An Appreciation of Donna Summer: Queen of pop, not just disco
“Last Dance” was a tough song to dance to. The Donna Summer smash started slow, so if a boy asked you do dance to it, the request felt way more significant than if he asked you to dance to a fast song. But then it transitioned into a fast song, so you and your partner had to know how to navigate the switch from slow to fast. And if you weren’t fond enough of each other to actually slow dance together through the opening you just had to awkwardly sway separately through that part until the fast part came in.
I was never very good at that.
Dancing to that song with a boy whose name I’ve long since forgotten was one of my first memories this morning when I heard of Summer’s passing from cancer. She was 63. My second was that her music had informed much of my teen years.
The five-time Grammy winner got labeled Queen of Disco during the late ‘70s, but a more appropriate title would have been Queen of Pop. Between May 1978 and January 1980, she scored eight Top 5 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including four No. 1s —the first female to do so in that short time span. The musical style may have been disco (now, of course, rebranded dance) and born out of the clubs, but the truth is no one had to step into a disco to hear a Summer song during her heyday. Her music played in the supermarket just as much as in the clubs...and she dominated radio.
During that time, I was solely into Top 40. While I was keyed into music like nothing else in my life from the time I was four or so, in my mid-teens, my tastes were dictated by Top 40 radio. My parents are probably the last generation to not be influenced musically by the birth of rock in the ‘50s, and my older sister, while also a music fan, didn’t start straying outside of the pop lines until she went to college, like me.
So while the cool kids —of which I never have been one— were already getting into the Clash, the Ramones, and other punk acts (all of whom I came to love later), I was totally in my Top 40 bubble and Donna Summer was a big part of that bubble.
Summer’s hits were glorious explosions that often started slow and then burst into beat-driven fireworks propelled by her stellar, powerhouse voice (underrated by critics at the time, who were too busy hating on disco to truly acknowledge her talent). Listen to the notes she sustains on “Dim All The Lights” or how she goes toe to toe with Barbra Streisand on “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” and holds her own with one of the greatest voices of all time. That’s a great voice, born from her gospel background, no matter what genre you want to pigeonhole her into (watch for the encomiums coming the next few days stressing just that from writers who denounced her the first time around).
If there was ever an artist who seemed to wrestle with her fame, her talent and her audience, it was Summer. As a born-again Christian, she later denounced her first hit, 1975’s orgasmic “Love To Love You Baby.” She told Vanity Fair that she looked at the song as a “joke”: “I originally recorded ‘Love to Love You Baby’ on a dare from [producer] Giorgio [Moroder] that I couldn’t be sexy. It was a joke that worked. All that orgasmic stuff … I thought they were kidding—I desperately tried to get them to get someone else to sing the song. Then I made them turn the lights off, get some candles, have some atmosphere. I was going closer and closer to the floor and finally I was lying on the floor.”
History has looked back on Summer as a pioneer, as someone who helped usher in a new musical format that, although hated by critics, delighted millions of fans and also was the first genre to be embraced by the gay community and claimed as their own —though they were always delighted to share with the world at large. (Summer was later accused of voicing anti-gay comments, which she denied making).
She has been up for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but did not receive enough votes to make it into the Hall— yet. That’s likely to change in coming years. Listen to “I Feel Love,” which is basically Kraftwerk crossed with disco, and tell me why she doesn’t deserve inclusion. Plus, the songs have worn far better than they should have. There will never be a time now or 20 years from now or beyond when “Bad Girls” or “Hot Stuff” doesn’t pack a dance floor. If you're still not convinced she was beyond disco, that's a pretty crunchy guitar solo in "Hot Stuff" for a disco song, isn't it?
I still find myself listening to Summer as a great pick-me up on occasion and her songs never fail to bring a smile to my face. “Heaven Knows” will always remind me of riding around with my boyfriend in high school in his black Cutlass Supreme (with red interior). When one of my best friends was going through a divorce a few years ago, we packed up her apartment to Summer’s greatest hits, dancing around, filling boxes, and waiting for the movers, often as tears streamed down her face.
If you’re too young to remember her in real time, check her out with an open mind and open ears. And don’t forget your disco whistle.