Remembering Donna Summer: A lady who was more than just a disco diva

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in NY Press Exclusive.


The world of popular music has incurred quite a few tragic early losses recently – Don Cornelius, Whitney Houston, Adam Yauch come instantly to mind. And each of them, rightly, have been lionized for their achievements in breaking new ground and crossing the audience color barrier with their music. Another recent loss took place just last week when lost e battle with cancer at the age of 63. Similar obituaries have praised her voice and her success, but haven’t always remembered how transcendent Summer’s rocket-high career actually was.

And that’s a load of hooey. Summer is as much of a muse to the singers that emerged, sexy, empowered, ready to dance, in the last three decades as anyone. But erroneously, despite a career that lasted for decades, covered multiple genres and demonstrated a powerful voice, this mezzo-soprano’s been stuck in a ball time capsule, embodying an era that flamed out as quickly as some of the drugged-up performers who helped create the scene.

It’s not that Summer’s songs are wrongly classified as disco; they’re not. (Oddly, Gloria Gaynor holds the official title of “Queen of Disco,” thanks to her anthemic “I Will Survive.” That’s inaccurate and also offends my musical taste. If nay one-hit wonder from the disco era should wear the mirror-ball tiara, it should be for “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” But I digress.) A cascade of memories will surely flow at the mere mention of her monolithic discography: “Last Dance,” which won an Oscar and closes out many a wedding, bar mitzvah and prom. The cop whistle-punctuated “Bad Girls.” The insouciant beat of “Bad Girls.” The lyrically confounding but nonetheless stirring crescendo of “Macarthur Park.” The hypnotic synthesizer of “I Feel Love.” The mix of pride and desperate yearning in her ‘80s mega-hit “She Works Hard for the Money.”

Yes, these songs were terrific – and they still are. They all hold up – who can forget “Heaven Knows” or “On the Radio” or “Dim All the Lights?” – and you can’t say that about some of the other VH1-dubbed divas, like Mariah or Janet. And while Donna’s era pre-dated music videos, it certainly predicted some of the behavior to be seen in everyone from Madonna to Nicki Minaj to Katy Perry to Lady Gaga. She was no stranger to stunts, as witnessed by her orgasmic moaning in one of the era’s most defining hits, “Love to Love You Baby.” (Lore has it that Svengali-like producer Giorgio Moroder wanted the tune to simulate the sounds and length of a session of sex.)

Summer won five Grammys, had 14 Top Ten hits and was the first recording artists to land three consecutive double albums at the top spot on the charts. She tapped into funk, rock, torch ballads and even electronica. Critics and classists may label her a disco artist, but I bet there isn’t anyone, born anytime, of any color, that doesn’t know her songs and feel compelled to dance when hearing one of them. Her passing is a sad loss, but a greater tragedy would be to dismiss the woman’s music. These songs are going to last forever.

 

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