Donna Summer, the oft-proclaimed “Queen of Disco”, succumbed to lung cancer last week at the relatively tender age of 63.
As the latest disco icon to join the great electric slide in the sky, it is only fitting that we pay a brief and mostly objective tribute to the five-time Grammy Award-winning diva.
Those who still keep an anachronistic and slightly fascistic “Disco Sucks” t-shirt as a statement of intent are unlikely to be overly concerned, but, musical persuasion and tastes aside, there are few who can deny that Summer was a disco artist who made efforts to move with the times and, when the feeling was right, had the moves to fill the grooves.
With a career spanning four decades Summer remains best known for her disco-era anthems. From the provocative, make-out grooves of Love to Love You Baby – probably responsible for countless episodes of dance floor inappropriateness and trips to the family planning clinic – to the hip longing of On the Radio, Summer enjoyed substantial commercial success, beginning with her second album, Love to Love You Baby, in 1975 and peaking at Bad Girls, released in 1979.
Perhaps sensing the winds of change or with a will to simply explore other avenues, Summer transcended the genre as she moved into the 80s – a time when popular interest was waning in disco – and adjusted her sound in a more progressive and insightful direction as can be heard on Donna Summer, released in 1982, and She Works Hard for the Money in 1983.
Tracks such as State of Independence and the later Unconditional Love show a greater interest in rising up than “getting down”, and allowed Summer a purchase hold in the somewhat diluted and self-righteous dance and pop world of the early-to-mid-80s.
Little commercial success followed in the latter part of the 80s with Cats Without Claws and All Systems Go slipping off the airplay radar fairly quickly, and her prior status had begun to wilt as a consequence of sales failing to amass on both sides of the Atlantic.
Many attribute Summer’s decline in this period to anti-homosexual remarks she allegedly made in the mid-80s, resulting in thousands of her albums being returned to her respective record labels by enraged fans.
Undoubtedly, Summer’s career took a few hefty knocks, despite her public denial of said allocations and subsequent apology, but it’s also possible that artistically she had misjudged the ambiguous and increasingly expanding pop music scene of the time and, with little more than disco to fall back on, she was simply losing her grip.
The 90’s proved to be the decade of nostalgia for Summer with several greatest hits albums being released as well as a dreaded “hit your head repeatedly against the wall” Christmas album – a tragic state of affairs now associated with Mariah Carey, Michael Buble, and Taylor Swift, although the list of “holiday” cash-ins/ sellouts is becoming increasingly extensive.
The 90s were not spent completely in the abyss for Summer however. Her prior musical legacy came to the fore once again thanks in part to a most unlikely of medium, namely Peter Cattaneo’s excellent comedy The Full Monty. Summer’s 1979 hit Hot Stuff was briefly used to classic effect in a tale of British economic decline, unemployment and male stripping.
Although not re-released as a single, Hot Stuff sparked renewed enthusiasm and interest in Summer’s music, particularly from youngsters who were little more than a twinkle in the milkman’s eye in the late 70s, and the track consequently became a regular request on radio stations and in certain clubs.
As an aside, Summers and The Full Monty can also be credited for affording a generation of 90s “I don’t dance” young men one or two basic dance moves, most notably the synchronised pelvic thrust, which if done with two much enthusiasm often resulted in rapid ejection from the dance floor and the threat of a cold shower.
In 2008 Summer released Crayons, her final studio album. Commenting on the album, Summer reputedly said, “I wanted this album to have a lot of different directions on it. I did not want it to be any one baby. I just wanted it to be a sampler of flavours and influences from all over the world. There’s a touch of this, a little smidgeon of that, a dash of something else… like when you’re cooking.”
Safe to say Summer’s final commercial effort dispensed with the earlier direction and focus that put her name in the bright lights. The “Queen of Disco” was out on her own and perhaps gladly so.
The fact remains that, in her heyday, Summer represented the pinnacle of a musical movement that served as a welcome alternative to the implicitly conservative rock-dominated airwaves of America. Disco symbolised regeneration, particularly for those who had previously felt segregated by the mainstream and enabled a care-free approach to freedom of expression, where living for the weekend became absolute for apparently disaffected youth.
As a devotee of all things rock and metal, many would argue that I should be one of the first to shout out “disco sucks”, and not give so much as a second thought to the passing of a supposedly rival figurehead. But let’s face it, aside from being a human being, Summer helped to push boundaries both artistically and from a marketing point of view, and was at the forefront of a collective voice that challenged the status quo, the quintessential essence of popular post 1950’s music.
Although her professional twilight years are contradictory in many respects, she packed a punch when it mattered and lyrically gave her followers identity through affinity and a safe haven from the humdrum of the everyday. Isn’t that really what it’s all about?
On behalf of The Vandals (not to be confused with those from Huntington Beach), I wish Donna Summer farewell and safe journey.
With more tension than your mother’s suspension, I am Frisco Rosso. I’m likely to deliver a few lines worth at any given moment regarding film, music, sport, books and anything morally unsound that strikes a blow between the eyes in the name of entertainment.