Like a lot of closeted (even to myself) suburban kids, I educated myself in gay city life via music. When I turned 14 in 1975, I got a weekend job at Rochester, New York’s atypically hip record store House of Guitars, where I noticed that well-dressed white guys and more casual, inner-city black folks were regularly buying the same albums–Vicki Sue Robinson, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, and these lavishly packaged Donna Summer discs that followed each other every few months. A year or two later, when a clearly gay mutual friend lent me his copy of Summer’s Once Upon a Time, a double album lacking major Top 40 radio hits but nevertheless a major dancefloor smash, something in me opened. It’s a concept album about a young woman who, like me, was estranged from her family and longed for escape. Through the context of my gay friend, I could spot what were then daring references to gay life: The central Cinderella/Summer character tripped out on a "Fairy Tale High," and when she went to the disco, she transformed into a "Queen for a Day." By the fourth act and final LP side, she found her prince, and through their mutual love, they conquered their fears and isolation.
It was messages like these that made Summer both a mainstream star and a gay icon, the kind of messages that could speak to overlapping pop, black, female, and queer audiences of the '70s and early '80s with a simultaneous out-in-the-open yet under-the-radar sense of subversion. I don’t remember Summer acknowledging her gay fans at the height of her popularity; instead, she spoke to us in code, and we picked up these transmissions from Planet Disco with religious devotion. Like the Village People, who blasted out of every car radio with gospel-via-Broadway fervor the ostensible joys of working out at the Y.M.C.A., this suddenly magical place where a young man could "do whatever you feel," disco was at its very core a dialogue about liberation where different cultural threads could weave together and be stronger and bigger and more colorful than their individual parts. Like the music itself, a hybrid of symphonic orchestration, African-American and Latin percussion, taut electric guitars, futuristic synths, prog-rock studio effects, and rich blends of black and white voices, disco was both integration and escape, heightened reality and its very opposite, and no one epitomized it like Donna Summer.
Summer was–like so many of her fans–both insider and outsider. Brought up by devout Christians and trained by years of singing in church, this working-class Boston girl rebelled by dropping out of school. Inspired by Janis Joplin, she joined a psychedelic rock group, and auditioned for Hair. Fellow future diva Melba Moore beat her out on Broadway, but she eventually snagged the same role in the Munich cast. While singing background for Three Dog Night she met Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the producers with whom she’d record her first international hit, 1975’s "Love to Love You Baby," as well as many others. Like the Barry White records it was modeled after, Summer's early smash smacks of sex: The producers dimmed the lights while Summer lay on the floor and approached the song as Marilyn Monroe might; breathy and groaning, she approximates orgasm after orgasm. Inspired by repeated plays at an orgy he was hosting, hype-conscious Casablanca Records boss Neil Bogart asked Moroder and Bellotte to create a 17-minute version in the LP-side-filling style of Iron Butterfly’s psychedelic rock opus "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida." Like so many early disco hits, "Love to Love You" first took off in the gay discos where only a few years earlier it was illegal in many states to dance with another man, then radiated outward to straight clubs and eventually pop and R&B radio, a combo that collectively turned it into a No. 2 hit. Inspired by that success, Summer and her producers focused on long, interconnected tracks that initially didn’t ignite pop radio but dominated clubs, particularly the gay ones that embraced what had become known as Eurodisco, a grand, even more lavish style that Summer’s team and production peers like Cerrone, Boris Midney, and Alec R. Costandinos epitomized.
Moroder and Bellotte broke new ground once again in 1977 with "I Feel Love," which apart from Summer’s voice, is thoroughly electronic and remains one of the most influential records of any kind: Nearly every uptempo electronic dance track from the most underground dubstep cut to the latest Nicki Minaj hit descends from the sequenced Moog riffs and rhythms of "I Feel Love." Discos became testing grounds for radical new sounds epitomized by that milestone; we voted with our feet the same way people "Like" something on Facebook today, but with far more profound personal experience. I’ll never forget the thrill of entering my first gay disco in 1979 and spotting two of my English teachers, with whom I exchanged knowing and instantly bonding glances. Or my first night at the Paradise Garage in 1983, where I entered while DJ legend Larry Levan spun a Culture Club B-side and emerged the next obscenely bright Sunday morning, freshly schooled by several dozen new and old club anthems I suddenly couldn’t live without. Later that day, the guy behind the record counter knew exactly where I’d been by the records I asked for. You don’t get that mutual understanding from iTunes.
