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Pop singer Donna Summer, whose long career began in the 1960s and reached its apex in the disco era of the '70s, died of cancer on Thursday at her home in Naples, Florida. Summer was 63 years old. According to Billboard magazine, the singer born LaDonna Gaines had 32 singles that charted in the Hot 100. Fourteen of them made it into the top 10. To hear Sami Yenigun's appreciation of Donna Summer's life and career, as heard on All Things Considered, click the audio link.
I didn't know that Donna Summer was close to the end of her life when, this past Tuesday, I brought in one of her great 1970s collaborations with the producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte to play for the students at a friend's college seminar on songwriting. I did know that the course featured ballad singers from Woody Guthrie to Joni Mitchell, and that I meant to argue that rhythm and production are as central to the construction of great pop as are poetic phrases and a pretty melody. I did talk about the pulsating beat and the arrangement's enveloping power. But Summer's voice took me over, and I realized that she was offering a songwriting lesson in five sexy words.
The kids squirmed a little in their seats, absorbing the eroticism of 1975's "Love To Love You Baby," but I remained distracted by the details of Summer's brilliant reading. Here was a vocal performance as subtle and rich in meaning as anything in pop. Summer dropped from an ethereal soprano into a thrilling low moan that seemed to teeter just on the edge of control. Her voice became a feather, teasing the listener; then it went rough, exposing the unpredictable and often frightening impulses that surface within desire. All this in a song that most critics dismissed as a titillating artifact of the swinging '70s.
Summer's fearless portrayals of intimacy in this and her other great disco hits, along with the soulfulness and emotional insight she demonstrated in songs of longing, like "On the Radio," and of survival, like "Bad Girls," made her the epitome of the 1970s pop star. It's common for Summer appreciators to insist that she was so much more than the Queen of Disco – and she herself fought to show her range throughout her career, incorporating rock and country, jazz standards and show tunes, into her astonishingly varied discography. But as one of disco's most powerful and intelligent pioneers, Summer represents the richness of that music, now finally being celebrated as the wildly innovative and inspiring force that it was.
More than the spaceman pageantry of glam rock or the occult hijinks of heavy metal, disco realized the theatrical possibilities of pop: within its long, swirling songs, auteur producer and their divas imagined worlds as elaborate and beautiful as the sci-fi dreams filmmakers like George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg would soon bring into movie theaters. Donna Summer was one of pop music's greatest actresses, investing fully in the roles her songs demanded, demonstrating remarkable grace and self-awareness. Not one to be reduced to a stereotype, Summer voiced eroticism in ways women could relate to: not always pretty, not easily packaged. "Love To Love You Baby" and "I Feel Love" endure because Summer so carefully attended to the details.
In a 2003 Fresh Air interview with Terri Gross, Summer talked about the difficulty of overcoming her own inhibitions to find her voice within the 1970s musical milieu.
"I grew up in the church and grew up very strict, and this was the antithesis of that, and I really had to find my way in the middle, and go, `OK, this is my line. I'm walking this line,'" she said. "And it made me establish my own identity, and it made me know who I really was and what I really, you know, believed in for myself..." The work Summer did in her music paralleled what so many women of her generation accomplished as nascent feminists. Balancing the promise of liberation against the continued threats sexism posed, women found new ways to possess themselves. Summer gave voice to this process.
As Summer made clear in her conversation with Terri Gross, she was already looking beyond bedroom talk when she recorded those first tracks with Moroder and Bellotte. She saw herself as a much more versatile artist. The historian Alice Echols, whose account of Summer's career in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture is definitive, includes a telling quote from the singer: "When you start out whispering, the only way is up." At the peak of her popularity – and after a struggle to cope with fame that included depression and led her to fervent Christianity – Summer upped the volume of her self-expression and proved herself as a pop auteur.
Albums like Once Upon A Time... and the massively successful double-disc Bad Girls tapped into the adventurousness of a woman who'd begun her career in a psychedelic rock band, played in touring productions of Godspell and Hair, and had equal affection for the music of Stevie Wonder and James Taylor. Along with Barbra Streisand, her duet partner on the ecstatic 1979 anthem "No More Tears (Enough is Enough)," Summer defined the role into which later divas from Whitney Houston to Kelly Clarkson have stepped: the pop diva as a vector for many different pop currents and styles, effortlessly stepping over genre boundaries in her gleaming stilettos.
Summer's post-disco work is ripe for reconsideration. She kept experimenting, indulging her gift for sinking into new roles that she would perform with utter conviction. In the mid-1980s, she won two Grammy awards for Best Inspirational Performance; in 1997 she won again, in the Dance Recording category, for the Moroder reunion track "Carry On." (She won a total of five, including Best Rock Vocal Performance in 1979 for "Hot Stuff" and Best R&B Vocal Performance in 1978 for "Last Dance.") On her critically acclaimed 2008 album Crayons she experimented with Latin rhythms and blues stylings, even as she reasserted her dance music domination with tracks like "I'm a Fire" and "The Queen is Back."
Though she struggled with the sex kitten stereotype that never could contain her anyway, and faced down rumors that she'd made homophobic remarks after becoming an evangelical Christian in the early 1980s, Summer remained strongly connected to the disco fans who'd made her a star in the first place. The world of the dance floor was her world, one she animated and made complex in her songs. Dim all the lights tonight for her, and enjoy the myriad dreams that surface in the beautiful dark.
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