The Queen of Disco is gone.
Even though that distinction is deserved, considering she did more to popularize dance music than any female artist not named Madonna, Donna Summer was much more than an era, a genre, or a style of music. Over a career that spanned nearly 40 years, the Boston-born songstress gamely (and capably) handled everything from new wave to gospel to show tunes (hell, she got her start in a touring production of “Hair.”)
I was barely a toddler during her late Seventies heyday, but she was one of the first artists I recognized as a household name. Songs like “Hot Stuff” (despite the mildly risqué subject matter) and “Bad Girls” had universal appeal-equally enjoyed by 8 year olds and 80 year olds, black audiences and white audiences, straights and gays. Donna famously classified herself as a vocalist not tied to a particular style of music, which is probably a big reason her run of success lasted as long as it did.
What amazes me after all this time is her vocal power. This woman could blow. Listen to “MacarthurPark” in all it’s campy glory. Even if the lyrics make you want to roll your eyes until they fall out of the back of her head, listen to Donna sing. If anyone can make you believe they’re pound-the-fists-on-the-table upset about someone leaving their cake out in the rain, it’s Donna. Listen to “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)” where she goes toe to toe with the supreme diva Barbra Streisand, holding a note so long that rumor has it she passed out and fell off her stool in the studio. Hell, listen to her full-bodied rendition of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” from her late ’90s comeback. Her last note will blow you off your chair and then make you stand up and applaud. At a recording. Part of the reason we love music is because singers have the ability to take us to an emotional place simply by virtue of their voice. Donna could do that and then some.
Donna was largely uncontroversial throughout her life (although rumors about her treating her gay audience unkindly following her conversion to Born-Again Christianity in the early Eighties persist.) So, unlike with Michael and Whitney, there are no sordid tales to take to the grave. Unlike with Adam Yauch, there was no public embrace of a particular cause. The only truly embarrassing thing you can say she did was play Steve Urkel’s Aunt Oona from Altoona on “Family Matters.” Donna’s legacy will unequivocally and solely be tied to her music, and there is plenty of that to enjoy.