to write a bio in first person, and the second biography comes off like a bad Ally tantrum; a white man “down” with the community until he doesn’t get something that he wants, and proceeds to throw a conniption fit. In it, her charity work and activism in regards to Dr King, Angela Davis, and AIDS takes precedents to such daemonic acts as mood swings , outbursts in the process of creation and performing, and (brace yourselves) making up stories to Jet Magazine about her social life.
Most people would see these mood swings as almost middling for any creative, much less the greatest pop vocalist in the 21st century. That Ritz would take a tone of near epic hysteria is telling of the standard fragile male ego on two levels. One is immediately visceral and pertaining to as to Ritz’s most famous subject. As deeply as I love his work and as understanding I am of the disturbing abuse he took from his father, Marvin Gaye did some sick shit toward women during the end of life, and Ritz’s tone toward him is almost overwhelming devotion. The contrasting perspectives-overwhelmingly understanding toward Marvin’s victim-turned victimizer cruelty at the end of his life, then willing to throw the book at Aretha when her ex manager gives her side of a business deal gone wrong in 1982-are as clear a double standard as I’ve seen in a biographer.
On another level, it tells a tale of what happens when men think of women as goddesses and not human. To those we give powers to, we expect things from. Goddesses are always expected to be on, to perform magic, to constantly give positive stimuli, and because a human being cannot do that every second of the day, it is inevitable that said “goddesses” wont “live up” to the standards set upon them. This is the perverse reasoning that keeps so many men have from having healthy relationships with women. This is also the distance between the Aretha in the subtext of Respect and the Aretha that Ritz is trying to sell you. Funny, witty, brash, smart, persevering, gifted in knowing to have a good time, the Aretha Franklin that is hidden in this book would be charming even if she couldn’t sing a note*. But to David Ritz, she couldn’t be “On” and “confessional” about her life the way he wanted. She couldn’t give her the cookie, the kibble he was looking for. And as a result, he raged. And as a result, Respect is the single worst biography of an artist I have read in my life.
*and maybe, just maybe, if she didn’t charm( and had the demons most artists of her statue had) it wouldn’t matter in regards to her body of work? Just a thought?