Certainly, she is the Queen of Disco, no question, but Donna Summer was so much more than that. Really. Here’s why.
First, not only is she the Queen of Disco, she was the first artist to emerge from that previously obscure genre of music into a full-blown pop star. She put a face on what had been an area of music mainly populated by no-name, one-hit artists who’d had little sustained or significant impact on the minds and ears of the pop music world. She came out of nowhere, on a minor independent label, and literally took over the airwaves with “Love to Love You, Baby,” commanding everyone’s attention in a brand new way.
She was the quintessence of Disco, the figure that made it the pop music of the last half of the 70s. And, as Disco’s poster girl, she paved the way for a slew of others as well—among them, the Bee Gees, whose Saturday Night Fever soundtrack brought dance further to center stage on the big screen.
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There were four key guys behind the scenes who made it happen. Her label, Casablanca Records, was an upstart Indie started by Neil Bogart, a white guy who had the audacity to get behind her and her records as if she was a white pop star. This was not exactly typical of the record biz up to that point. He teamed up with Cecil Holmes, a smart black executive who was given free reign to pursue the potential of the record without forcing it into the black soul music mold.
Donna Summer not only launched a sub genre of pop music, she was arguably the first black artist to reach pop stardom without having to go through the black music ghetto. Frankie Crocker started playing her long form version of the song on WBLS-FM over and over, and broke the record wide open in the Big Apple.
The rest is history.
Donna opened the way for a lot of black artists going forward. She set the stage for Michael Jackson to be able to reach King of Pop status later in the early 80s.
She was also a trailblazer in another respect — as the first black pop artist to emerge out of mainland Europe. She had spent considerable time in Germany and, with her German producer Giorgio Moroder, she brought a fresh mix of continental European sensibility and soulful pop sensitivity to the American scene.
The minimalist structure of “Love to Love You, Baby,” with Donna moaning and groaning sensuously and sexually ad infinitum over a metallic cool Euro-metronomic groove, introduced a whole new way to present a tune. You could say she did more, with less, on a record than any prior artist in pop music history (unless, of course, you want to count James Brown).
Another thing: she revolutionized the idea of what a record could say and be. She brought an explicit sexuality fully into being with that song that really opened up the airwaves to songs that proclaimed sex as a singular message. That song was essentially an extended, smoldering, orgasmic trance of hypnotic sound stripped of any euphemism or allusion. After that, sex, per se, was no longer verboten on the air. This song officially announced that sexuality was no longer a taboo subject — that, indeed, the 70s was the decade of free sex.
Summer’s tall, sultry, glamorous image matched the sound of her alluring and captivating music. But she was never slutty or sleazy in her artistry or persona. There was always a sense of powerful dignity and self respect in her sassy, sexy visage. She was a true pop superstar diva, and she looked the part, even before she got there. Maybe that’s why she got there — but certainly not why she remained.
Donna Summer was a disco artist, but not just a disco artist. It would be more accurate to think of her as a pop/dance artist because—while her first record was unquestionably disco—her later music often transcended that genre.
Songs like “Hot Stuff,” “On the Radio,” “MacArthur Park,” and “Last Dance” were all big hits that also contain strong elements of pop, rock and R & B. And clearly, she was the seminal artist in the creation and early popularization of the Euro-trance electronic dance music that is sweeping the globe and dominating so much of the live music scene now with DJ driven, rave party-style all night extravaganzas. Her presence resonates profoundly still, even in the wake of her ironic rejection of the musical oeuvre that garnered so much wealth, fame and acclaim for her.
Most importantly, her significance as an artist can also be seen in the themes she tackled in her more popular works. Not only did her songs liberate sex as a mainstream pop culture concept, they often focused on celebrating women — especially women in marginalized situations who were not typically respected for the work may have had to do. Songs like “She Works Hard For The Money” asserted the dignity of women whose work was considered lowly. Her strong, defiant, and insistent voice pointed sharply at all of us and, in many ways, signaled the emergence of women as a gender that was now demanding—and getting—the respect they deserved.
While Donna Summer made sex a musical focus, she strongly resisted the idea of sex as a justification for female subjugation and disrespect. And, in this way, she helped the incipient gay rights movement get a real boost into the mainstream of pop culture. Indeed, it was the gay community that formed the key core of her original fan base. She was its diva goddess, and her music and iconic glam queen image bespoke the glitter of their lifestyle during the late 70s — when Disco was the lingua franca of gay culture in the New York Studio 54-type scenes in and around the globe. Donna Summers rendered the coming out of gay culture acceptable in the hedonistic nightlife of America and the world in the late 70s.
The irony was that she was a fundamentalist Christian who did not share the values of the gay community that so worshipped her. In a radio interview in the early 80s, she publicly declared that homosexuality was against the teachings of Christianity. This led to gay outrage and a withdrawal of some of the gay community’s undivided support —which, in turn, may have led to the beginning of the cool downslide of her red hot career. She never exactly recanted her statement, although she did back off a bit, but from that point on, she ceased to have the iconic impact she once had.
She did have one more mega hit after that, “She Works Hard for the Money,” but from that point on, her songs were largely consigned to the dance music and other charts. She made records much less frequently, and though some — like “Dinner with Gershwin” (written by Brenda Russell) — were quite good, she never again achieved the same level of fevered acclaim she had previously enjoyed.
The arc of Donna Summer’s career follows the trajectory of all great artists. She came, we saw, and heard, she conquered. She made a realm of difference. We got the benefit.The rest is inevitable; it’s the nature of things. And the beat goes on.