Donna Summer died today – she was only 63. According to the early reports, Summer died of cancer.
As a huge fan of disco music, I always thought Summer didn’t get her deserved due – Unlike Aretha Franklin or Patti LaBelle, Donna Summer wasn’t considered one of the “greats” and she often was pigeon-holed as just a “disco singer.”
I’ve written before about the general sexism, racism and homophobia that is linked to the “disco sucks” thought. Summer was not just a “disco” singer – she personified dance music for the 1970s and still managed to churn out some incredible music up to the 2000s.
Donna Summer’s music was incredible because she transcended the sometimes-tacky trappings of disco music. Her diverse voice could coo sexily, or she could wail with the force of a gospel singer.
One of her greatest singles: “I Feel Love” is probably the greatest dance record of the 1970s: Industrial, dark and sensual, the beat is hypnotizing. It was the disco record music snobs and purists could listen to.
I also thought “Last Dance” was fantastic. It was the perfect last call dance. It’s a breakup song, but when folks are on the dance floor, no one listens to the lyrics. Also, Summer does some great belting.
“MacArthur Park” is another great song – again, the lyrics make no sense at all – “MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark, all that sweet green flowing down. Someone took my cake out from the rain.” Still I love this performance from a televised VH1 concert she did a few years ago.
Donna Summer always wanted to do more than just sing dance songs, which is why she tried branching out. “Hot Stuff” was her attempt at singing rock music. This being Summer, it’s not really rock – you won’t mistake it for Joan Jett, and the guitar is a little corny, but Summer gamely sings on.
It’s obvious that Donna Summer would have a great gay following – so it must’ve been mind-blowing for gay fans when she teamed up with Barbra Streisand for “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” – it’s not the highest moment for either singer – the song is ridiculously campy, but it’s fun to hear these two divas try to outsing each other.
“Bad Girls” is another personal favorite of mine – I love the police whistles and the vampy backup singers.
Even though Donna Summer’s greatest work was recorded in the 1970s, she did some really great work in the 80s as well. Her biggest hit from that decade was probably “She Works Hard for the Money.” A chugging dance-pop number with a thumping bass, Summer gets to honor the working class heroine – this is similar in tone to Dolly Parton’s hit “9 to 5.” And the song just lends itself perfectly to its MTV video.
“Finger on the Trigger” is a Quincy Jones joint that Summer took to the top ten. It’s typical 80s Jones – extremely gaudy with then-new synths and studio tricks (he even uses AutoTune-like tricks that predate T-Pain or Cher). It’s a ridiculous song, but really fun.
“This Time I Know It’s for Real” was Summer’s last top ten hit in the U.S. It was produced by Aitken-Stock-Waterman, the guys behind the 80s work of Bananarama, Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue. It’s similar dance-pop with bright, shiny beats. Summer’s genuine talent seems an odd fit with the overly-processed cheesiness of the song, but again, she gives this song her all.
In 1999, Donna Summer took Andrea Bocelli’s big hit “I Will Go with You” and redid in Spanish with a dance beat. At this point she became a Diana Ross-like camp icon and legend, popping up from time-to-time on the dance charts or in the European charts, but otherwise relying on her incredible back catalogue and touring to keep her name out there.
“Carry On” was another latter-day hit for Summer – it won her a Grammy for best dance recording.
What Donna Summer made you dance? Which one did you like best?