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An Ode To Donna Summer's 1970s: How The Disco Queen Embodied Both Innovator And Vixen
As disco’s greatest champion, Donna Summer redefined what it meant to be a pop star in a post-Motown world. In celebration of Summer’s continued legacy, GRAMMY.com dives into how the singer’s 1970s oeuvre changed music and stardom forever.
There is perhaps no sound that defines disco better than Donna Summer's hypnotic "I Feel Love." Indeed, the 45-year-old track was crowned the greatest dance song of all time earlier this year by Rolling Stone. Amidst the 2020s’ ongoing disco resurgence — from Kylie Minogue’s Disco to Beyoncé’s Renaissance, which features a prominent re-interpretation of "I Feel Love" — Donna Summer’s legacy looms larger than ever over pop music.
With five GRAMMY Awards and 18 nominations, Summer still holds the distinction of being the only artist to win awards in four different genres: dance, gospel, rock, and R&B. Though her catalog spans decades and features reinvention after reinvention, her golden period was undoubtedly the 1970s. She took that decade by storm with a string of seven classic disco albums — nearly entirely written and produced by Summer and European collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte — that culminated in 1979's No.1 compilation album On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II. This compilation includes some of the genre’s most sublime and quintessential songs such as "Bad Girls," "On The Radio" and "MacArthur Park," all of which distill disco’s sense of humor, camp, and its otherworldly sound.
But the indisputable queen of disco is too often maligned to the margins of pop’s overall evolution — a consequence of the historic disregard for disco as an art form, though it defined the many branches of dance music that evolved in its wake. As disco’s greatest champion, Summer redefined what it meant to be a "pop star" in a post-Motown world. Summer’s artistry is emblematic of the way sound and aesthetic evolve and compound over time.
In celebration of Summer’s continued legacy, GRAMMY.com dives into how Donna Summer’s 1970s oeuvre changed music and pop stardom forever.
Donna, The Vixen
Donna Summer’s catalog displays a fascination with the ideas of femininity and desire. At a time where women in music culture were largely categorized as matrons, muses, or groupies, Summer’s music thematically centered women as complex and thrilling protagonists.
Her first internationally released album and her first foray into disco, Love to Love You Baby, features Summer moaning her way across the title track for 16+ minutes of utter sexuality. Summer herself came up with the idea for the song’s content, after producer Giorgio Moroder played her the instrumental and asked her to improvise. Her off-the-cuff response happened to become one of the most iconic hooks of all time. Embracing and simulating female orgasm — to this day a taboo topic in pop culture — was how Donna Summer introduced herself to the world, earning her the honorific of the "first lady of love."
Summer’s 1976 follow-up album, A Love Trilogy, was also her most outwardly yearning, with her cover of Barry Manilow’s "Could It Be Magic" serving as her second-best moan-filled song. Lyrically sparse, it features some of her most direct and simple sexual pleas, letting Moroder and Bellotte’s lush production do a lot of the talking and cemented Summer's status as a mystical sex goddess of disco.
Her exploration of femininity reached its creative apex with 1979's Bad Girls, often considered the quintessential Donna Summer album. It’s a portrait of a fully-fledged pop star with a cohesive vision, and is perhaps the peak of Summer’s comprehensive artistry.
One of many Summer concept albums, Bad Girls is a narrative told from the perspective of a "lady of the night" making her way through the streets of Hollywood. The album, and its title track in particular, was inspired by Summer’s observation of a record company employee being harassed by police for seeming like a street walker. It’s an ode to girls just trying to survive in a world that vilifies sexuality, and much of Summer’s career aimed to reclaim femininity and sexuality from a place of agency and power. To do so, Bad Girls leans into rock, letting go of the paradisiacal strings of disco’s past in favor of more hard-edged, synth and guitar-led sounds that lent well to the grounded subject matter.
Summer meticulously cultivated the album's visual identity, working with legendary photographer Harry Langdon Jr. to create album artwork that furthered the music’s story. Langdon describes the shoot as Summer’s own brainchild, creating an entire narrative from the imagery, with Summer as the "fallen woman." The result was a prototype of the pop star "era" of today, with visuals defining the album cycle and vice versa. It served as a shift in the creative control of women in pop, as Summer refused to let behind-the-scenes men wholly shape her artistry and expression. She instead centered her own synthesis of the world, expressing it through new personas, performances, and concepts with every new album.
