Friday, May 18, 2012

An Icon for All Seasons: Donna Summer 1948-2012

Like any great diva of a certain age (the '70s to the '80s), Donna Summer provided the soundtrack to many memorable moments of my early life in Kissimmee, Florida. One of my most vivid Summer moments, though, happened in another place and time (to quote the title of her 1989 album, the one featuring her No. 7 comeback hit "This Time I Know It's for Real") -- last year, to be precise, more than three decades after her disco heyday. I was with a friend at Sircuit, a bar in Melbourne, Australia, when the DJ cranked up the best song I'd heard out in months.

"What is this?" I asked my friend, who was equally impressed, and clueless. It was at least a chorus and one and a half verses in before we realized what this was (thanks to an application on my friend's phone that matched lyrics to song): "Our Love," a track from Summer's landmark 1979 No. 1 double album, Bad Girls, which I'd never heard in its entirety but knew because of its major hits "Hot Stuff," "Dim All the Lights" and the title track.

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could this song, which sounded as 2011 as anything from Lady Gaga's Born This Way album, be 32 years old? That, though, was always the beauty of Donna Summer, the queen of disco who died on May 17 from lung and breast cancer at age 63: her timelessness. At her best ("I Feel Love," "Love to Love You Baby," sides 1 and 4 of Bad Girls), she was at once ahead of her time, completely of it, and well above it. She transcended pretty much everything that makes pop and most of its stars so predictable. That's why a nearly middle-aged track like "Our Love" can still sound like a brand new groove that's hot off the press.

I've spent a lot of time writing Summer's praises on this blog, and last year after my "Our Love" epiphany, I spent several months reconnecting with her music, as her greatest hits were on repeat on my computer's media player. What a shame, I often thought, as "Our Love" blared in the background for the third or fourth time that hour, that she was often regarded as a dinosaur of disco, when, in fact, her music was so much more.

Unfortunately, Summer was so closely linked to disco that her reign as the queen of pop didn't outlast it by long on the charts. She did enjoy a few mini-comebacks over the years, most recently with a solid 2008 album Crayons, which hit the Top 20. But in the legacy department, she never received full credit for being the groundbreaking artist that she was, one who merged disco, electronic-pop, new wave, rock & roll, R&B, and even country (she co-wrote Dolly Parton's great 1980 No. 1 country hit "Starting Over Again") into a fresh mix that defied easy categorization.

I recently fretted that she never got her long overdue induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite several nominations. I suspect an invitation will be coming next year, better late than never, yet too little too late. Sadly, Summer won't be around to enjoy it, or to blow us all away with one "Last Dance."

The Best of Donna Summer

"Our Love" The one that kicked off my belated re-appreciation of Summer.

"The Wanderer" It's one of her few greatest hits that sounds hopelessly dated today, but that doesn't make it any less thrilling.

"The Woman in Me" One of those non-hits (No. 33, 1983) that deserved to be a classic.

"Love Is In Control (Finger on the Trigger)" Even better today than I remember it being back in 1982.

"I Feel Love" Iconic and flawless, like Summer.

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