Dim all the lights for Donna Summer, the disco diva who lost her battle with cancer today at 63. She was more than just one of the Seventies’ mightiest voices; she was the artist who exemplified the way disco broke out of the gay club subculture to take over the world. “Bad Girls,” “I Feel Love,” “Hot Stuff,” “On The Radio” – these were bold and innovative records, but they not only became global hits, they defined the beat of pop music ever since.
Donna Summer would be remembered as a ground-breaking artist today even if she’d retired the day after she recorded “I Feel Love” in 1977. She wrote the song with European producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who created an electro-dystopian mirror-ball glacier-wave wall of machine rhythm, the musical equivalent of catching a stranger’s dead-eyed stare on the dance floor. Summer’s voice floated over the synthesizers as if feeling love meant zoning out into your own private nightworld of sensory overload. This is what Summer was talking about when she boasted, “I could be a Bette Davis-type actress. Catty, cold, precise and domineering.” It was all there in “I Feel Love.”
David Bowie famously recalled hearing it with Brian Eno, while they were working together in the late 1970s. “One day in Berlin, Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ And I said, ‘Come on, we’re supposed to be doing it right now.’ He said, ‘No, listen to this,’ and he puts on ‘I Feel Love,’ by Donna Summer. Eno had gone bonkers over it, absolutely bonkers. He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.’ Which was more or less right.”
Donna Summer’s early records were concept-heavy and experimental, but she wanted more – she aspired to be a pop grande dame on the level of Diana Ross. “I do not consider myself a disco artist,” she told Time magazine. “I consider myself a singer who does disco songs.” She elaborated in her 1978 Rolling Stone cover story, telling Mikal Gilmore her voice was too big to be confined in any genre. “I’ve sung gospel and Broadway musicals all my life and you have to have a belting voice for that. And because my skin is black they categorize me as a black act, which is not the truth. I’m not even a soul singer. I’m more a pop singer.”
She achieved all her aspirations with 1979’s Bad Girls, one of the Seventies’ greatest pop manifestos. It was a universal statement, mixing up hard rock, funk, glam theatrics, Broadway show tunes and R&B songcraft, without compromising the roller-boogie beat she rode in on. “Dim All The Lights” is still one of the most viscerally erotic soul records ever made; “Bad Girls” was a sad song about tough ladies with big dreams, yet it blasted into ecstatic chants of “toot toot” and “beep beep”; “Sunset People” beat Steely Dan at their own game with its L.A.-noir ambience. It all worked because Donna Summer felt just like those bad girls she sang about, and you could hear that in her voice – like them, like you, like everybody else, she wanted to be a star.
At an incredibly divisive point in pop history, Donna Summer managed to create an undeniable across-the-board experience of mass pleasure – after Bad Girls, nobody ever tried claiming disco sucked again. It set the template for what Michael Jackson would do a few months later with Off The Wall. And Summer was still a few months away from her best single ever, “On The Radio,” a strings-and-skates fantasia about how hearing your favorite song on the radio can make you feel like your most dangerous secrets are getting broadcast all around town.
Summer moved on to the glories of her new wave period, biting Bowie and Gary Numan: “The Wanderer,” “Cold Love,” “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger).” And she still had hits to come, from her reggae-theology Musical Youth duet “Unconditional Love” to her hi-NRG makeover in 1989’s “This Time I Know It’s For Real.” She’s also great in the hugely underrated disco film Thank God It‘s Friday, where she plays an aspiring singer who hangs around the club hoping to get discovered, sneaking into the DJ booth with her demos. By the end of the movie, she’s seized her chance to sneak onto the stage and become the full-fledged disco queen of her dreams, moving the crowd in a red sequinned gown, belting – what else? – “Last Dance.” The last dance tonight is for you, Donna Summer.
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