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Thursday, May 17, 2012

The sudden passing of the Queen of Disco prompts a closer look at her legacy

Donna Summer: Beyond Disco
Donna Summer, who died Thursday at 63, was truly the Queen of Disco. And so much more.

©Sony
Donna Summer (©Sony)

Certainly she was the most prominent face of a largely faceless music, a name everyone knew reigning over a genre that was essentially the anti-"Cheers," where nobody knew your name (quick -- who were the lead singers of Chic?). But she was much more than a glamorous symbol of a hedonistic and vaguely threatening (at least to orthodox American rockers) lifestyle: She was a musical pioneer whose innovations in large part shaped popular music's future.
LaDonna Gaines, from Boston, went to Germany with a company of "Hair" in the early '70s, married a German actor named Sommer, and connected with a German bubblegum artist and producer named Giorgio Moroder, and his partner Pete Bellotte, around 1973. One of their first collaborations, a single called "The Hostage," was a disturbing piece of work capitalizing on the European kidnapping-as-political-statement trend that culminated in the killings at the Munich Olympics.
That record couldn't have been farther away from her U.S. debut. "Love to Love You Baby" was a demo that, according to Casablanca executive Larry Harris, was accidentally jarred while playing at a party, so that in effect it played for twice its actual length. Intrigued, Casablanca president Neil Bogart commissioned Moroder and Summer to make an extended version, which Bogart further extended to 17 minutes. Little more than a long simulated orgasm over a hypnotic track, it became a club sensation, then a radio sensation, in late 1975.
You could argue that this first mega-successful extended 12-inch was the ancestor of all trance music to follow, but realistically, if her career had ended then, it would have made a feeble legacy. But over the next few years, Moroder (who originally thought he could find a stronger singer than Summer for "Love to Love You") found an ideal creative partner in Summer.
That burst of creativity first bloomed on Summer's third album, 1976's "Four Seasons of Love," which was nothing less than a disco concept album, just like the heavy thematic albums that progressive rock titans were making during that decade. "Seasons" was vastly more listenable, four entrancing tracks that combined the disco pulse with genuine melody. Follow-up "I Remember Yesterday" nodded to the past (notably on "Love's Unkind," as masterful a Phil Spector/Crystals pastiche as you could hope to find) but on its key track single-handedly propelled music into the future.
Even 35 years later, "I Feel Love" still sounds like a recording beamed in from another galaxy. Moroder's army of chattering synthesizers creates a desensitized zone in which Summer is trapped, and her icy insistence that she can "feel love" establishes a deadly irony. More than any other record, this one proved you didn't need guitars and "real" instruments to create great records. The synth-pop of the '80s and '90s as well as the last quarter-century of dance music (and pop, for that matter) would be inconceivable without it.
But Summer and Moroder had even more to offer. Certainly there was schlock galore on her singles -- the everlasting prom standard and compulsory aspiring-diva karaoke cover "Last Dance," a superfluous disco-fication of "MacArthur Park" -- but 1977 double album "Once Upon a Time" (her fifth album in two years) was a dazzling disco fairy tale full of sumptuous melodies and gloriously mesmerizing arrangements. And for an encore, she helped marry disco and rock.
"Hot Stuff" wasn't the first rock-disco fusion by any means. (Check longtime French star Sheila's "You Light My Fire" for a pioneering effort.) But as the first superstar record to incorporate these seemingly incompatible elements, it sealed the deal, building a bridge between two musical factions that seemed unalterably opposed. Rock fans were publicly destroying disco records and radio stations sponsored "no-Bee Gees weekends" in a climate of fear that disco would render rock irrelevant, and along came a record celebrating that sybaritic disco lifestyle that so alarmed upstanding Americans with good old heartland power chords. Labelmates Kiss immediately followed suit from the rock side with the disco fusion "I Was Made for Lovin' You," and while the two sides didn't exactly air-kiss and hold hands, the established musical boundaries were breached once and for all
Having twice reshaped the course of popular music (three times if you count "Love to Love You Baby"), Summer settled down to a more mundane form of stardom. She still managed to break ground: "Bad Girls" was a notable tribute to a profession as old as that of musicians, "The Wanderer" was an edgy attempt to escape the disco pigeonhole she was mired in, and her penultimate hit, 1983's "She Works Hard for the Money," has endured as a notable tribute to an even older occupation than the one saluted in "Bad Girls": underpaid women's scut work.
But the quality control, erratic in the best of times, deteriorated, and we got by-the-numbers disco-pop exercises such as "Dim All the Lights" and "On the Radio" and extravagant, soulless stunts on the order of her duet with Barbra Streisand. "Enough Is Enough," indeed. The public was only occasionally enamored by her post-Moroder records on Geffen, where she thrashed through a variety of derivative styles, and after "Hard for the Money," hardly an innovative record, there was only one more hit, 1989's "This Time I Know It's for Real," masterminded by British schlock-meister team Stock/Aitken/Waterman (of Rick Astley fame). She became more serious about her Christian faith, interspersing nonmusical activities with sporadic comebacks on the diva-nostalgia circuit.
And that's how she's been perceived, as the main survivor of a much-derided musical era. She deserves better. Her best records from the '70s are every bit as important, and impressive, as the rock classics from Springsteen, Bowie and their compatriots and (listen to "I Feel Love" again) quite conceivably more influential.
Veteran music journalist and critic Ken Barnes witnessed the late '70s disco boom as the rare rock fan who didn't dismiss the dance phenomenon out of hand. He subsequently helmed the broadcast industry trade journal Radio & Records and served as music editor of USA Today, where he launched the Idol Chatter blog covering "American Idol." He now contributes to MSN Music as co-author of the Scene & Heard blog, as well as through additional feature articles and reviews.

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