Donna Summer: The sonic seduction lives on in today's beats
If you drop a needle on the original version of “Love to Love You Baby” just as you're beginning this appreciation of Donna Summer, the so-called Queen of Disco who died Thursday at age 63, you would probably be finished reading long before the song ended. It has to be that long -- there's a world of impact there.
The epic 17-minute jam introduced Summer to America with some of the most memorable moans in pop music history, and over the following decade the Boston-born diva went on to become one of the most popular vocalists in the world. Her influence on pop music -- especially during the birth of electronic dance music -- goes far beyond those moans, and even they helped tilt American culture.
Summer and her early producer-collaborator Giorgio Moroder's not-so-subtle message of sexual freedom was a sonic seduction, and when a shortened version of the song was released, it climbed to No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. That such a brashly sexual work could reach a national audience during “American Top 40” with Casey Kasem on Sunday mornings says a lot about America in the 1970s. In hindsight, its success arguably marks as important a cultural shift as Elvis shaking his hips on Ed Sullivan's show. If Presley suggested male sexuality through visual cues, Summer confirmed it through a series of faked orgasms -- the BBC once tallied it at 23.
The message of the song's lyrics may have been simple -- this feels good, and I love it -- but its saucy sense of freedom expanded the notion of what was acceptable on the airwaves in the mid-'70s; hearing it even today, it's shocking to learn that the single was so successful. But it makes sense given the times.
Summer won five Grammy Awards over her four-decade career, sold an estimated 130 million albums, became the first musician to land three double albums at the top of the charts, appeared in movies and on television, and, through her work with Moroder and beyond, helped push pop music into the digital age.
Her long string of hits stretched from the 1970s through the '80s. “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” “On the Radio,” among them, were in heavy rotation when they came out and remain in heavy rotation on classics stations. Her voice, with sharp phrasing and an ability to deliver emotional heft with a few subtle vocal nuances, could whisper and command with equal grace. She even managed to transform the strange 1960s standard “MacArthur Park” into a dance-floor hit.
From a historical perspective, Summer's most influential song will forever be “I Feel Love,” the Moroder-produced dance track that is a clarion call of techno and house music. It was a crossover smash with a thumpy, driving robo-beat with synth washes, odd echoey analog synthesizers, a sibilant high-hat repeating with the measures. On “I Feel Love,” Summer expressed pure joy with a mantra so pure and pleasing that you wondered what the singer was on or who was doing what to her during the recording. She most certainly was feeling love.
“I Feel Love” created a blueprint: repetition that builds into a kind of relentlessness, a mantra that creates a kind of bliss, followed by a snap of silence -- a break, the quiet, slow reintroduction of a skeletal version of the beat -- followed by a grand return and more repetition. This construct remains central to electronic dance music, and when the song was expanded and released in 1983, it became early evidence of a move into the world of remixes. You can hear that template in the work of superstar producers such as Afrojack, David Guetta and Swedish House Mafia even today.
Summer and Moroder's method of music-making, in fact -- a producer and a diva teaming up to create dance-floor magic, designed not for live performance but to be jammed at massive volumes on sweaty dance floors -- is one that over four decades later still rules the charts.
It's in the DNA of Madonna's early work with John “Jellybean” Benitez, Janet Jackson's work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Britney Spears' collaborations with a range of different beat-makers, or Lady Gaga's close association with Swedish producer RedOne.
And though Summer later regretted the sexual nature of her early hits -- she eventually became a born-again Christian -- her influence on the sounds and spirit of the disco era and its aftermath can't be denied.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Donna Summer performing in 1979. Credit: Los Angeles Times