Role Models

Role Model: Donna Summer

Donna sings for our sins

Donna sings for our sins

Toot toot! Beep beep!…wait…what’s that, dearest Filthy Dreams readers? Sorry, I was just belting out disco queen and savior Donna Summer’s naughty hit “Bad Girls.” As you may have noticed, Donna has made more frequent appearances on our Filthy Dreams playlists as of late. Yes, I’ve been struck down with Summer fever!

And since I’ve been cough cough-ing, hack hack-ing so much this week that I’ve barely left my apartment and certainly haven’t seen enough shows to write up a review, it seemed like the right time to return to our irregular Role Models series, bestowing this great honor on Donna Summer. I know, I know. She said that one thing in the 1980s (awkward!), but we’ll get to that. Who wants a perfect role model anyway? I know I don’t. BO-RING! Problematic or bust!

Wavering on the precipice cough medicine-induced psychosis for the past week, I spent a shameful amount of time descending into Summer-related madness, going deep into the YouTube archives to find her overly dramatic and hallucinatory 1978 performance of “Once Upon A Time.” More than the psychedelic effects (What was IN that cough drop I just took?), I watched and rewatched Donna camping it up in the introduction. In it, she describes the utopian atmosphere of the disco club:

“As you step through these doors, let the lights, the music and the people fill your senses. Don’t hold back! Because the disco is an indoor playground. Whatever worries you got, lose them. Whatever energy you have use it. The fantasy you discover here may just be your own. For me, it’s made my fantasies come true.”

Me too, Donna, me too!

Disco wasn’t Donna’s first musical rodeo. Born Ladonna Adrian Gaines in Boston, she went through a, according to Alice Echols’ disco bible Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, “Janis Joplin part of my life” (106). She performed in the Munich production of the furry musical Hair before eventually becoming a backup singer for record producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

And then, magic was born! Or moaning and groaning breathy eroticism really, with her first hit “Love To Love You Baby.” Alice Echols writes of the recording process, “After some cajoling, Summer agreed to record a demo of the song–in a blackened studio, on the floor, without any crew members to embarrass her as she pretended to give herself over to orgasmic energy” (107). She pretended she was “Marilyn Monroe in the throws of passion.”

Donna had no plans to release the track under her own name, but Moroder persuaded her. Beyond the shockingly orgasmic sounds, the track extended to a bloated, jaw-dropping 17 minutes, an exhausting excess that Filthy Dreams could only aim to achieve. Remember: in disco, nothing is too much.

Donna’s unabashed sexuality both in “Love To Love You Baby” and onstage marked an obvious shift in the performance of sexuality in the disco 1970s from the 1960s. As Echols writes, “To its critics, disco threatened to hurtle America back to a time when sex was a dirty joke” (111). Summer pioneered an in-your-face version of black female sexuality when it was still making people clutch their pearls.

So much so that it even made Donna herself clutch her pearls. According to Echols, Donna “worried it might typecast her as an X-rated disco tart” (109). She was handwringing about hypersexuality while performing highly erotic concerts with background dancers writhing in the background. It’s this bizarre dichotomy that makes me adore Donna. You can’t have it both ways, baby.

Bad girl

Bad girl

After “Love To Love You Baby,” Summer recording a staggering series of hits from “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” to “Last Dance” and my personal favorite, “I Feel Love.” I don’t want to bore you with music details because I find that shit totally mundane. Who cares about albums, Grammy’s and record company drama? I know I don’t.

But, it deserves to be said that “I Feel Love” not only inspired bumping, grinding and hustling in disco clubs. It even sparked the attention of Brian Eno and David Bowie when it was released. In Berlin recording with Eno, Bowie recalled, “One day in Berlin … Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ … he puts on ‘I Feel Love,’ by Donna Summer … He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.’ Which was more or less right.”

But even though I don’t care about the interworkings of the music industry, it is worth mentioning that Donna’s music is, to me, the best example of the transportive power of disco. There’s an endearing too-muchness to all of the songs–they’re too emotional, too passionate, too long and have too many effects. I don’t know if it’s her otherworldly voice, Moroder’s hare-brained production or a combination of the two. Whatever it is, the music is indescribable, indefinable and makes me want to worship at the Church of Donna Summer.

The church reference isn’t by mistake. In 1979, Summer became “born again.” Some may think that her deep crackpot religious nature might disqualify her from being a Filthy Dreams role model, but that’d be wrong. In fact, Des Esseintes, another Filthy Dreams filth elder, showed us that the most decadent act you can do after, well, decadence is dive head-first into religion. It’s the ultimate plot twist! I can’t wait until I find Jesus and dismiss everything I’ve written on Filthy Dreams!

Donna blesses New York

Donna blesses all of us

But Donna didn’t just find religion, she also is rumored to have said some pretty bigoted homophobic things about the gay community and AIDS. But, you know when you go in, you gotta go ALL in. You can’t do born-again half-assed!

In a review of a concert in 1983, the Village Voice claimed Donna said that AIDS was god’s punishment for homosexuality. She denies she ever said it but where did they get that idea then, Donna? I’m not mad, I just wish I was there to witness it!

Anyway, of course, there was an inevitable backlash and Donna got herself protested by ACT UP. Even Bronski Beat had something to say. In an article from the mid-1980s in the Advocate reported, “John Bryant (Male Review) noted once that once Bronski Beat were told of her remarks, they responded in disgust, ‘Donna Summer is dead,’ but continued to perform the song.”

In 1989, Donna sent a half-apology crackpot letter to ACT UP, which was dug up and published on POZ Magazine in 2012. Between denying the AIDS statement and admitting, “I did not sit with ill intentions in judgment over your lives,” she berates the activists for rejecting her. She writes, “We have too many good memories together to live in this state of unforgiveness. I never denied you or turned away, but in fact you turned away from me….I know that some of you really need me now because you’ve written and told me so.” I need you too, Donna!

She concludes her letter with a long passage from First Corinthians. As Peter Staley writes in POZ, “when you apologize to the gays, it’s probably not best to quote at length from the bible (even though it’s a lovely quote).” I disagree, and now will be adding extensive, barely appropriate Bible quotes to all my emails.

All hail the queen of disco (via Pop Matters)

All hail the queen of disco (via Pop Matters)

So did she say it? I don’t know, who cares. Who hasn’t said something they regret when in the throws of religious fervor? Filth elders don’t have to be flawless. Eventually people came to forgive but not forget Donna until she died in 2012.

But we’ll always remember Donna as the patron saint of the “Sunset People.” Rivaled only by Amanda Lear, Donna is the reigning disco diva in my mind. With her bizarre arm flapping dance moves and mirrorball queen swagger, Donna represents everything that was right (and wrong) about the disco era. Her music provokes transcendent fantasies of cheesy and sleazy strobe-light-filled dreams and if that’s not the queer sublime, Donna, I don’t know what is.

So sit back, dear Filthy Dreams readers, turn on the discoball, grab a cocktail and enjoy a selection of my favorite Donna Summer videos:

2 thoughts on “Role Model: Donna Summer

  1. The only thing worse than Donna Summer’s cheap, reflexive dismissal of her legion of gay fans, was her cheap, defensive letter, complete with a non-apology, to ACT UP. And the only thing worse than these is this post, more than thirty years later, by the deliriously self-congratulatory bigot who goes to extreme lengths not only to defend Donna Summer, and her actions, but to celebrate them. At least Summer put her voice to dance music. Welcome to Donald Trump’s Amerikkka.

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