"Bad Girls" also doubles as a tongue-in-cheek take on the prostitutive and isolating nature of pop stardom. Accosted yet desirable, dangerous yet captivating, the Bad Girl in question doubles for the so-called social danger attributed to the inherently liberatory nature of disco and to its primarily Black, female, and LGBT stars. Albums like Britney Spears’ Blackout have continued this thread of examining the price of fame through the lens of sexuality, exploitation, and the pop star as a commodity.
Donna, The Innovator
One of the greatest things Donna Summer ever did for disco was to usher in its evolution and encourage its sonic expansion. Summer drove rock and disco straight into each other — retaining the choral elements, danceable drum beat, and synth hook more commonly associated with disco, while mixing in a guitar break and a heavy bass line. She was a chief architect in moving the dreamier, string-led sounds of disco into the future of synth-led dance music. Following in the legacy of Black funk rockers like Labelle and Betty Davis, 1979's "Hot Stuff" loudly and proudly eschews the romantic desperation that was a staple of pop divadom in favor of straight-up demands, with an emphatic choir to back Summer’s insistence up. The song won the very first GRAMMY Award for Best Female Rock Performance in 1980.
Featuring Doobie Brother/Steely Dan member Jeff Baxter on guitar, "Hot Stuff" set the stage for the upcoming 1980s as a golden decade for women in rock, and particularly for Black women. Its influence can be heard on pop-rock classics like Janet Jackson's "Black Cat" and Tina Turner's "I Might Have Been Queen."
Like rock, another art form which Donna Summer innovated and elevated is the concept album — a highly lauded production often attributed solely to men in classic rock. The music canon, however, is full of savvy pop concept albums by women, to which Summer has contributed several bodies of work. Among her greatest contributions are Four Seasons of Love and Once Upon A Time....
Four Seasons of Love chronicles the life cycle of a romance in parallel with the seasons in an ode to the theatrically tempestuous nature of love. It follows the rush of a new fling ("Spring Affair") evolving into the fervor of passion ("Summer Fever") before fizzling out amidst desperate attempts to sustain it ("Autumn Changes"), eventually dying out ("Winter Melody") — giving way to another hopeful new affair ("Spring Reprise"). Summer exercises her chameleonic vocal tone to express the dizziness, intensity, desperation, listlessness, and finally hopefulness of each of the album’s stages. DJ Jesse Saunders, the creator of the very first house music record ever sold, cites "Spring Affair" as the song that "changed [his] whole idea of music" and inspired his desire to create.
Once Upon A Time…, Summer’s take on Cinderella, stands as one of the greatest concept albums of all time. A fully-fleshed fairy tale, it features some of the all-time most elegant and seamless transitions between songs (Beyoncé’s Renaissance took notes!). It’s an atmospheric production thematically split into four distinct storybook acts — isolation, despair, yearning and hopefulness — to form a transcendent disco opera. Standouts include the ethereal choir-inflected "Now I Need You," the cold and futuristic "Working the Midnight Shift," and the empowering turning point of "If You Got It Flaunt It." Summer is an absolute chameleon through the song cycle, using her vocal dexterity to master a wild variety of sounds and moods and showing off her studious knowledge of a wide berth of musical styles.
Donna, The Historian
Disco is a melting pot of decades of Black music, with soul, funk and pop all coalescing into a very sexy gumbo. Many of Summer’s greatest songs lean into this contextualization of genre and evolution, such as those on the aforementioned Once Upon A Time… and beginning with 1975’s "Need-A-Man Blues." Rather than merely fixating on what was next in music — as many tried to do in order to ensure their relevance — Donna Summer was keen on honoring her influences as a key part of her musical palate. She was a true student of her idols, unwilling to separate herself from the art that shaped her.
