Aretha Franklin, a.k.a. the Queen of Soul is back! Her new album, “Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics”, will be out soon and the first single is her cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”. Though I’m not quite sure why she’s covering it because I wouldn’t class it as a “diva classic”, especially when it is among songs by true legends such as Etta James, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, Barbra Streisand and Dinah Washington. I guess it was mainly for commercial purposes as most of the other songs are quite old or not well known. Anyway, since the audio was released it has garnered mixed reviews from a lot of people. But who did it better and who is better overall?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Adele’s version (even though I find her to be boring and overrated) and of course being the songwriter she does it well and connects with it, but you cannot deny Aretha’s genius musicianship when it comes to recreating other people’s songs. The fact that Adele’s version is still so fresh in people’s minds and was such a big hit, may be part of people’s problem – it’s already been covered so many times, and usually not particularly well or to the same level. Most comments I’ve seen from people on the internet are along the lines of “Adele wins hands down” or that “I love Aretha, but this is Adele’s song” and that “Aretha is just screaming” or “there’s too much auto-tune”. So, which version is better? Can Aretha still sing? Is Adele better than her? Here I’m going to break down my personal thoughts on the two different versions and the two singers so we can better understand the differences between them.
1) Use of auto-tune
Unfortunately, for some reason, there is quite a bit of auto-tune on Aretha’s version, which could have been to give it a more contemporary feel or cleaner sound – to me, I don’t see that as a huge problem. Whether the auto-tune was used for pitch correction however, is another thing. Aretha is rarely that flat, sharp or out of tune, so I highly doubt whoever did the vocal production thought she was off so corrected it – it’s just that it wasn’t done particularly well, and is sadly, all too obvious in parts. I agree with many who say she doesn’t need auto-tune what with being one of the greatest voices of all time and that her using it could diminish her reputation as a vocalist as some would say she can’t sing like she used to… Well, duh. So in terms of the production/mixing of her version, no it wasn’t as brilliant as Adele’s.
2) Emotion/connection to the song
A completely subjective aspect of singing, which does not necessarily relate to how good a singer or a vocal is. Of course, Adele wrote the song so her connection to it would be greater, but not necessarily glaringly obvious since it’s down to opinion. Then you have Aretha, who may not have a connection to the song’s lyrics but being the Queen of Soul and coming from a strong gospel background where they learn to connect with and understand the meaning of songs that they perform, surely you can presume she sat down and studied it enough to want to take it on and not just did it for the sake of it?
Both these women are good musicians and both are great songwriters but Aretha’s iconic interpretations of other people’s songs have sometimes overshadowed even her own material as well as the originals themselves (see “Respect”, “Son of a Preacher Man”, “I Say a Little Prayer”, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) and while I have not heard many of Adele’s live or studio covers, the ones I have heard (“Fool That I Am” and “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” by Etta James, “Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan and “Lovesong” by The Cure) have been pleasant to listen to but not exactly overly different, exciting nor musically groundbreaking. Adele may be one of very few true artists and musicians out there today, but Aretha still stands as one of the best of all time.
First off, it should obviously be noted that they have completely different voices and styles – Aretha is a dramatic mezzo with a naturally larger, more powerful and voluminous voice that can reach low notes with solidity and resonance and also hit higher notes with great power and ease. Adele is a typical lyric mezzo with a smaller voice and a more lachrymose quality to her singing compared to the metallic, sometimes unyielding sound of a dramatic voice. Thus, comparing them can be open to debate. However, check out the videos below of Aretha’s range, use of runs and basically show-stopping vocal moments:
Adele is a good singer, but is she a phenomenal singer? No, I don’t think so. Aretha is and always has been the superior vocalist when you look at skill and technique – when it comes to range (both low and high notes), use of intricate and complex melisma, vocal delivery and lyrical phrasing, power, resonance and overall technique (breath support/control, larynx position, vocal placement), Aretha is better and there is no debate about it. Even at 72, after decades of smoking, ageing and natural wear and tear, her voice is still rather impressive. The clarity and timbre of her voice may have declined and she may be more nasal these days (an easier placement to sing in to hit higher notes), but the rest of it is pretty much there and in tact. Adele on the other hand, is limited in range, technical skill and isn’t the most technically proficient singer – her arsenal is simply the sultry, rich and husky tone in her voice and her delivery, which some may prefer over the more “dramatic” sounding and powerhouse voice of Aretha and that’s fine but to say Aretha can no longer sing or that Adele is an “amazing” singer or better than Aretha? Blasphemous!
Aretha recently performed the song live for the first time on Letterman, and I kept saying that we should not judge her based purely on the studio version until she does it live – where there would undoubtedly be NO auto-tune, reverb or lipping. Of course, as mentioned before, Aretha is about three times older than Adele and both have very different voices as well as their voices being in different states, so you can’t expect a fair comparison between the two. However, Aretha certainly does a good job considering her age and way out of prime voice. The beginning is slightly wobbly and not particularly great when she tries to scale between multiple octaves in just one phrase, and yes some of the belts are rather wheezy and nasal, but the power and resonance is still there. As she gets more into it halfway through though, her voice picks up and becomes a bit stronger and she starts to shine when she creatively mixes in “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” towards the end and pulls off a classic church-style Aretha performance with quite surprisingly nice and well-executed belts.
Here’s a “nasal version” by Adele who isn’t 100% well here, just to make it a fairer comparison… Hehe:
In conclusion, Aretha’s voice may not be as stable as Adele’s but we shouldn’t disregard Aretha just because she’s so much older now and not as amazing or as practically unparalleled as she once used to be 30-40 or even just 20 years ago. I’m sure Adele still has a lot more to give and she definitely shouldn’t be overlooked as one of today’s great young talent (though I don’t hold high expectations from her on her next album, both lyrically or musically) but the Queen of Soul’s voice and musicality and is not one to ever be underestimated and I for one am definitely interested in hearing how she has recreated other “diva classics” for her new album.
What do you think? Which version do you prefer and do you think Aretha has still got it in her or is Adele the new Queen of Soul?