Herstory 28: Donna Summer Never Wanted To Be The Queen of Disco
In The Wake of Discotheques
Donna Summer’s appointment as the “Queen of Disco” certainly wasn’t forged overnight. It was the result of both an unorthodox approach in the traditional path of an American pop singer and a cultural shift giving birth to the disco era.
The end of the 1960s fostered the beginnings of discotheques as both a response to rock’s musical dominance and the forceful rise of synth instrumentation.
Disco is often misrepresented in its cultural impact. While it never received the same level of praise compared to pop and rock, disco was able to extend its reach into spaces that have historically been brushed aside.
The genre stemmed from many different communities enabling womxn, black, queer, and Latin folks to explore identity in more progressive and fluid ways. In this way, it changed the way we moved and revived social dancing beyond the existing restrictions. The “dancefloor was no longer restricted to (straight) couples” but allowed for more freeform dancing to take the centre stage.
Unfortunately, rock fanatics didn’t welcome the new style to a home-cooked meal. Jealous of the brand new real estate that disco was settling into, fans started an anti-disco campaign called “Disco sucks!”. In 1979, advocates for the campaign offered Chicago fans cheaper tickets for an upcoming White Sox game if they brought in disco records. Roughly 10,000 records were collected in centre field and destroyed. This went against all that disco as a cultural and musical piece represented. At its core, the genre explored “pleasure, celebrating your youthfulness, your sexuality, chimed with the club environment”.
Donna Summer’s European Leg
LaDonna Andre Gaines beginning shared a similar story to quite a few of her musical peers. Born December 31st, 1948 in Boston, Massachusetts, LaDonna was raised in a heavily religious environment, singing with her family’s church choir at a young age. While her trajectory was poised to produce a gospel singer, LaDonna had other ideas. During her teens, she took on the lead role in The Crows, an experimental rock band. This only served as a taste into entering the entertainment world. Donna uprooted her life in the United States after landing a role in the German production of Hair and traveled overseas to Europe. Following her stage run throughout the continent, Donna wanted to explore music full-time. Dabbling in a few supportive roles for other artists/productions, Donna, working as a model and backup singer in Munich, eventually met a producer that would help her shift the landscape.
Behind The Scenes of The Hustle
Giorgio Moroder grew to be as synonymous with the disco (behind the scenes) as Donna Summer was as an artist. Within the first minute and 52 seconds of the Daft Punk track, Giorgio talks about his early career singing in the already booming discotheques. He dreamt of creating an album that captured the essence of decades passed and more importantly building a sound of the future in the construction of the track.
This is where electronic synthesizers come into play once again. We’ve covered synthesizers in a previous article on Wendy Carlos (see: Herstory 2), but in the context of this era, synthesizers quickly became a blueprint for the future of dance music. It gave people the ability to import a human element to technology and brought a new cultural era to the forefront.
Donna, in 1974, signed to the Oasis label run by Giorgio Moroder and his partner Pete Bellotte. Similar to the mixtape era of the music industry, her first album, Lady Of The Night, acted more as a showcase of Donna’s raw talent taking listeners through a mix of folk, pop, and rock elements. Techniques endemic to gospel music were prevalent throughout the album. The departure lay with Donna’s next few projects where both Donna, Giorgio and disco culture found their footing.
Significantly more than her contemporaries, Donna’s early albums were revered throughout Europe and gained a following prior to comparable success in the United States. We often think of America as the only avenue in which to measure success in the many realms, but especially the entertainment industry. Donna Summer saw opportunity differently than her peers and found space for herself anywhere she travelled. Songs like “Love To Love You Baby”, “Bad Girls”, and “I Feel Love” refused to be decoupled from disco.
The Death of Disco Is Welcomed
Despite reaching numerous peaks in the disco era, it wasn’t always what she wanted for her music career.
“It’s kind of limiting whenever they put a label on you for anything. I think that the object is to be a singer and just do what you do”
— Donna Summer
As the strength and appeal of disco dissipated in the 1980s, pop and rock took the reins once again. When Donna had described it as a fun time in her life, she wanted the chance to be a singer untethered to the pressures of being the “Disco Queen”. Her 1987 release, All Systems Go, inherently held the hope that she could transition out of the disco era for good and rest on the laurels of her talents carrying the strength to adapt.
Only releasing four additional albums following within the next 30-year span, we can’t be entirely sure that Donna fully actualized what she sought after disco’s death: a chance to make her own way.
A Spring Affair & Reprise
Sadly, Donna Summer passed away in 2012 after complications with lung cancer but left an iconic legacy that has carried influence through much of the film, TV (see: The Get Down), and music industries.
We can be thankful for the late Donna Summer in many respects. She effectively introduced sex appeal, bridging “audacious musicality and uninhibited eroticism”. Disco wasn’t mean to age gracefully, but Donna Summer created a space that cemented the joy and expression around love and sexuality for herself and the communities beyond.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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