Donna Summer was the queen of disco. She was also its victim: she despised her image as a sexual goddess, became a Christian and her career took a nosedive. The Lady has come back to life with a live record.
QUEEN OF THE DANCE FLOOR A LITTLE RESPECT
Text: Mikel López Iturriaga
IF YOU CLOSE YOUR eyes, it's 1979: Donna Summer sings The Last Dance, a silly happiness invades your body, and even if you're a geek, you can't help jiggling your bones. This music suggests discos, glamour, lack of inhibition, sex, excess ... happiness. Then you open your eyes, 20 years go by and the spell is broken. It's August, 1999, and onstage at the Universal Amphitheater there's a middle-aged woman accompanied by musicians even older than she. You're surrounded by middle-aged parents, lesbians and gays, and you haven't dared put on your lamé and elephant foot. In a symbolic protest, even the disco ball has refused to rotate.
However, once you've got it, you've got it forever, and Donna still casts a spell at 51 years of age. Her voice rings out as in the last days of disco; she dresses, poses and moves with considerable elegance. She's charming: her comments between songs make constant fun of herself and her age, with a few jabs at other celebrities, and bring loud laughs from the audience. Though her new songs touch on the absurd, though her ballads are as infernal as Mariah Carey's, and although she commits the mortal sin of singing tenor Andrea Bocelli's songs, the singer pulls off wonderful classics written 20 years ago like I Feel Love, On the Radio and Bad Girls, all brought back to life on her most recent album recorded live. When she finishes the concert you understand why Donna Summer was the queen of queens, the only disco singer to attain the status of a pop singer, the undisputed number one singer at the end of the hedonistic seventies.
The next day, in a hotel on Rodeo Drive - a neighborhood filled with designer stores that elevates luxury to the level of madness - we meet the real Donna Summer. She's serious and seems tired; she responds curtly and her eyes convey the following message: "No stupid journalist is going to get too close at this stage in the game."
The plastic surgery done to her face is more apparent now, and the straight hair she had in the concert has given way to her natural curly hair. She's also switched from silk and gauzy material to a tee shirt and pants which do nothing to camouflage her heavy Teletubbie thighs. "The worst part of being a diva is the drive to always be the best and most glamorous," she says with infinite boredom. "I hate diets. Once I finish a tour I eat everything in sight. But while I'm on the road I eat very little: breakfast, and at noon four or five slices of pineapple." There's no doubt it's hard being a star.
Summer tries to clear up misunderstandings that can interfere with her comeback. Contrary to rumor, she denies being a fanatical Christian. "I don't practice any religion, but I do believe in God. God is very important to me and to my husband. More important than ever, given how things in this world are going." Nor does she want to be a revival artist, and she speaks of the past sparingly. "I don't consider my worth to be purely nostalgic and my new songs prove it." She's referring to the songs for Ordinary Girl, a musical yet to open inspired by her tumultuous life, a life as full of public triumphs as personal frustrations.
Donna Summer was born LaDonna Andrea Gaines on Christmas Eve, 1948. Born in Boston, one of many children -she has seven brothers-in a family as large as it was religious, she learned to sing in her church choir. Disinterested in school, she left for Germany when she was 20 years old to sing in the hippie musical Hair, and she put down roots in Munich where she married Helmut Summer, the man responsible for her artistic surname.
In 1974 a meeting took place that changed Donna's future and the future of dance music for the next 30 years. The singer met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, two restless producers searching for new formulas to fill the dance floors of the discos. "I had just finished raising my daughter and wanted to resume my career in a new direction. We were introduced and began to work together," Summer recalls. The combination proved to be explosive. Donna had all the passion of American soul music; her collaborators were studio magicians who worked wonders with an electronic instrument called a synthesizer.
Soul and technology, sunny sensuality and unrestrained commercialism. Ladies and gentlemen, the sound of disco. "We weren't aware of creating anything new," asserts the singer. But Neil Bogart, the owner of Casablanca Records, certainly was. When he heard Love to Love You, Baby he took the record to the U.S., tried it out at a party, and was overwhelmed by the reaction to it. Bogart asked Moroder to record a much longer version to be edited in the U.S., and the single, which originally hadn't appeared on the list of European hits, became an instant hit in its 17 minute version.
It was a milestone - the most popular dance album ever recorded - and also the beginning of Donna Summer's ambivalent relationship with her own hits. She had recorded the risqué song for fun, inspired by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourgh's multi-orgasmic Je T'aime, never thinking the whole world would hear her sing the obscene lyrics and moan with pleasure at the end. Donna had become the sex goddess she never wanted to be.
Love to Love You Baby is the only one of her hits she refuses to sing today. "I don't feel comfortable, you know? I'm a Christian and I don't think it would set a good example for my daughters." Sorry, Mrs. Summer, but we have to talk about this song, the first in a tremendous series of hits that lasted until the end of the decade. Newly installed in the United States with her old collaborators from Munich, releasing an average of two albums a year, Summer managed to maintain a steady course in the world of disco music. Quite an achievement for a genre that because of it's fly-by-night philosophy -enjoy life any way you can - and it's methods - the producer rules the artist - produced great songs but no lasting singers.
