Aretha Franklin Weighs In on Beyoncé’s Lip Syncing

Our Lady of Majestic Hats Aretha Franklin (otherwise known as the Queen of Soul) is no stranger to singing in cold weather. After all, she made quite a splash at Barack Obama’s first inauguration back in 2009, where she sang "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee" while wearing a bow the size of at least one of her ample bosoms. Clearly, she’s the person to whom most of us would turn to get expert commentary on Beyoncé’s lip syncing controversy.

What is her response? Well, she LOLed, obviously.

The Queen of Soul said she "cracked up" at all the backlash, adding that she would probably do the same thing next time.

"I wanted to give people the real thing and pre-recording never crossed my mind," Franklin said of her performance at the 2009 Inauguration.

The songstress also took the opportunity to complain that last time around, her long wait led to a subpar performance.

"I just wished I could have sung the moment I got there," she said. "If I could have walked on immediately and sung it wouldn’t have affected my voice the way it did."

Meanwhile, Franklin admitted to lip-syncing in 2004 at a Detroit-Lakers game in the NBA finals. But, you know, who cares? Because Aretha Franklin can sing. We all know that! And you know who else can sing? Beyoncé, you dummies! This is such a non-controversy because, hello, the lady sings live all the time. Case in point:

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British Neo-Soul Singer Paloma Faith Takes a Gamble on Stateside Success

Last year, scientists at the University of Bristol announced they’d come up with a formula for predicting whether a song will crack the Top 5 on the U.K. pop charts. The software analyzes such factors as tempo, beat variation, harmonic simplicity, and something called “tertiary time signature,” then measures it against 50 years of data. The algorithm spits out a binary verdict: jam it or slam it.

Sadly, no such science exists for the larger question: whether bona fide U.K.-bred pop stars will find mainstream success in America. For every Amy Winehouse and One Direction, there are a hundred Duffys and Lady Sovereigns: artists who are talented, interesting, and seemingly marketable, but who land at JFK with a resounding thud. True universality requires some quality scientists have yet to discover. But the rewards for popularity among the American audience—which is five times larger—keep the challengers coming.

The latest and greatest hope from across the pond is named Paloma Faith. The coquettish 27-year-old from Hackney, London—“It’s like the equivalent of Harlem,” she says—seems to have everything we Yanks want in a pop star: model-good looks, a highly cultivated sense of style, an engaging personality, a poetic backstory, and, most importantly, soulful, radio-friendly songs that speak to the themes of love, sex, loss, and betrayal. If there’s a reason she won’t succeed here, I can’t find it.

And so she’s coming to America. Faith is making the rounds before the U.S. release of her second full- length album, Fall To Grace, in November. This dog- and-pony show involves meeting with an endless stream of journalists like me and playing a few industry showcases to build up buzz. Her entrance is certainly impressive. There’s no missing Faith as she walks into Ladino, a kosher tapas restaurant on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, on a sunny late-summer afternoon.

She’s on the petite side, but she’s dressed exquisitely in an aquamarine Dolce & Gabbana number with a cute little hat that brings to mind a ’60s-era Pan Am stewardess. The lunch crowd looks up from their kashrut ceviche, in awe. Faith is polite, composed, and somewhat laconic at first, at least until an American-sized mound of guacamole arrives and seems to open her up. And she’s gorgeous—skin like a china doll, penetrating hazel eyes, and a perfect nose like I’ve never seen. She has the kind of beauty that makes you think she’d be a fool not to aim for a career in showbiz, like how a kid who’s seven feet tall by the age of 16 really ought to give basketball a try, just to work the odds.

Probably not for the first time today or the last, Faith delves into her background. Born to an English mother and a largely absent Spanish father, Faith was always creative, but she daydreamed in grade school and earned poor marks. One day, she decided to make a change, and in just five months, moved from the bottom of her class to the top. At 18, she enrolled in a dance college in the north of England but hated it. “It was the worst thing I’d ever done in my life,” she says. “It wasn’t creative. It was all about physically changing your body so that you could fit somebody else’s creative idea and not have your own. But I’m stubborn, so I stayed and finished it.”

Still craving higher education, she went on to earn a master’s degree in theater directing at Central St. Martins College of Art and Design. It was during this period that she began to embrace the idea of a career on stage. Her early jobs tended toward the bizarre.

“I was a magician’s assistant. I was a ghost on a ghost train. I did dark and twisted solo cabaret shows. I did weird performance art things,” she recites. “I was living a life that was really eclectic and managing to make ends meet.”

The ghost train to which she’s referring is Carnesky’s Ghost Train: a creepy, campy Blackpool carnival attraction designed to titillate British seaside vacationers. To get an idea of her cabaret chops, watch the video for her song, “30 Minute Love Affair,” which follows her through a sex shop to a bleak, noirish theater, where she belts out the emotional ode to ephemeral pleasures, Dietrich-style.