From 1975 to 1980, Summer released seven studio albums, a three-thirds live set, and a greatest hits collection; four of those were double albums, and all of them went gold, platinum, or double platinum. Once Saturday Night Fever shifted disco from reliable mainstream presence to the hottest thing happening, nearly everything Summer released, from 1978’s "Last Dance" to late 1979’s "On the Radio," became omnipresent. In two short years, she released eight Top 5 singles, and in that period, hardly a moment went by when some station somewhere wasn’t playing a Donna Summer record (and if there was, that airtime was undoubtedly devoted to the Bee Gees.) Not since the Beatles and the British Invasion of 1964 had one act and its sound held such sweeping cultural sway.
For Barry's memories on the mainstream death of disco and its second life underground, click NEXT.
Like all things in pop culture, what rises must surely fall, but few fads have ever plummeted as suddenly and spectacularly as disco. When the summer of 1979 started, nearly everything in the charts was disco. Then the Disco Demolition Night took place on July 12 in Chicago’s Comiskey Park, in which a DJ, recently ousted when his station switched from rock to disco, staged an anti-disco rally where disco records were detonated between an intended doubleheader. A riot ensued, the second baseball game was forfeited, and the “disco sucks” movement–one that was as homophobic, racist, and misogynistic as the disco trend was liberating for upwardly mobile gays, blacks, and women–immediately snowballed. A month later, the Knack’s out-of-nowhere hit "My Sharona" topped the pop chart and stayed there for six weeks. By 1980, only the biggest black acts like Diana Ross and Kool & the Gang still regularly scored pop hits with disco tracks. Even Summer went rock with The Wanderer.
In the gay world and in major cities like New York and Chicago, disco didn’t die at all. I moved to NYC that same game-shifting summer of ’79, and can attest that disco–especially under its new name, "dance music"– remained bigger there than it was in the suburbs during Fever fever. It simply got funkier, more electronic, and receptive to the New Wave sounds the "disco sucks" crowd thought it had crushed. Suddenly there was the Clash’s “The Magnificent Dance” and then Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” getting play on New York’s competing “urban contemporary” stations, and then the Human League’s utterly disco “Don’t You Want Me” crossed over every which way. Michael Jackson hit the stratosphere with Thriller, Prince exploded with Purple Rain, and it didn’t take long for Madonna to become even bigger than Summer. One act English act after the other burst through the door that disco and New Wave together left open, and nearly every one of them had a gay vibe, a gay singer, or both–Culture Club, Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, OMD, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bronski Beat, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, even the anti-disco Smiths. Dance-derived R&B upstarts like Janet Jackson became scarce, but that’s when house music arrived on the gay black underground while hi-NRG raged on the white and freestyle took hold in the straight/Latin/pop spheres. All this happened while Reagan and Thatcher were in office, and while AIDS took its toll.
During most of this period, after '83's "She Works Hard for the Money" and before '89's "This Time I Know It’s For Real," Summer laid low, sidelined by substandard records and a boycott inspired by anti-gay comments the newly born-again singer denies having said. Releasing in ’89, Another Time and Place, her first great album since Bad Girls 10 years hence and not coincidentally her first one since then to court the gay market, Summer apologized for the “misunderstanding,” but soon only the occasional single suggested her glory days of utterly airtight album-sized pleasures.
To promote one of them, 1994’s "Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)," Summer played a typical Lake Tahoe casino, and finally I saw her perform. Only one other time during my concert-going lifetime have I ever experienced something this close to time travel–when Summer’s former label-mates Kiss reunited two years later and consciously recreated their blood-spewing, fire-breathing heyday. Summer simply sang her hits, many she had long ago shunned for religious reasons, but her voice was shockingly clear and youthful while her appearance similarly suggested some Faustian pact; only her bigger backside betrayed her.
