Farewell Donna Summer – Soundtrack to a Gay Teen’s Coming of Age

I listen to quite a bit of radio, and I have to say on the passing of Donna Summer, in addition to the sadness at her leaving us, I felt disappointed in the radio stations about here. When Whitney Houston went up to the big recording studio in the sky on February 11, radio bombarded us with “I Will Always Love You” and various other Whitney hits ad nauseum. When Donna Summer died this week, I only heard one measly playing of “Last Dance” on the radio. The rest of Summer’s hits I had to dig out of my dusty CD collection. Certainly it reflects Houston’s more recent and larger success, but personally I preferred Donna Summer, since she was part of the soundtrack to my coming out years as a gay teenager in the ’90s.

“The ’90s?” You say. “Was Donna Summer even around then?” and the answer is yes and no. Definitely Summer’s biggest hit-making days were behind her, but aficionados of the dance floor still paid respect to Summer and revamped versions of her old hits such as “I Feel Love” and “Love to Love You Baby.” To be dancing to Donna Summer during the Clinton years was campier than hell, but she was part of the overall pantheon of gay-oriented music by then, and I have quite a few good memories of clubbing to the ’90s remixed Donna Summer “comeback,” even if it had little to do with the efforts of the actual singer, herself.

The crystalline perfection of her voice leaves a legacy of supremely dance-able tracks: “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “MacArthur Park,” “Sunset People” and the working woman’s power anthem, “She Works Hard for the Money.”

I think Donna Summer was an interesting and complicated person. A manufactured image of her as a tawdry disco sex kitten — one almost entirely created by Casablanca Records — made her one of the biggest music stars in the world. The real Summer who had a conservative Christian upbringing no doubt struggled with this image. Eventually, the actual Donna emerged and destroyed her own stardom.

It’s been debated whether she actually said the quote that was attributed to her — that AIDS was a kind of divine retribution for homosexuals. Donna later claimed not to have made such remarks, but it was too little too late — the gay men of the time for the most part felt betrayed. Hostility towards Summer has lingered for years. Whether she said something offensive to AIDS patients or not is a moot point, the PERCEPTION that she had said it, along with the changing music scene in the USA diminished her stardom. By the time this controversy had blown over it was the ’80s and times had changed. The early ’80s was all about New Wave— Madonna, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran arrived with an army of synthesizers and in a blink, Donna Summer, the Bee Gees and other disco stars were just a bunch of polyester-clad has-beens. Sure, they have had resurgences throughout the years, but they never really reclaimed their thrones at the top of the pop music spectrum. When disco died, it was pretty much obliterated.

Despite the tragedy of the deaths of Donna Summer and the Bee Gees’ Robin Gibb this week, I think it is good that people will have the opportunity to rediscover music from a happier era. Just listen to the syncopation, the orchestration, the instruments from those ’70s tracks. Disco sounds like it was happy in a naïve way: no guns, no gangsters, no terrorism, no global warming. Even though we still need to deal with these heavy issues, maybe a little disco escapism could prove the be a healthy antidote in 2012, a time when the darkness that has found its way into our society should be tempered with a little light, a little fun and a little music by Donna Summer.

Image via The Telegraph.

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