“As I incorporated singing into my act, people started saying ‘I love your voice,’” she continues. “But I felt that I wasn’t really a singer. The singers I really admired—like Etta James, Jill Scott, and Aretha Franklin—were, in my mind, better than I was, so I didn’t feel confident enough to call myself one.”

But, with the industry increasingly taking notice, she began to tone down the performance art while focusing on her voice. “The first showcase I ever did for a label, I incorporated some of my performance art with my singing, pretending to bleed and stuff on stage,” she says. “They came up to me afterward and said, ‘Um, we love your voice, we love your songs, but you really need to stop all that other stuff,’ so I moved away from it.” She pokes a fork into a dish of bacalao, a portrait of a performance artist tamed.

As she recorded and toured in support of her first album, 2009’s platinum-selling Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful?, Faith found her niche, embracing a surreal version of cinema’s golden era, where reality seems twisted yet everything is beautiful. “I’ve been trying to make it like a dark fairy tale,” she says. “I want my music to have a timeless quality, neither in the future nor the past.”

As with every success story, she’s had a little help along the way. One unlikely mentor was Prince, who was enchanted by her music and decided to offer some advice, and an opportunity. “He knew my first record—the obscure tracks, not just the singles—and it was an amazing turning point for me because I was midway through writing the record I’m promoting now and it gave me a bit of a kick,” Faith explains. “He had this festival called the NPG Festival [in Copenhagen] last year and he invited me to go and play at it, so I thought ‘now I have to up my game to place myself in an international market.’”

“It was just like a real learning curve, and he was trying to educate me on things,” she continues. “I came back and said to my manager, ‘This is what I need to change. I need to get rid of some band members, get busy, do more rehearsals, and focus on the music more than the superficial elements.’”

Fall to Grace is already out in Britain, and Faith is already a star. (She carried the Olympic torch before the summer games, running in high heels no less.) But now Faith, and Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid, are trying to work the same magic in America that has proven so successful at home. She says she’s thrilled to have the opportunity to perform in America—she’ll be touring this fall—but she’s not about to make any concessions for our differing tastes.

“I’m not going to try desperately hard to become what I think America wants,” she says. “I don’t know what America wants. I just know what I am. That’s all I’ve got.”

True to her word, the following evening, at yet another industry showcase in Manhattan’s Edison Ballroom, Faith seems to be her chatty English self, bantering between songs and making jokes about her body’s “jiggly bits.” As a crowd of black-clad music industry types press against the stage, entranced by the young talent but studiously blasé as New Yorkers tend to be, Faith runs through a selection of hits from both her albums. There are hints of passion from the audience: A woman waves her hands in the air to the music, one of those quasi-religious motions that seem designed to broadcast just how much the listener is feeling the moment. I’m certainly enjoying the show, though I’d like to see her in some kind of smoky lounge, while sitting at a small, round table sipping a martini. Long before her encore, it’s clear that New York, like Prince, will be happy to give Faith a chance. She’ll be huge in L.A., too. But only time will tell whether Faith can make converts of the rest of America.

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R&B Legend Bettye LaVette Opens Up About Her Tell-All Memoir

Bettye LaVette has one of the greatest voices in R&B history, but we came very close to never hearing her sing. At sixteen she recorded her first song, “My Man – He’s a Loving Man,” in 1962, and that early success allowed her to tour the country with folks like Otis Redding and offered the promise of R&B stardom. Fate, however, wasn’t kind, and a string of bad luck and broken promises kept her from truly making it big. But with a dedicated circle of friends and fans, LaVette continued to perform, and in the early years of the new millennium she found success with albums released by indie label ANTI-, through which she recorded an album of songs by singer-songwriters like Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, and Lucinda Williams, as well as a collaboration with southern rockers Drive-By Truckers.

It was her performance of The Who’s classic “Love, Reign O’er Me” at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors that delivered her much-deserved national spotlight, which led to her chance to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Now, the singer has a new album as well as a memoir, A Woman Like Me. The book is a no-holds-barred account of the roller coaster ride that was her career, featuring cameos by Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and Aretha Franklin—all of whom LaVette remembers at times fondly and, at times, with aversion.

I was excited to talk to the singer, who eagerly shared her excitement about writing a book, how she’s happy to share the stories from her life, and how the music industry has drastically changed in the last forty years.

What I really liked about your book was that it wasn’t the typical rock ’n’ roll memoir where you make it really big and than you have this giant tragedy. You kind of see that a lot in movies and books about people in the music industry. Did you have this idea of wanting to set the record straight about things that happened in your career?
No, not at all. These were stories that I’ve told over the years. You have to remember, just a little while ago all I had was these memories, that was absolutely all I had. Someone would always say, “You need to write a book,” and I would say, “I’m sure somebody’s gonna write one, either my daughter or my best friend—the people who have heard these stories a million times or whatever—but I thought it would happen after my death because I didn’t think that I would be around long enough to have somebody write about me and a whole bunch of tawdry stories. So no, it wasn’t conceived in the way that most books are, and I didn’t know it’d be different from what I’m doing now: sharing my stories.

