ARETHA FRANKLIN: WHO'S ZOOMIN' WHO? (1985)
1) Freeway Of Love; 2) Another Night; 3) Sweet Bitter Love; 4) Who's Zooming Who?; 5) Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves; 6) Until You Say You Love Me; 7) Ain't Nobody Ever Loved You; 8) Push; 9) Integrity.
From the hands of Luther Vandross, Aretha was transferred to Narada Michael Walden, yet another glossy production guru, fresh from making the newest star out of Whitney Houston. The only thing these two had in common was living during the same crappy musical age, which means no way of getting rid of the electronic drums and generic synths. As for the rest, where Vandross tried to treat Aretha all «lady-like», smooth and slick and solemn even when jumping to it or getting it right, Walden makes her simply let her hair down and get in the groove. Who the hell would want to buy «cold dance music» in 1985? Word of the day is «hot», baby.
Given Aretha's usual luck with steamy dance hits, Who's Zoomin' Who? could have easily been another disaster on par with La Diva. Surprisingly, it's not that bad — actually, all the predictable corniness aside, it might be the most fun album of her Arista days. The power ballads ('Sweet Bitter Love', 'Until You Say You Love Me') are incorrigible, but the dance grooves, even without Marcus Miller's slap bass over them, are louder, rougher, more brutal and down-to-earth than the sterilized production on the Vandross LPs. In particular, the big hit 'Freeway Of Love' is surprisingly catchy, and, in another age, could have been a true rocking classic for the dame — in this age, the synth bass still ends up ruining it.
On the other hand, there are even traces of diversity: we have big bombastic arena-rock ('Another Night'), big bombastic hard rock riffage ('Push'), a strange leftover from the disco days (Aretha's own 'Integrity' with classic Seventies' strings that probably sounded quite nostalgic back in those days already), and ridiculously dumb pop (title track) with a chorus that will stick all the same. Not a single one of these songs manages to make the very best out of the miscalculated machinery of 1980s production, but, in between themselves, they succeed in drawing attention — solving the biggest problem one usually experiences with mainstream commercial records.
Over it all, like a local Mount Everest of sorts, hovers 'Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves' — a song that, strictly speaking, does not belong here at all, a «donation» from Eurythmics for the mere reason that Aretha happened to be invited to duet with Annie Lennox on the song. (Ironically, in the context of the band's own Be Yourself Tonight, released the same year, the number was just one of its moderately decent attractions rather than the absolute pinnacle). With its dark riff (allegedly copped from Talking Heads' 'Great Curve', but who cares), lonesome cool guitar solo, and the Annie-Aretha duet blowing it all to high heaven, here is one great example of how mainstream music from 1985 still can sound overwhelming, even today.
And although nothing can be easier than poking fun at the simplistic feminist charge of the song (laugh of the day: midway through explaining how proud they are to be «coming out of the kitchen», the ladies are seized with sudden fear at being mistaken for a couple of modern day Lysistratas, and rush out to assure us that «a man still loves a woman, and a woman still loves a man» — no shit!), there is still no denying the basic brawny power of the anthem, or the fact that it actually feels nice to hear Aretha back in her cherished element, one that Vandross tried so hard to erase but, ultimately, and fortunately, failed.
Obviously, I cannot give the album a thumbs up — for the non-historian and non-diehard, it must be as skippable as the rest of Aretha's Eighties catalog — but the way I see it, out of all the misguided attempts to steer the Queen in all sorts of alien directions, Who's Zoomin' Who? is probably the most successful, and deserves to be heard at least once — if only out of curiosity — in its entirety, not just the big hit singles.
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