Donna Summer, who on May 17 passed away from cancer at the age of 63, was a pure disco product. Her introduction to the world arrived in 1975 with "Love to Love You Baby," a 16-minute orgy of orgasmic screams and cooing vocals set to a trashy lounge-funk track written with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte. To this day, whether played in a retro club for nostalgic baby boomers, or during the "peak hour" at a party filled with ravers, "Love to Love You Baby" exemplifies sex on the dance floor. But in a time when disco was considered "machine music," a bad-times soundtrack for druggy automatons that strayed from the holy rockist path, Summer seemed like the most banal of divas.
Like all ambitious sex queens, Summer eventually cleaned up her act, collaborated with Barbra Streisand on the hit "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)", and won multiple Grammy Awards. Between 1978-1979 she scored three No. 1 albums: 1978's Live & More, and 1979's Bad Girls and On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. With its tracks blended together to replicate a DJ mixing Summer's hits at a nightclub, and its supplementary poster for star-struck fans to pin up on their walls, the double-vinyl On the Radio was a symbol of Summer's omnipresent superstardom. She, along with Kiss and George Clinton's P-Funk empire, established Casablanca Records as the hottest record label of the late '70s, at least until financial mismanagement and heavy cocaine use destroyed it.
When "disco fever" turned to "disco sucks," Donna Summer survived. Even at the height of the AOR rock hypocrisy -- and the corporate and prog-rock bands who hijacked disco's boogie-beat -- she continued to score hits. In 1983, she made the synth-pop feminist manifesto "She Works Hard for the Money," and made goofy reggae-pop with the U.K. teen band Musical Youth on " Unconditional Love." And when dance music caught on again in the late '80s via house, freestyle and hi-NRG, she made her last significant hit single, 1989's "This Time I Know It's For Real." Her last album was 2008's Crayons. Although she hadn't released anything since 1994's Christmas Spirit, and Crayons didn't have any major hits, it still landed in the top 20 of the album charts. Summer had become a familiar and beloved icon.
Donna Summer's music is cherished by a generation of pop listeners. Adults of a certain age will remember growing up listening to her on the FM dial, hearing her lovely refrain at the beginning of "On The Radio" resonate throughout the 1980 Jodie Foster movie Foxes, and chanting "ooh! yeah! beep-beep!" from "Bad Girls" in the schoolyard while being completely oblivious to the fact that the song was about prostitution.
However, her critical reputation is unsettled. No longer a loathed genre, disco has bred aficionados, scholars and revivalists like Daft Punk (who rely heavily on disco samples), Lindstrom and In Flagranti. Yet they tend to favor less-exposed disco stars like Hamilton Bohannon and Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band. Even Chic's ironic lyrics and allusions to earlier eras of decadence impressed critics more than Donna Summer's uncomplicated, emotionally direct songs.
Alarmingly, those who give begrudging credit to Summer's stunning early classics like "Love to Love You Baby," "I Feel Love" and "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" argue that she was just a voice controlled by her frequent producer, electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder. The dance music industry can be incredibly sexist; the majority of successful producers are men. Women, particularly black women with strong, gospel-trained voices like Summer's, are both worshiped for their attractiveness and charisma and demeaned as functionaries of Svengali producers who supposedly do the real work in the studio, and make the all-important beat.
During the course of her career, Summer traversed a wide range of dance styles, from disco to New Wave ("The Wanderer") to house ("I'm a Fire"). She made hits that were poignant and memorable ("Last Dance," "Heaven Knows"), mawkishly sentimental ("MacArthur Park") and somewhere in between ("Hot Stuff"). She exemplified the '70s at its innovative best and kitschiest worst. But she had a hand in all of her success, writing lyrics for most of her songs and often helping to arrange them. The Queen of Disco has earned her due.