She will always be associated with that word “disco,” but Donna Summer floated far above it.
The word “disco” came to be associated with polyester suits, mirrored balls and incessant, interchangeable songs that thumped along to a rhythm that could be played and sung by anyone, as long as the groove kept you on the dance floor.
For the smoother among us, it was an opportunity to show off sophisticated dance moves with a partner—forever memorialized in “Saturday Night Fever.” Hustle, anyone?
Most of us have disposed of the polyester, the platform shoes and all photographic evidence of the clothes we wore in that era (tossed, donated or burned)—almost as if we were in a Witness Protection program hiding from the past.
But while the rest of us could get rid of the evidence, Donna Summer was always lashed to disco, even after disco became a national embarrassment.
The Disco Queen, as she was frequently called, died Thursday after a long bout with lung cancer, although she had continued performing until recently.
While disco was dropped like a bad habit by so many, Summer’s death has prompted fans and critics to re-evaluate the value of the genre and Summer’s contribution to it—particularly her contribution to the musical forms and performers who followed in her footsteps, from Lady Gaga to Beyoncé.
“I think that Summer stands out by herself, because at the time of her emergence there were few artists, black or white, whose sexuality was so palpable to their artistry,” said Mark Anthony Neal, an African and African American Studies professor at Duke University who is also considered a pop culture expert.
“Summer was the perfect artist for an era defined by the so-called sexual revolution,” he said. “In this regard, there are really no contemporary artists who can compare; they are freed to push sexual buttons, because of the ground Summer broke nearly four decades ago.”
But it was that sexual image that also made Summer uncomfortable in later years, to be remembered largely for her sexuality rather than the power of her voice and her songwriting. She never ran away from her role in disco, but she also didn’t hype it.
She really wanted to be remembered as a musician and vocalist.
Richard Harrington, an entertainment writer who formerly worked for The Washington Post, said Summer was the victim of typecasting as a “disco diva,” the same way some actors are typecast into certain kinds of roles.
He also blamed the backlash against disco, which resulted in it being treated less like a genre of music than a phase to be trashed and dismissed, for keeping Summer and her music from being appreciated for its impact on dance music.
“If they had just called it dance music, but calling it disco locks you into the ‘70s,” Harrington said. “Even the Grammys for a long time had a disco category but dropped it in the ‘80s.”
Others, however, were entranced by Summer’s powerful vocals and her lyrics, which celebrated all kinds of women, from streetwalking “Bad Girls” to waitresses who “Work Hard for the Money.”
“…she was always the protagonist, never the victim,” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson wrote Thursday about Summer.
Fan Kimberly Varner said she loved everything about Summer.
“She was beautiful, brown like me, and made me feel as though I could sing her songs…JUST like her! That’s a big deal for a little girl singing into a make-believe microphone! Somehow, my best friend and I felt and understood what she and Barbara Streisand were singing in ‘Enough is Enough,’ although we had no personal experience with relationships and hurt at such a young age,” Varner said in an email interview.
“Did I ever lose interest? Not consciously. I just think as time and music progressed, I didn’t tap into her newer music anymore. Thinking about her today and how she was such a fun part of my childhood, makes me wonder, what other artists and music am I missing from that era? It’s time to step back and tap into my online music site.”
Like so many artists who break ground, Summer’s contributions were largely recognized after her musical heyday.
Varner said Summer’s death made her realize “we need to celebrate our icons while they’re living.”
Jackie Jones, a veteran journalist and journalism educator, is director of Jones Coaching LLC, a career transformation firm.