It comes across that way. It’s written with a more personal style, as if I were sitting and listening to you telling me tales. It jumps around a bit; you’ll end one story and pick it up later, and characters come back just as you’re giving your memories of how you remember them. That’s what I liked about it; it wasn’t the standard kind of memoir in that way.
And I want people to know, too, that these stories are about who these people were. They’re not about who you know them to be. People sort of have problems with that because they know Marvin Gaye as a star. But I know Marvin Gaye as a man trying to be a star. So that’s completely different.

You’re pretty brutally honest about a lot people and give a lot of surprising opinions. You mention Ike Turner at one point and talk about the Ike Turner that you knew being different from the person portrayed on film and thought of in the popular culture. Were you at all worried about how people would react to how you were describing the people you were around at the time?
I have the advantage now of almost being 70, so I don’t care what you think! I do not care what you think. You know, the thing of it is: there’s no reason to lie, and there’s nothing to lie about. The only people I would have been worried about were my grandchildren, and they are now 21 and 27, so at least I can explain myself thoroughly to them now. The people I spoke about in the book haven’t spoken to me at all this time. I wouldn’t be losing anything if they decided not to speak to me now.

It’s kind of surprising, I guess, when you think about your family reading it. I’ve seen so many movies and read stories about this era and of people in rock ’n’ roll, and it’s not super surprising—
But Tyler, if you’re just twenty-something, you haven’t seen too many!

Well, I mean, there’s probably more of an expectation that I would get out of reading a book by a musician than maybe a that person’s grandchildren would have.
Really, why?

Well,  I can’t imagine my grandparents writing about sex and drugs.
Ha, I love it!

But that’s interesting! It didn’t even cross my mind—thinking about how your family would react to it. I was thinking, “What if Diana Ross read this book, and what would she think about it?”
I don’t know if I would have even written it had my mother still been alive. You were just saying about your grandparents—I know how much of it my mother would have understood, and it wouldn’t have been enough. If I were trying to explain it to a young kid, what they would understand would not be enough. Those are the only people I was concerned about.

I saw you perform at the Robert Johnson tribute show back in March, and I remember you saying it was the first time you had been at the Apollo since like some time in the mid-’60s and how it seemed a lot bigger to you when you were there the first time.
It seemed like a little community theater!

It was the first time I had been there, too, and I was surprised because I had expected it to be much bigger. It’s such an iconic place, especially for R&B and African American artists. Was that a place you always strived to get to?
Oh, absolutely. You certainly wanted to work at the Apollo—that was absolutely it. I remember touring Otis Redding and The Shirelles. When we got to Philadelphia, Otis and I headed back down south and The Shirelles would go on up to the Apollo. Then everything happened so fast, and it wasn’t a long time before Otis was at the Apollo—it was maybe like six months later.

I didn’t know much about the industry at the time, but these days it seems artists are getting a lot buzz before they’ve come out with a proper album and can tour on that early successful buzz. That’s what I thought of when I was reading your story; you had a lot of singles that were getting some pick-up, and you would get the chance to record an album and then that opportunity fell through. It seems like before there was the major crossover for African American artists the industry was much more competitive. Looking at how the industry works now, have things changed that much for new artists?
I think the record industry today is virtually unrecognizable to anyone my age unless they’re, like, Clive Davis. My manager once introduced me to Billy Eckstine, who had a record on the charts for the first time in his twenty-year career. Whereas today you can sing for thirteen weeks and be on the cover of Vogue. The children have taken over! It’s just like the children running the house.

People are becoming successful based on nothing, but it doesn’t seem like there’s a long shelf life for them.
Oh, no, they’re almost disposable. And I think that the thing that keeps me from being terrified of them; I know that they are disposable, and that none of them are going to run up against me way late at night in a little small joint where there’s nothing but a baby grand piano. So those two things keep me sane.

What you are doing even now is a little more classical in a way—you’re singing songs and interpreting them in your own way, and you can continue to find an audience. I first discovered you from hearing your covers of Fiona Apple’s “Sleep to Dream” and Aimee Mann’s “How Am I Different.” I’m a big fan of Marianne Faithfull, and she recently did an album where she covered a lot of contemporary indie-rock songs and recorded them in her own style, and that something she’s been doing for decades. Was that approach introduced to you and did someone suggest you record those covers?
The songs, first of all, are just songs to me. Some people have small churches they have built dedicated to some of those tunes, and I don’t. They’re just songs to me. And I have always sung all kinds of songs because I’ve always heard all kinds of songs. It doesn’t make any difference what kind of song it is. If I sing, it’s gonna be rhythm and blues. None of them frighten me. I don’t think of them in categories or anything, because I know that if I did a song by Roy Rogers, it won’t sound like a Roy Rogers song when I sing it. It’ll sound like me.

