It was a curious feeling hearing of the death of Donna Summer this afternoon. She died quietly of cancer at the age of 63, had been off the radar for two generations – and yet, firing YouTube links round the office, we were a little taken aback by how many of her songs had fired our collective experience.
Summer’s work helped diversify and democratize music. Set against the ugly, right-wing ‘Disco Sucks’ movement, she could be considered a revolutionary, making black, female and queer perspectives a part of the conversation. These are the songs we should remember her by.
Here was the moment that popular music without guitars grew a pair and proved synth pop as not just an alternative to rock’n’roll, but every bit its equal. Giorgio Moroder lays it down with a disarmingly sparse chrome throb, while Donna wails the most random, stream-of-consciousness expressions of desire. But while it should jar, it explodes into an almost baffling rush of sexual energy. Some people take drugs to get to the state that this song makes you feel. It basically invented half your record collection.
Summer’s version of this is quite possibly the gayest piece of music ever recorded, laying down as it does a drawn-out, melodramatic story of longing heartbreak over irrepressible disco stabs. It’s not a queer anthem for nothing. And yet it couldn’t have come about from more of a curveball, written about the break-up between Jimmy Webb and Linda Ronsdant’s cousin Susan, and recorded by Dumbeldore actor Richard Harris. How many other songs can get away with using a ruined cake as their chief metaphor for a broken heart? You can’t really go wrong with that.
Think it’s naff to put coitus noises into a song? It is. Which is why this song is even more doubly impressive in doing exactly that and not looking like some desperate swinger. This is the soundtrack to the best sex you’ve never had.
Why do all great pop songs have to speak of pressing issues of the heart? Why do they have to make any sense? Why can you not just fantasise about dining with early 20th century pop-classical composers over a brooding 80s synth throb? Why the hell not?
Disco thrives off imbuing your boring life with high-stakes melodrama. And possibly the greatest case in point is this Vangelis composition, made famous by Summer in 1982. Over a pop-noir cascade that flirts with reggae, ‘The State Of Independence’ isn’t really about very much. But it pulls it off with the gravitas of a UN intervention over the actions of a volatile nation state. And it emerges one of the most dignified pop songs ever recorded.
Stock, Aitken And Waterman are known as a tawdry by-word for factory-produced 80s pop. But witness this cut from 1989, which employs every single one of their budget pop tricks, yet makes them sound completely and effortlessly classy.
Donna Summer RIP