Our most misunderstood love song?
Ain’t No Way’s status as a queer love song has been a subject of debate in recent times. In 2018, the writer Andrew Martone described it as “an undercover LGBT anthem”, highlighting the lyric “stop trying to be someone you’re not” as a coded message to a secret lesbian lover, asking them to accept their sexuality. The story the song tells is haunting at its very core, and could be interpreted as representing the realities of millions of queer women around the world who feel they cannot love freely. Other lyrics include the lines “I know that a woman’s duty is to help and love a man, and that’s the way, it was planned/ Oh but how can I how can I how can I/ Give you all the things I have/ If you’re tying both of my hands”.
It might also have been particularly personal for Carolyn: she told Aretha’s biographer David Ritz that Erma and Aretha were “chasing after boys when I was discovering that my romantic preference went in an entirely different direction… it took me a long time to find my own identity and voice”. In Ritz’s biography, Respect: The Life of Aretha Franklin, Erma is quoted as saying of Carolyn, “I consider her a great woman… She went her own way, lived her own life, and found freedom in her individuality.”
Yet Detroit-based bassist Ralphe Armstrong disagreed with Martone’s reading of Ain’t No Way when interviewed for The Guardian’s recent profile of Carolyn Franklin, claiming “It’s just a love song about having a broken heart.” Martone tells BBC Culture that he still maintains his stance. “The beautiful thing is that music is open to interpretation. Ain’t No Way certainly works on a level where it applies to Aretha’s deteriorating marriage to Ted White when Aretha sings it. But it also works on another level, and I believe that was by design. I don’t have to be right or wrong, but there’s room to see the song through multiple lenses and explore them.”
According to Dr Uju Anya, a professor at Penn State University with a focus on critical applied linguistics through feminist and queer perspectives, it’s possible to overlook the queer elements in Ain’t No Way because it belongs to a genre with a predominant “woman struggling in love with a man” trope. But, she argues, there is a “trickery” to the song. Dr Anya claims that the singer is pleading her case to her lover (another woman) throughout the song, with the chorus functioning in two ways: the protagonist telling her lover “I want to love you but you won’t let me” and, at the same time, “describing herself: ain’t no way I’m gonna love the way that is expected of me.” Ain’t No Way, says Dr Anya, can be “just a love song about having a broken heart” – and still be a queer love song.