 

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Aretha Franklin And Her Silly Hats Want To Judge ‘American Idol’

Say a little prayer that this will happen: Aretha Franklin has thrown her hat into the ring to become a judge on American Idol. This week saw both Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler take a hike from the show, followed by much tongue-wagging as to who will replace them. Turns out, Aretha’s free. 

The Queen of Soul responded to an email question from CNN asking whether she would be interested in joining the cast of Idol as a judge or mentor and she responded, "Yes, I am interested as a judge." And she’d like to bring Patti LaBelle along as a sidekick.

Fox declined to comment about Franklin’s statement of interest. But think about it, Fox people: the Internet could use a rehash of that silly hat meme. 

Afternoon Links: Aretha Franklin Calls Off Her Engagement, Britney Spears Grows Up

● As a wedding present of sorts, Britney Spears’s father, Jamie, is giving up his long-held conservatorship, leaving Brit in full control of her finances and business decisions. [Page Six]

● Worried that things were "moving a little too fast," Aretha Franklin has opted out of her engagement to William "Willie" Wilkerson. "There were a number of things that had not been thought through thoroughly," she said in a statement. "There will be no wedding at this time." [E!]

● And the award for Worst Film of 2011 goes to… (See also: grumpiest film critics!) [Vulture]

● Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell told an Australian audience he thought Kanye West’s perhaps too loud sound check sounded like, "there’s children playing music there, retarded children, retarded as in held back." [PopDust]

● Movie studios, according to Spike Lee, know "nothing about black people." "I didn’t need a mother[bleeping] studio telling me something about Red Hook," he said at a screening of his latest, Red Hook Summer. "And they’re gonna give me notes about what a 13-year-old black boy and girl do in Red Hook? [Bleep] no!” [Page Six]

● Andre 3000 loves his greens, particularly nutrient rich kale, quick steamed and lightly sauteed. [Bon Appetit]

● Occupy Williamsburg have dragged Drake into their fight, borrowing his line about "real is on the rise" for their latest round of posters. They were too busy sound-checking to hear that "just me, myself and all my millions" part, though. [MagicMuscle]

Morning Links: Derek Jeter & Minka Kelly Seemingly Back On, Beyoncé Is Probably Still Pregnant

● Derek Jeter and Minka Kelly were caught out and about and looking pretty couple-y in Paris over the holidays. Are they back on in 2012? [Huff Post]

● Beyoncé was still very pregnant when she was spotted out in Brooklyn for a New Year’s Eve dinner with Jay-Z. Our money’s on a January 4th baby, 4 being her favorite number. [Gothamist]

● Aretha Franklin is engaged to her "lifelong friend" Willie Wilkerson. But no, the 69-year-old Queen of Soul assures she is not pregnant. [RS]

● The now bang-ing Kim Kardashian has resolved to always follow her heart in 2012. "I think I’ll never stop doing that," she says. [Us]

● Courtney Stodden’s New Years resolution is to, uh, read more books. [DailyMail]

● Octomom Nadya Suleymon needs a new manager stat, as her old team has up and quit, claiming mostly that she was "unmanageable." "We no longer wanted a part of any of it and we feel sorry for the children," they said. [TMZ]

● Demi Moore is slotted to play feminist activist Gloria Steinham in the upcoming Lucy Lovelace biopic. [Variety]

Stephen Jones Would Like a Word with Michelle Obama

imageAt GAP’s AW09/10 clothing presentation yesterday Love magazine caught up with milliner extraordinaire Stephen Jones. The designer, who curated the Hats Anthology exhibition currently on view at London’s V&A Gallery, spoke to the rag about a bone he has to pick with Michelle Obama, getting denied by Aretha Franklin, and his favorite hat out of all of the chapeaus included in the exhibition.

“I would love to have a word with Michelle Obama, because she didn’t wear a hat for President Obama’s inauguration. I think there a few occasions when one really should stand on ceremony,” Jones told Love. Did he approve of Aretha Franklin’s Inaugural pill box hat, which was adorned with an enormous bow? You bet. “We tried to get it for the exhibition and she said no, but she sent me the most wonderful letter that she had also sent to a museum in Washington. It said that she was hugely flattered to be asked, but that to sing as an African American woman at the inauguration of a black president was the proudest moment of her career, and that she wants to be able to look at that hat every day for the rest of her life and remember.” I guess you can’t blame her. As for Jones’ favorite piece in all of the V&A museum: “the Elsa Schiaparelli shoe hat: it was made by her but designed by Salvador Dali, and it belongs to a museum that spent £40,000 on it.”