Donna Summer's Heavy-Breathing Blueprint for Pop

Summer could have left it there. But the I Remember Yesterday album was a breakthrough in other ways as well. Summer began writing more, and the material diversified in a hurry: The album contained a great girl-group romp, "Love's Unkind," as well as the title track and "I Feel Love." Next came a pair of conceptual double-LPs—1977's Once Upon a Time and 1979's bank-breaking Bad Girls—that curried favor with the rock intelligentsia and won: Bad Girls finished 10th in that year's Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll.

In short, like any artist—and certainly, any pop star—Summer was willful. She was a good Catholic girl who broke the bank gulping and heaving over a hard, steady throb. She was a singer first, who imposed her vision on her material and improved it. Later, after leaving Casablanca in 1980, she moved away from disco and toward rock and new wave with The Wanderer, and made another double-LP in 1981, I'm a Rainbow, inspired by Summer's conversion to Christianity the year before. A lot of other people were being born again around the same time—Bob Dylan, for instance, who released three albums of Jesus music—but I'm a Rainbow remained shelved until 1996.

Summer shook it off and came back as a comfortably familiar pop star, rather than the paradigmatic one she'd been during disco's peak. "Love Is in Control" (1982) and "She Works Hard for the Money" (1983) were both Top 10; she adapted easily to MTV with the delightful "She Works Hard" video, in which Summer leads a diner-waitress revolt. Both relied on a modified version of the synthesized style of her classic albums. So did a torrent of chart-hogging early-'80s Donnabes: Irene Cara, Laura Branigan, Shannon, and, oh yeah, Madonna, whose collaborations with a succession of producers resemble the way Summer and Moroder worked together—he bringing his sonic expertise, she putting her stamp on everything. (Think also of Janet Jackson's work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Aaliyah's with Timbaland.)

Her last big pop hit came in 1989, with "This Time I Know It's for Real," produced by Stock-Aitken-Waterman, the British team behind Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up." Seventeen years separated the last two albums Summer made during her life, the final being 2008's Crayons, which was naturally keyed to contemporary clubs. Its dance hit was "I'm a Fire," which resembled past glories without really recalling them.

It didn't matter. Donna Summer invented a lot of futures and embodied a lot of archetypes. The internationalism of post-disco pop music bears a lot of resemblances to her career's accidental pan-European intersections. Her path from musical theater to pop stardom, from interpreter to co-author, echoes constantly in the Idol age, as does her blooming from seeming novelty to legitimate auteur, a la Justin Timberlake. Like Jimi Hendrix, she had to go to Europe to become an American star; like David Bowie, she was a brazen persona constructor with real feeling at her core. She echoes out every time a DJ cues up a 12-inch (or .wav file) in a Berlin club, or a young hopeful with an ear to the radio steps up for her first school-musical audition. Donna Summer has moved on; pop music hasn't.

Presented by

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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