Even people who didn’t like disco couldn’t dislike Donna Summer. The singer, who died of cancer today at age 63, had so many songs that are still popular today, songs like Hot Stuff, I Feel Love, Bad Girls and Last Dance, which we’ll probably be hearing at the end of a lot of tributes. Love to Love You, Baby, her first major hit for Casablanca Records (and her would-be Svengali Neil Bogart), was one of the songs that helped bring the disco craze to America in the ’70s, with its combination of American and European style, its extreme length (perfect for dancing) and the most musical orgasms since Ray Charles’ What’d I Say. She and her producer, Giorgio Moroder, an Italian who first made it big in Berlin as a singer, followed that up with one hit after another, and in 1980, People magazine called her “the genre’s only world-class superstar.”
The anti-disco backlash was in many ways one of the uglier, nastier moments in the history of pop music; Rock critic Robert Christgau in 1980 was not the first, or last, to decry “the racism and homophobia of ‘disco sucks.'” But it’s true that the disco sound became so ubiquitous in the ‘70s that it seemed repetitive and monotonous. Summer didn’t get monotonous. Her work (ably backed by producer-arrangers like Giorgio Moroder) had a lot of range, from upbeat dance songs to a “futuristic” hit like I Feel Love, whose electronic sound was a gigantic influence on the synthesizer-heavy musical world of the ’80s.
It’s a sign of Summer’s adaptability that when disco collapsed, her career didn’t collapse with it. Sensing the coming shift, and uncomfortable with the sexualized image that had initially made her famous, she’d already started moving toward a post-disco style. As People put it admiringly in its 1980 profile, she “smartly left all [disco’s] sham one-shotters behind by fusing her music to fad-resistant staples.” ’80s kids, the MTV generation, grew up watching her memorable video for She Works Hard For the Money, a tribute to lower-income people who probably couldn’t afford MTV.
Summer herself had to deal with a music industry and even a country where she felt somewhat out of place: her success in America came after eight years of living and working in Germany, and when she returned she told Knight-Ridder in 1977, “I didn’t feel like I was an American. I couldn’t relate to anything around me. All of a sudden I was confronted by the colour problem and all the things that are indicative of America. Even some entertainment agencies – all of a sudden, everything is categorized.”
It was Summer’s own refusal to be categorized – in terms of music, in terms of sexuality, in terms of audience – that helps her work endure.