In Memoriam: Donna Summer

Some of you may know that I am a huge music fan. All kinds, across genres, across nations and eras. Like our sense of smell, music evokes all kinds of emotions in us. Certain songs can take us back to situations in our lives that were happy, sad, painful, or joyful. They may remind us of people we used to know or perhaps people we’ve lost. Music is evocative, and we imbue it with significance based on our own experiences and contexts, which we often shared with others.

Donna Summer’s music does that for me, and it always will. Upon hearing of her death May 17th, I immediately got out her “Bad Girls” album and listened to it, and went right back to the late 1970s, when I was a young teenager trying to find ways to cope with being different in the rural area where I grew up. Music became a conduit for me to an outside world. The internet wasn’t around yet. Neither were cell phones. I got my music info from pop magazines, TV, the radio, and snail mail penpals. Through music, I could access whole cultures and scenes without leaving my own community.

Source: Bossip (re-sized here)

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Others in the LGBT community who came of age during the 70s and 80s expressed those sentiments when news of Summer’s death started circulating around the blogosphere. Music critic Barry Walters notes that some of the appeal of Summer’s music and lyrics was not only its mainstream, poppish veneer but also its open but coded messages. Walters says

It was messages like these that made Summer both a mainstream star and a gay icon, the kind of messages that could speak to overlapping pop, black, female, and queer audiences of the ’70s and early ’80s with a simultaneous out-in-the-open yet under-the-radar sense of subversion. I don’t remember Summer acknowledging her gay fans at the height of her popularity; instead, she spoke to us in code, and we picked up these transmissions from Planet Disco with religious devotion.
source: “Donna Summer, Me, and the First Days of Disco,” by Barry Walters in Popdust.

Known as the “Queen of Disco,” the Boston-born singer grew up in gospel but worked in many different genres and sounds, and also performed on Broadway. She spent her early record years experimenting with different types of music, making them what Rolling Stone says were “concept-heavy and experimental.” She was and will be remembered as a ground-breaking artist who changed the face of club music in 1978 when she released the breathy, seductive, and scintillatingly erotic “Love to Love You, Baby“. David Bowie and Brian Eno recognized the impact that song would have:

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.”
Source: “Dim All the Lights for Donna Summer,” by Rob Sheffield in Rolling Stone

The album I remember best is 1979’s “Bad Girls,” released at a pivotal and contentious point in music history, as RS writer Rob Sheffield notes (link above). What “Bad Girls” did was make disco not suck, and it provided a template for Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall,” which dropped a few months later. “Bad Girls” was a slick, poppish, danceable mixture of sex, grit, rock n’ roll, and disco. And she was just getting warmed up. “On the Radio” followed “Bad Girls,” and through the 80s she continued pushing envelopes, experimenting with New Wave, a bit of reggae (remember “Unconditional Love” with Musical Youth? One of my faves.), and then a re-make as a hi-NRG artist in 1989 with “This Time I Know It’s for Real.”

Summer, a five-time Grammy winner, kept making music, into the months before she died. Fitting, since she spent her life exploring music and its production, and performing and writing it. I envision her as restless and endlessly creative, always looking to expand what she could do with the medium of music. She’s left a marvelous catalogue, and it will continue to fuel a generation of memories and hopefully create new fans.

In 2009, doing “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff” at the Nobel Peace Prize concert:


“On the Radio,” original version (1979)


“Macarthur Park,” live @2006?


“Unconditional Love,” with Musical Youth (1983)


“Dim All the Lights,” live (1999). She tells a cute story here. She originally wrote the song for Rod Stewart, but decided to cut it herself. As a tribute to Rod, she sings the first part as he might have sung it, then launches into pure Donna.


4 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Donna Summer

  1. Despite her fame, Donna Summer continues to be underrated as a vocalist. In that 1999 show you clipped up top, her singing seems so effortless, yet it fills the room.

    I don’t get the hate for disco. Maybe it’s not as “serious” as the art-rock that was so popular before, but the musicianship is still top-notch. Every music trend eventually fades out and is replaced by something else, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying it for what it was in that moment.

    • I love disco. I see it as a genre that served as a bridge between, in some cases, glam-rock, funk, and 80s New Wave. And when I was DJing live events, disco filled the floor every time. 😀

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