I'm sure I won't be the only blogger trying to say something sincere about Donna Summer's death today, reportedly from lung cancer, at the relatively young age of 63. And in contrast to the enshrinement of Saint Whitney Houston after her death, I wouldn't be surprised if the pundits took this opportunity to rake up the old culture wars -- rock versus disco, soul versus disco, gays versus born-again Christians -- and to turn up hipster noses at some of her cheesier tracks, such as "Love To Love You Baby" with all its fake orgasms, her kitschy version of "MacArthur Park," or the disco anthem "Last Dance."
Ironically, I'd already been thinking a lot about Donna Summer, wondering why so few Whitney Houston obits even mentioned her. After all, she was the reigning pop-dance diva before Whitney came along. Now, I have no vested interest in defending disco; in the late 70s, I never set foot inside a single disco. I wasn't even listening to the radio much back then. But still.
You see, towards the end of her long run of hits -- when she herself was eager to shed the disco mantle and move on -- I too had a brief Donna Summer period. That was in the very early 80s, when a couple other junior assistant baby editors and I were taking aerobic dance classes (remember aerobic dancing?) after work in a school gym down in Greenwich Village. Week after week, the soundtrack pulsed with high-octane tracks like the Pointer Sisters "I Get Excited," Tina Turner's comeback hit "What's Love Got to Do With It?," the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" -- and this surprising feminist anthem:
That video was all over MTV at the time, making Donna one of the first black artists to get significant airtime. (So see, she paved the way for Michael Jackson, too). MTV exposure certainly gave a major push to this song and its album, She Works Hard for the Money. Apparently this record was released grudgingly, with Summer at loggerheads with her record boss David Geffen, but it revived her faltering career and put her right back up on top.
Though I always heard it as a song about a hooker (who else works so hard for her money?), the video underlines its sympathy for women stuck in any menial/demeaning jobs. The relentless beat and the hard-edged synthesizers were totally of their time, agreed. But at least it's about something other than sex, which was ground-breaking territory for disco music.
And it was compulsively danceable. I'd slip this album onto my stereo turntable (yes, we're still talking vinyl era) and dance by myself in my apartment. Often once this lead-off track was over I'd lift the needle and flip the disc to play the first track on Side 2, the reggae-flavored "Unconditional Love." These songs made me feel pumped-up and powerful -- ready to don my big-shouldered power suit and go crash through some glass ceiling somewhere.
I've still got one or two of those power suits in my closet. The glass ceiling? Tt's still there too. Unshattered.