For Barry's thoughts on Donna's enduring legacy, inside and outside of the gay community, click NEXT.
We gays love divas who crash and burn spectacularly, then rise like a phoenix from the flames. Summer never did that; instead, she settled down with Bruce Sudano of Brooklyn Dreams, the Bee Gees-eque trio that sang backup on her hit "Heaven Knows," and with him she raised a family. Occasionally, she exhibited her paintings; in 2003, she issued a tell-little autobiography, Ordinary Girl: The Journey. We gays also deeply respect divas that show great tenacity while acknowledging us. Summer didn’t do that either; her final album, 2008’s Crayons, seemed more geared to her grandchildren than to new or old gay fans.
But in her '70s prime, Summer represented a gay ideal of adaptability. Like another gay icon, David Bowie, she had an extraordinary range of voices at her disposal. From the breathy "Love to Love You" nymphet to the hungry "Hot Stuff" rocker, she played the ever-changing actress able to ace whatever roles Moroder and Bellotte demanded. Her theater background no doubt helped her out, but her church experience also taught her a thing or two about belief. Summer fully inhabited her dancefloor theater, and for a generation of gays who could lose their jobs or worse if their private lives were discovered, she was an inspiration. Club life was the social media of its day, and it was there that Summer, Queen of Disco, reigned supreme.
These days, nearly everything underground is just a tweet and a flash mob away from going overground; everything’s documented and instantly commented on. Summer’s binary status as massive mainstream presence and gay cult deity lived on first with Madonna and then via all her stylistic stepchildren–Björk, Beyoncé, Britney, Pink, Ke$ha, Katy Perry, Adam Lambert, Nicki Minaj, and, of course, Lady Gaga–but in almost every instance their dual citizenship was known and exploited from the start. Only when a performer is closeted and/or male does this straddling act remain subversive. Only when a boy band like One Direction or The Wanted comes along does the is-he-or-isn’t-he? questions of identity and audience ownership come back into play. Even in this enlightened age, nothing inspires a flame war like suggesting the latest tween-beloved cutie might have a private life that has nothing to do with the budding hetero females who claim him as their own. Has there ever been a celebrity ever called "gay" and then "defended" all the while inspiring as many lesbian haircuts as Justin Bieber?
Now everybody's all about the electronic dance music Summer, Moroder, and Bellotte pioneered–as long as it’s made by white dudes who give it instant cred and paradoxically prevent it from falling into the slot marked pop. At the recent Coachella festival, the real pandemonium happened regularly in the dance tent, which routinely got so claustrophobic that the atmosphere was akin to dancing in a tightly packed elevator that could crash at any moment. Not even Madonna’s Coachella '06 appearance inspired as intense body-to-body action as her current producer Martin Solveig a month ago, even if the average Nickleback fan doesn’t yet know a Solveig from a Skrillex. It was eye-opening to discover dance music’s renewed heterogeneous yet still homo-friendly popularity in such a visceral way, but it was so far removed from the liberation I once enjoyed on the dancefloor that it barely felt related. When that many meatheads and valley girls crash the party, what’s left for us?
When Summer died from cancer yesterday at the age of 63, the straight world lost a superstar, but gays of my generation lost an emblem of our lives that we may never experience again, even at a time when everything is marketed more and more brazenly to us. We’ll probably never have another open secret like Summer again because a mystery like hers will either be answered forthwith or never allowed to occur. And maybe that’s good: At a time when even the President supports gay marriage, possibilities exist that we couldn’t have dreamed of when Summer recorded her first faked orgasm on behalf of our suppressed own. Given the choice between equal rights and second-class citizenry sweetened by beat-driven romance, we’ll still take our Constitutional prerogative, thankyouverymuch. But that doesn’t mean that we won’t mourn the shared sense of community Summer both helped made possible and embodied. Even outlaws remember their last dance.