How Aretha Franklin inspired reality singing competitions like 'American Idol'

Washington Post

If there was a prize for the song performed most frequently on a reality singing competition show, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" would have an easy shot at the crown.

"American Idol." "The Voice." "The X Factor." "America's Got Talent." "The Four." "Popstars." "Rising Star." "Nashville Star." Those are just a few of the shows that featured the ballad performed by Aretha Franklin.

It was one of the many unexpected ways Franklin, the iconic singer who died Thursday at 76, had an impact on modern music culture. The explosion of reality TV singing shows over the past two decades produced a number of celebrities, from the pop music world to Broadway, and quite a few of them named Franklin as an influence.

They wanted to be like her, and they wanted to sing like her. Franklin songs from "Respect" to "Chain of Fools" to "Ain't No Way" continue to be a reality show staple.

"For me, Aretha is soul music," said "American Idol" finalist Melinda Doolittle, who performed "(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone" during her season in 2007. "I was a little girl when I first heard 'Respect.' The sassy nature of that song, where you're kind of getting in someone's face with it, stuck with me. Then she could sing a song like 'Natural Woman' and pull on your heartstrings. I love the range of what she can do."

"Idol" in particular had a special relationship with Franklin, who once expressed interest in becoming a judge. In 2012, the Season 13 finalists traveled to Detroit, where they had a sit-down with the Queen of Soul herself.

"Be prepared to meet the challenge," Franklin told the contestants in Detroit, as they gathered around her to ask questions about the music industry. She ticked off advice, from paying attention to finances to "staying away from the wrong kind of people, anything that would be career-ending."

One contestant asked what to do if you make a mistake while singing in front of audience - and asked Franklin, for example, if she had ever misspelled "respect."

"You rhyme something really good that relates. Just come up with something quick. Ella was very good at that. Ella Fitzgerald," Franklin said. "In a minute, she could come up with something if she missed a line or two, she was real quick."

"But, no, I've never misspelled 'respect,' " Franklin added, to laughs from the contestants. "I never will."

One of the first classic "Idol" moments occurred during the first season, before anyone knew how groundbreaking the show would become. Narrowed down to the final eight singers, the show had a 1960s-themed week, and a finalist named Kelly Clarkson belted out "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman." She knocked it out of the park, especially as she hit the high note on "you make me feel so aliiiiiive," and it became one of the most famous performances in "Idol" history.

"What a great song for such a great singer," judge Randy Jackson said, looking impressed. "I didn't know you had all of that."

"I was trying to show my range this time," Clarkson said, a bit breathlessly.

Clarkson, of course, went on to win and is one of the few "Idol" contestants who became a legitimate star - she also tackled "Respect" during another round and named the soul icon as one of her major influences.

"People like her, you hear them sing and it's almost as if they don't need words. It's the sound, the tone, the ache in their voice," Clarkson told Rolling Stone this year. "Maybe it's because I went through a few things growing up, but I really fed on that."

Another famous performance of a Franklin classic also involved "Idol." Fantasia Barrino, who also went on to post-reality TV success, flawlessly sang "Chain of Fools" in front of guest judge Clive Davis, one of Franklin's mentors and close friends.

Davis loved the performance. "I respect your bravery," he told Barrino. "You took on our national treasure, the Queen of Soul, you took it on with your own spirit, with own stamp, with your own uniqueness. You nailed it, you pulled it off. Congratulations."

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