Why didn't Summer disappear like other artists of the disco period? "By the grace of God," she responds. Even more incredible, Donna controlled her career by taking an active part in composing and producing her songs; she was also restless enough musically so as not to get stuck in a particular mode. She flirted with other styles like rock (producing Hot Stuff, the song to which the characters in The Full Monty danced decades later), and even allowed herself to record conceptual albums like I Remember Yesterday.
In 1979, her career reached it's peak. She played the role of a new singer in "It's Finally Friday" (?), a movie about the disco fever, in which she produced one of the best moments in pop and cinematic history - her emotional interpretation of The Last Dance. She also recorded her most popular album, the double Bad Girls, and sang Enough Is Enough with Barbra Streisand.
But Donna was uncomfortable at the top, especially with the image of sex goddess on her album covers, and she suffered a crisis. "It's not that I hated disco music," she recalls. "It was more the sex thing. I hated that people thought of me as a sexual object; I thought I had more talent than that."
The 80's brought new challenges. Summer abandoned Casablanca Records - it's logo was, at this point, a boat navigating between rivers of cocaine - stopped taking tranquilizers, became a born-again Christian, and began to mention God in her interviews. Her first record for Geffen was a relative commercial failure, and her productive association with Moroder and Bellotte came to an end.
To top things off, the American press published quotes from Summer affirming that she thought AIDS was a punishment against homosexuals. She denies ever having made such a statement. "I said nothing of the kind, don't ask me." Who could have started that rumor? "I don't know. It was so many years ago that I have no desire to talk about that", she states glumly. True or not, her statements drew a final wedge between the artist and her numerous and faithful gay fans, already upset by her conversion to Christianity.
Summer's career took an unstoppable nosedive. From that time until last year she continued to give concerts, attended by an audience hungry for nostalgia, but she concentrated on two basic occupations: her family and painting, a pastime which she insists bring her considerable income: "It's not a hobby, it's business! My agent has told me that I've sold paintings for a million dollars, a considerable sum for a new artist." Take it seriously. This month one of Donna paintings will be in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York.
We come to 1999. Riding the tidal wave of comebacks for middle-aged singers, Sony has contracted Summer in an attempt to recreate the same miracle Cher produced for Warner Bros. Truth be told, Summer has the same charisma and more vocal power than Sony's voluptuous "ex".
Her rescue mission was designed as follows: first a VH-1 special on American television; then an album with songs chosen by Sony. The album contains songs from her recent concert but also a new song, the "house version" of Con Te Partiro, which adds to the commercial potential of the older, classic songs with new material. Sony wanted to make clear that Summer was more than just good memories. The only thing left was a reconciliation with her gay fans, crucial to the rehabilitation of any great singer; a benefit concert in New York for a gay organization erased all suspicions of homophobia.
Even so, the record has received only a lukewarm reception in the United States (unlike in Spain where it's sold 50,000 copies). But Donna isn't too upset. The ex-goddess of disco can still afford the luxury of rejecting lucrative offers, such as the one to sing on New Year's Eve, at the end of the millenium, her 52nd birthday. "I heard that they're paying Barbra Streisand 15 million dollars. Since I haven't been made a comparable offer, I'm staying home." Her future projects generate more excitement. "I'm writing rock, classical, opera, musicals... I want to merge rock and classical but in a different way than what's been done up 'til now. I also want to merge classical with hip-hop."
Will the audience back her new ventures? When an artist has been as instrumental in a genre as Donna was in disco, it's difficult to move in new directions. "Yes, it's tough," the singer concedes without moving a muscle. "People want you to be just one thing. But I knew how to escape that and produce songs that weren't disco even back in the 70's. So why wouldn't I be able to do that now?" Who dares to contradict her?
A LITTLE RESPECT
Donna Summer and producer Giorgio Moroder had thought of the 1976 album I Remember Yesterday as a musical journey through the past, the present and the future. To represent the future they'd composed I Feel Love, a song featuring Summer's sensual whispers, Moog synthesizer arrangements and an implacable robotic rhythm. Something like Kraftwerk taken to the dance floor after sex. They two had unintentionally created one of the cornerstones of what we refer to today as techno. The song which served as a base and inspiration for electronic music and whose galloping bass line has been widely imitated, retains an astounding popularity. A few years ago it began to reappear on the lists of hits and people danced to it as if it were the latest tune. Moroder has been widely revered by the dance world and Summer's classic songs - from the 70's - have been "mimicked" by a wide assortment of artists, from "hip hoppers" to Madonna. What does the singer think of such imitations? "When they use portions of my songs they're showing me respect and admiration. Some do so illegally, but I have a good attorney to handle those cases."
© 1999 El Pais, translation courtesy of the posters at Endless Summer