Donna Summer's Heavy-Breathing Blueprint for Pop

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The disco singer died Thursday, but her influence will remain inescapable for a long time.

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One day in 1975, an African-American actress/singer billing herself as Donna Summer mentioned a six-year-old French song to her Italian producer, Giorgio Moroder. They were in Munich, Germany, where Summer had gone in the late '60s to star in a production of Hair; she'd married an Austrian actor named Helmut Sommer (hence the moniker; she was born LaDonna Gaines). The song was Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin's "Je t'aime . . . moi non plus," a short sex scene set to guitar and organ, climaxing with Birkin, well, climaxing.

According to Anthony Haden-Guest's The Last Party, Summer told Moroder, "I can do a record like that." His response: "You? Come on! You're not sexy!" And even though the resulting song, "Love to Love You, Baby," would last more than 17 minutes and follow the singer's every moan and gasp through what Time magazine infamously counted as 22 orgasms—more than everybody in the song's filmic equivalent, Deep Throat, three years earlier, combined—Summer continued to insist that, no, she wasn't sexy. "That was Marilyn Monroe singing that song, not me," Summer told Haden-Guest. "I'm an actress. That's why my songs are so diverse."

The "actress" motif has recurred in tributes to Summer following her death yesterday at age 63, of cancer, in her Englewood, Florida home, and rightly so. But there's a big difference between the kind of vocal acting of a Frank Sinatra—the carefully honed phrasing of every clearly written line—and what Summer did beginning with "Love to Love You, Baby." Her material was, let us say, earthier than his, and so was her approach, at least initially. But she had as much grande dame in her as Judy Garland or Ethel Merman. From the faux-swing razzmatazz of 1977's "I Remember Yesterday" to her Barbra Streisand summit meeting "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)" in 1979, Broadway brass was as important to Summer as Moroder's post-Kraftwerk synthesizers or her own intimations of deep heat.

Techno, trance, and a whole lot of other entire genres have been aiming for what "I Feel Love" accomplishes, and few have come near it.

We can look back and see that Summer's porny early disco hits were calculated market plays, foundation-building for bigger pop successes to come. The hardcore disco audience—or, today, that of the artier strains of house music and techno, the core styles built from Summer and Moroder's innovations—is possessive: Prove you love them, and they're yours forever. Summer's 1975-80 Casablanca Records albums were aimed squarely at DJs of all ranks, each LP side's tracks segued together to facilitate nonstop dancing in the living room or club. She scored 14 Top-10 hits altogether, four of them No. 1s (all in 1978-79: "Macarthur Park," "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," and "No More Tears"), but for all the rumors that Summer had unkind things to say about her many gay fans, rumors she denied repeatedly for years, disco cultists knew she was theirs.

Make no mistake, though: Summer's first four albums with Moroder—Love to Love You, Baby; the 1976 pair A Love Trilogy and Four Seasons of Love; and I Remember Yesterday—make up the heaviest-breathing artistic unit in pop history. Not even the succession of Janet Jackson "sex albums" following 1993's janet. come close. They're also successively more ambitious pieces of work. I'm not the only disco fan who thinks "Try Me—I Know We Can Make It" (from Trilogy) and the widescreen-opulent "Spring Affair" (from Four Seasons) out-pant "Love to Love You, Baby" in passing: On "Spring Affair," the way Summer utters the line "Just the man I hoped you'd be" is so taut and rapacious it's startling.

As for "I Feel Love," you can't even count the orgasms in that song, because it never climaxes. That's its point. It became the keynote record of a modern dance culture dedicated to the prolonging of peak points, and as such it's an emotional blueprint as much as a musical one. Entirely made with programmed hardware, rather than played instruments—a first in pop history—"I Feel Love" is clearly the product of circuitry, but the groove isn't merely robotic. Clacking percussion and mutated sine waves skitter across the sound field like post-coital shivers, Summer navigating the whole thing with the most utterly contented vocal of her life. She had her finger on the trigger; she was in control. (Especially in 2012, what could be more human than being blissfully overwhelmed by technology?) Techno, trance, and a whole lot of other entire genres have been aiming for what "I Feel Love" accomplishes, and few have come near it. It may have been the most widely impactful single recording of the 1970s.

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Michaelangelo Matos writes for the Village Voice, Capital New York, and Resident Advisor. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is working on a history of American rave.

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