One of her first explicitly disco songs, "Need-A-Man-Blues" features a rhythm emblematic of Sly and the Family Stone's iconic "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," Stax Records-esque psychedelic soul instrumentals, and Diana Ross-inspired breathy vocals, while Moroder and Bellotte's unique brand of Euro disco fizz ties it all together. It's one of Summer's many songs that dynamically pull the past into the future.
Summer’s tendency for cultural historicism hit its peak in her 1977 concept album I Remember Yesterday, which reflected on the history of pop music before predicting its future. The title track evokes the optimistic swing of the 1940s, followed by the ‘60’s Wall of Sound-inspired soda shop pep of "Love’s Unkind," "Back In Love Again’s" tribute to Diana Ross’ Motown stylings, and odes to the ‘70s innovations of funk and orchestral Philadelphia soul with "Black Lady" and "Take Me," respectively.
The album concludes with the ever-futuristic and eternally relevant "I Feel Love," making I Remember Yesterday an unparalleled chronicle of pop music. "I Feel Love" both foresaw and engineered the next 45 years of dance music, as a major influence for new wave, post-disco, synthpop, and a great number of other subgenres that would go on to define the pop music landscape.
As the ‘70s ended and disco "died," Donna Summer was nowhere near finished. She went on to release 10 more albums, including She Works Hard for the Money, and its title track became one of her most defining hits. Donna Summer never stopped experimenting and creating, though she never reached the commercial or critical acclaim as her ‘70s body of work. And between Madonna’s sexual liberation, Janet Jackson’s social justice-inflected concept albums, Beyoncé’s music historian tendencies, and Lady Gaga’s penchant for dance-pop as an artistic spectacle, it’s clear that over the last five decades, our favorite pop artists have all loved to love Donna Summer’s musical blueprint.
More Stars To Honor Barbra Streisand
Jeff Beck, LeAnn Rimes, Seal, and BeBe Winans added to performance lineup for GRAMMY Week MusiCares Person of the Year tribute
(For a complete list of 53rd GRAMMY Awards nominees, click here.)
Current GRAMMY nominees Jeff Beck and LeAnn Rimes, and GRAMMY winners Seal and BeBe Winans are the latest performers announced for the 2011 MusiCares Person of the Year tribute to Barbra Streisand, to be held during GRAMMY Week on Feb. 11 in Los Angeles. They join previously announced performers Tony Bennett; singer/actress Kristin Chenoweth; GRAMMY-nominated "Glee" cast members Darren Criss, Lea Michele and Matthew Morrison; Herbie Hancock; Diana Krall; Barry Manilow; Donna Summer; Stevie Wonder; and singer Nikki Yanofsky. Streisand, an eight-time GRAMMY-winning artist and current nominee, will close the evening with her own special performance. Additional performers will be announced soon.
Proceeds from the annual Person of the Year tribute, now in its 21st year, provide essential support for MusiCares.
The event, a private charity fundraiser, is attended by industry VIPs and others who help support the work of The Recording Academy-affiliated MusiCares Foundation, which offers programs and services to members of the music community, including emergency financial assistance. The MusiCares MAP Fund provides access to addiction recovery treatment and sober living resources for members of the music community regardless of their financial circumstances, and MusiCares Safe Harbor Rooms offer a support network to those in recovery while they are participating in the production of televised music shows, such as the GRAMMY Awards, and other major music events.
The MusiCares Person of the Year tribute is one of the most prestigious events held during GRAMMY Week. The celebration culminates with the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards on Sunday, Feb. 13 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The telecast will be broadcast live on the CBS Television Network at 8 p.m. ET/PT. For information on purchasing tables and tickets to the event, please contact Dana Tomarken at 310.392.3777.
Past MusiCares Person of the Year honorees include Tony Bennett, Bono, Natalie Cole, Phil Collins, David Crosby, Neil Diamond, Gloria Estefan, Aretha Franklin, Don Henley, Billy Joel, Elton John, Quincy Jones, Luciano Pavarotti, Bonnie Raitt, Paul Simon, Sting, James Taylor, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and Neil Young.
GRAMMY Rewind: Watch Donna Summer Win Best Female R&B Vocal Performance For "Last Dance" In 1979
In the latest edition of GRAMMY Rewind, watch disco queen Donna Summer win the GRAMMY for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance at the 21st GRAMMY Awards in 1979.
