Judging from these two influences, you can tell that my first musical love was indeed disco. Something about the music’s joyousness and reckless abandon was appealing to the 9-year old me that began cautiously, but enthusiastically, exploring this genre. Privately over the next couple of years I would fully embrace the love, but publicly I had somehow internalized negative stigma disco had received years earlier. I knew nothing about the shameful hate shown in Chicago in 1979 toward the music, but I guess it cosmically entered my consciousness.
Apprehensive of what my peers might think of my odd taste, it wouldn't be until age 14 that I publicly embraced my musical love, which blossomed to include funk, classic soul and even forays into classic rock. But Donna Summer was still the queen of my heart then.
During middle school, I would blare “Heaven Knows”, "On the Radio" and "No More Tears" at the top of my shabby speakers' capability. This was in stark to my brother and sister who would blare contemporary hip-hop and rap. I can still remember going on a run to Blockbuster video (remember those?) with my mom and having “Hot Stuff” come on the radio. It completely and utterly made my night.
And while visiting Philadelphia in 2001, getting a 2-CD anthology of Donna Summer made that trip worthwhile. A treasure trove of songs was unearthed for me: “I Love You”, “Love's Unkind”, “Sunset People”, “Love Is In Control”, “State of Independence” and so many more. As the years went by I accrued more and more Summer songs by picking up her actual albums, well the actual CDs.
It was worth every penny getting this music. Thanks to producer Giorgio Moroder , she released songs that were genuinely good to listen to not just good fodder for a drunken night out at the club. “Love to Love You Baby” seems like a pornographic film on wax, which it kind of is, but it also served as one of the first times a woman so explicitly demanded satisfaction from a man. Today, it's certainly not considered an advertisement for women's liberation (what with the cooing and moaning), but it in a way it really was at the time. Women moaning in songs had already been “a thing” starting perhaps with Marvin Gaye’s “You Sure Love to Ball” but this was the 1st time a woman was moaning in a song that was delivered from a woman's point of view. If she was an object, it was because she chose to be at her discretion.
Quality material followed that first hit, but it was perhaps “I Feel Love” that had the largest impact. Certainly not the first electronic song ever, but in 1977 it was probably the 1st uptempo dance song of the emerging art form. Basically, it created techno music. Or at the very least finally brought it to the masses at it shot into the Top 10 of the pop charts.
Unlike most disco artists, Summer would become an important creative force behind the music she was releasing. One of the knocks against disco was that it was excessively producer-driven and the voices on the record were interchangeable and faceless. Summer began co-writing and having creative input on her music early on, leading to conceptual albums such as “Four Seasons Of Love”, which dedicated a song to each season. It included the fluttering “Spring Affair” and the touching ballad “Winter Melody”.
She never did enough credit for balladry, by the way.
Her most famous album (concept or otherwise) was the double-LP “Bad Girls”. Unsurprising given that the album itself topped the charts, the title-track and “Hot Stuff” did the same as singles and the 3rd single “Dim All the Nights” topped out at #2. But its concept wasn't entirely cohesive and deviated from naughty street tramps often.
The album that I believe is truly her magnum opus is “Once Upon A Time”. It is an amazingly cohesive double-LP focused on a Cinderella-type heroine who suffers from grievous abuse from unsupportive family and harsh labor but finally finds love at the album's end. It featured soaring soul songs, classic buoyant disco and her finest proto-techno songs yet (“Working the Midnight Shift” in particular has a haunting synthesized bass). This artistically meritorious album did very little action on the charts, but it remains her triumph to me.
As the 1970s turned into the 1980s, Summer amazingly continued to have hits unlike every other star borne out of the disco era. Her creative mind allowed for evolution and proved she wasn’t a product of the era, but a musical talent who happened to rise during that era. The adroitly adapted her familiar disco/techno sound to emerging new wave and electro-funk. This was presaged by the rockin’ “Hot Stuff” in 1979 and fully came to bear the next year with “The Wanderer”. Not my favorite song, but it showed she was never content to sit still. Her wave of hits finally ended in the mid-80s with “She Works Hard For the Money” and “State of Independence”, two more songs written and co-produced by her.
I can't express enough how much her music has meant to me. Even though today I have found other artists who have assumed ostensibly larger places in my mind, there's something about that 1st musical love, like all loves, that sticks with you. As I meticulously pour through her catalog over the coming days, nostalgia will likely take hold and make me love her all the more for the memories it will evoke and most importantly because the music is just so damn good.