Here's the scientific reason you're reaching for Aretha Franklin music right now

Raechal Shewfelt
Editor, Yahoo Entertainment
Aretha Franklin performs at the Nokia Theatre L.A. Live (now Microsoft Theater) on July 25, 2012, in Los Angeles. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Expect to hear a lot of “Respect” in the coming days.

Following the death of the prolific, peerless Aretha Franklin, 76, fans will no doubt turn to Franklin’s catalog of classics, which includes not only the song that became an anthem for both civil rights and the women’s rights movements, but also tracks such as “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Think,” and so many others.

The death of an artist often means new life for their work. Sales of Tom Petty’s music surged more than 6,000 percent following his October 2017 death. When Prince died in April 2016, Nielsen Music reported that sales of his albums skyrocketed 42,000 percent. Fans snapped up singles, as well as full albums, including Purple Rain and a collection of his essentials, The Very Best of Prince.

There are scores of other examples of artists’ work surging in popularity after their death, sometimes extending years and even decades later. Long gone musicians, including Michael Jackson, who died in 2009; Elvis Presley, who died in 1977; and Bob Marley, who died in 1981, all landed in the top five of Forbes magazine’s 2017 list of the top-earning dead celebrities, bringing in as much as $75 million in the year ending in October 2017.

Like Prince and those other artists, Franklin’s art transcended genres and was culturally prolific. The Queen of Soul landed a staggering 73 songs on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart over more than five decades, and she became the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll of Fame, among her many other achievements. Her music is poised to hit the airwaves and the record charts again too.

Human behavior expert Patrick Wanis explains that the reason we turn to an artist’s work when he or she dies is quite simple.

“We want to get as close as we can to them,” Wanis tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And because we want to make sure that we have a part of them as close to us as possible.”

Sure, we appreciate that person, but it also has to do with reliving the memories that we have associated with them. It’s really more about us.

“The reason we’re affected by [a celebrity death] is because in many ways, right or wrong, the celebrity is part of our identity,” Wanis says. “We identify with them, we are associated, we have some sort of bond or connection, even if it’s one-way. And then we think to ourselves, now that the person’s gone, what happens to those memories? What usually happens is, when we feel lost, we hold on to something with a greater grip. The way we grip tighter with a celebrity death is we go and grab their music, we go and grab their art.”

It’s also a way to manage the grief, explains Samita Nandy, director of the Toronto-based Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies.

She says reaching for the artwork a person has created immediately following that person’s death can be “partially healing.” After all, the musician or actor is still alive through their art, right?

“Most fans have mourned celebrity deaths by looking back at their past work as expressions of immortality,” Nandy says. “The difference today is usage of digital tools to remix and produce artwork and, in the process, develop virtual intimacy with the celebrity.”

In other words, the internet, and social media in particular, helps us feel closer to celebrities than ever before. There was a time when you had to wait months for a famous artist to release new music, a movie, or a new episode of their TV show. We now have constant access: their family photos, the backstage selfies they take at awards shows, what they’re having for dinner. Occasionally, they’ll even interact directly with a fan. The result is that a person can be just as affected by the death of a celebrity as someone who’s close to them.

“Because if we believe in our mind we have a close relationship to a celebrity, then we are impacted by their death,” Wanis says. “And that means specifically, what did or does the celebrity represent to you. It’s not just about music. It’s the emotional connection and emotional association that we created with the celebrity.”

Aretha Franklin holds up her Soul ’69 album in the Atlantic Records studios on Jan. 9, 1969, in New York. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

There’s no harm in the grieving, either.

“I always say to my clients,” Wanis says, “do whatever is necessary to help you to get through the grief, and just be aware of when that action becomes obsessive or becomes addictive or starts to control or harm your life.”

So go ahead and sing along to “sock it to me.” It’ll make you feel better.

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