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The Advocate (mid 80s)
Summer and Smoke
by Adam Block
"Donna Summer is not homophobic," a
closeted gay executive at her record company insisted recently, sounding
terminally exasperated. "She's just a dumb [anatomical expletive
Charming, but that wasn't exactly the kind of
official response to angry complaints over the lady's public remarks that
fervent fans were looking for. They had crowned
the pinch-nosed diva the queen of disco back in 1975, when the amyl set owned
that music. The lady was gay royalty.
To be fair, Donna Summer never asked to be
acclaimed as heroine of the homos, and I don't recall even fanatics looking to
her for political leadership or wisdom. Her Moroder/Bellotte hits ("Love To
Love You, Baby," "I Feel Love," "Bad Girls" and
"Hot Stuff" were divine let's fuck anthems set to relentless disco
rhythms. Of course, gay men were pioneers at treating mindless, marathon
fucking as a courageous political activity.
In 1980, after five years as a reigning voice of
the disco scene, Summer began to take control of her own career. She sued her
manager, left her record company, remarried and became a "born-again"
Christian. In 1983, touring behind her comeback smash "She Works Hard For
The Money," Summer had graduated from the gay discos to suburban arenas.
She was also making small talk between numbers. Gay fans followed her to the
burbs, and if the shows struck them as careful and gutless, her remarks
astonished and enraged many.
There were reports of Summer reminding the crowd,
"It was Adam and Eve,
not Adam and Steve," a line I thought belonged to Anita Bryant. She
reportedly told gays in her audience, "I'll pray for you tonight." And
when questioned about gay rights, she is reported to have responded, "I've
seen the evil homosexuality come out of you people... AIDS is your sin,"
finally closing, "Now don't get me wrong; God loves you. But not the way
you are now."
Some fans were livid. An angry account appeared
in the Village Voice. In England, DJ/producer Ian Levine banned her music
from Heaven, the popular disco, and called for a total boycott in the British
pop press. Summer and her management stonewalled the issue. The aforementioned
gay exec proudly claims that he personally "got her to drop that idiotic
'Adam and Steve' crack."
When outspoken gay/socialist trio Bronski Beat
covered Summer's "I Feel Love" on their debut LP, the issue
resurfaced. My esteemed colleague John Bryant (Male Review)
noted once that once Bronski Beat were told of her remarks, they
responded in disgust, "Donna Summer is dead," but continued to perform
the song. The notion of gay men making the song their own didn't cut much ice
with Bryant, who thundered that Summer's royalties from Bronski's version
"go to the right-wing Christian Hate Campaign through Summer's donations
and promotion." Bryant was appalled to find that DJs ad L.A.'s popular gay
discos Probe and Studio One refused to ban her discs. His requests for an
interview with Summer went unanswered.
This spring, Lorne Michaels and the other
organizers of an AIDS benefit in New York reportedly contacted David Geffen to
see if his record company wanted to provide an act for the show. Summer
reportedly volunteered but was rejected by organizers because of her by now
infamous remarks. That rejection apparently shook Summer from her complacency.
Though Summer declined a request from THE ADVOCATE
to be interviewed on the subject, Warner Brothers sent a statement from the
singer to both the Village Voice and to our own pop music desk. This was
not a retraction, but an apology.
"It is very difficult for me to believe this
terrible misunderstanding continues. Since the very beginning of my career, I
have had tremendous support and friendship from many in the gay community. It is
a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as
homophobic. My medium of expression is music, all I can ask for is understanding
as I feel my true feelings have been misrepresented. As a Christian, I have
nothing but love for everyone and I recognize it is not my place to judge
others. I believe with all my heart and soul that AIDS is a tragedy for all
humankind. A cure must be found and all of us have to do whatever we can to
Summer isn't ready to celebrate homosexuality or
even condone it. The irony is that so many gays, celebrating their sexuality to
her performances, assumed that she, too, rejoiced in it. Her music is
very much the property of the people who scored their life to it. They own it as
profoundly as she does. But the don't own her, not
her religion, her politics nor her royalty
When fans identify with music they adore, and
with the artists who make it, that doesn't insure that the artist sees herself
through their eyes, or – if she does – that she likes the image. Somehow I
don't think Donna Summer's dream was ever to be a musical standard bearer
for butt-fucking, urban nightclubbers. What hurt gay fans was that she didn't
seem to have developed any real compassion for them (at least until this belated
statement was issued).
Reborn, Summer seemed to have blithely accepted
the Christian bigotry of the Christian right towards gays as gospel. If that
made Summer's understanding of gays painfully shallow, it also showed how facile
gay fans have been in celebrating glamour and the very idea of stardom.
The equation is as simple as pop gets: Summer had a glossy package to sell. We
So what's love got to do with it? Isn't it a bit
much to get all huffy about the contents when you were only shelling out for the package?
After all, Summer's still singing about love, and you can still dance to it.
Right, and love does have lots to do with
it, because that's where the bitterness erupted: from the breach between the
sensual sexuality she once celebrated and the Christian exaltation she has
replaced it with. In the worst of worlds, the first devolves to simple greedy
lust, the second to righteous bigotry; and though curiously similar, they are
inevitably at loggerheads. In the best of worlds, the two aren't at odds; both
are illuminated by compassion and gratitude. Donna, and her fans, seem to have lost sight of that.
Summer got caught in the middle of a public
dialog between gay lib and the new Christian right, between gay fans
expectations of the queen of disco and those of her fellow Christians. And she
handled it badly. But Donna Summer is no more a homophobe than many other more
tactful artists, and no more of a dumb [anatomical expletive deleted] than many
of her gay fans. Those are the unpleasant truths that the glare of the
disco-ecstasy Summer swept in on conveniently obscured.
Now isn't it about time she put out an album we
could care enough about to consider raising the roof – or boycotting?
© The Advocate