Disco queen Donna Summer is no stranger to the GRAMMY stage, having been nominated for 18 total awards and winning five over the course of her illustrious career. In 1979, at the 21st GRAMMY Awards, Summer took home her first golden gramophone (Best R&B Vocal Performance) for the glittering single "Last Dance," which was written to soundtrack the 1978 film Thank God It's Friday.
For the latest edition of GRAMMY Rewind, relive Summer's special moment below:
Draped in a black and gold dress, Summer breathlessly accepted her award, thanking songwriter Paul Jabara.
In addition to Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, "Last Dance" also won the Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song and peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The next year, Summer won Best Rock Vocal Performance for "Hot Stuff."
FYI/TMI: Rock Hall's Class Of 2013, Florence Welch Stops A Fight
Heart, Public Enemy, Rush among 2013 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Welch squelches concert fight in Scotland
(In an effort to keep you fully informed, and fully entertained, below we present today's FYI and TMI — news you need and news that's, well, sometimes needless….)
Rock Hall Announces 2013 Class
Heart, Albert King, Randy Newman, Public Enemy, Rush, and Donna Summer are the performer inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's class of 2013. Blues guitarist King and GRAMMY winner Summer will be posthumously inducted. Additional inductees are GRAMMY-winning producers Lou Adler and Quincy Jones, who will receive the Ahmet Ertegn Award for Lifetime Achievement. The class will be inducted at a ceremony on April 18 in Los Angeles.
Luke Bryan Tops American Country Music Awards
Luke Bryan was the top winner at the 2012 American Country Music Awards on Dec. 10 in Las Vegas, taking home nine awards, including Artist of the Year, Single of the Year for "I Don't Want This Night To End" and Album of the Year for Tailgates And Tanlines. GRAMMY winner Miranda Lambert followed with three awards, including Single of the Year: Female for "Over You." Additional artists garnering awards included Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band, among others.
Welch Breaks Up Concert Fight
Fresh off garnering two nominations for the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album for Ceremonials, Florence Welch of Florence & The Machine is still shaking it out, both onstage and in the crowd. Midway through her performance of the GRAMMY-nominated "Shake It Out" during a concert in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Dec. 9, Welch spotted audience members pushing and shoving each other. Realizing that her pitch-perfect pop vocals usually don't arouse mosh pits, Welch took matters into her own hands after spotting a crying fan. "Are you alright my love?" Welch asked before jumping offstage, barefoot and all. After all was resolved, Welch then asked the audience to "kiss and make up and be good to each other." Moral of the story? Don't kiss with a fist, at least not in front of Florence Welch.
Photo: Larry Marano/WireImage.com
GRAMMY Museum To Remember Donna Summer
Donna Summer: Four Seasons Of Love exhibit to open July 2
On July 2 the GRAMMY Museum will unveil its latest temporary exhibit, Donna Summer: Four Seasons Of Love. Located on the Museum's fourth floor, this unique exhibit will offer visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the iconic career of the late five-time GRAMMY winner. This will mark the first exhibit highlighting the career of the legendary Queen of Disco.
"Donna Summer galvanized a diverse group of music fans and she was able to give credibility to a genre of music that had many skeptics," said GRAMMY Museum Executive Director Bob Santelli. "We are honored to tell her story and help demonstrate why Donna Summer is not only the undisputed Queen of Disco, but also one of the most successful female artists of all time."
On display through spring 2015, the exhibit will feature gowns and costumes designed by Summer; handwritten lyrics and notes; never-before-seen photographs spanning Summer's entire career; several hand-painted pieces from the singer's critically acclaimed Summer Fine Arts Collection; and set design sketches created by Summer, among other items.
"In 1978, Donna received the GRAMMY Award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, her first major industry award," said her husband Bruce Sudano. "Donna's relationship with The Recording Academy was very special to her. On behalf of our daughters Mimi, Brooklyn and Amanda, and the extended family, we are truly honored to have the GRAMMY Museum host this amazing tribute to Donna's legacy."