Text: Mikel López Iturriaga
IF YOU CLOSE YOUR eyes, it's 1979: Donna Summer sings The Last Dance, a silly
happiness invades your body, and even if you're a geek, you can't help jiggling
your bones. This music suggests discos, glamour, lack of inhibition, sex,
excess ... happiness. Then you open your eyes, 20 years go by and the spell
is broken. It's August, 1999, and onstage at the Universal Amphitheater there's
a middle-aged woman accompanied by musicians even older than she. You're
surrounded by middle-aged parents, lesbians and gays, and you haven't dared
put on your lamé and elephant foot. In a symbolic protest, even the
disco ball has refused to rotate.
However, once you've got it, you've got it forever, and Donna still casts
a spell at 51 years of age. Her voice rings out as in the last days of disco;
she dresses, poses and moves with considerable elegance. She's charming:
her comments between songs make constant fun of herself and her age, with
a few jabs at other celebrities, and bring loud laughs from the audience.
Though her new songs touch on the absurd, though her ballads are as infernal
as Mariah Carey's, and although she commits the mortal sin of singing tenor
Andrea Bocelli's songs, the singer pulls off wonderful classics written 20
years ago like I Feel Love, On the Radio and Bad Girls, all brought back
to life on her most recent album recorded live. When she finishes the concert
you understand why Donna Summer was the queen of queens, the only disco singer
to attain the status of a pop singer, the undisputed number one singer at
the end of the hedonistic seventies.
The next day, in a hotel on Rodeo Drive - a neighborhood filled with designer
stores that elevates luxury to the level of madness - we meet the real Donna
Summer. She's serious and seems tired; she responds curtly and her eyes convey
the following message: "No stupid journalist is going to get too close at
this stage in the game."
The plastic surgery done to her face is more apparent now, and the straight
hair she had in the concert has given way to her natural curly hair. She's
also switched from silk and gauzy material to a tee shirt and pants which
do nothing to camouflage her heavy Teletubbie thighs. "The worst part of
being a diva is the drive to always be the best and most glamorous," she
says with infinite boredom. "I hate diets. Once I finish a tour I eat everything
in sight. But while I'm on the road I eat very little: breakfast, and at
noon four or five slices of pineapple." There's no doubt it's hard being
Summer tries to clear up misunderstandings that can interfere with her comeback.
Contrary to rumor, she denies being a fanatical Christian. "I don't practice
any religion, but I do believe in God. God is very important to me and to
my husband. More important than ever, given how things in this world are
going." Nor does she want to be a revival artist, and she speaks of the past
sparingly. "I don't consider my worth to be purely nostalgic and my new songs
prove it." She's referring to the songs for Ordinary Girl, a musical yet
to open inspired by her tumultuous life, a life as full of public triumphs
as personal frustrations.
Donna Summer was born LaDonna Andrea Gaines on Christmas Eve, 1948. Born
in Boston, one of many children -she has seven brothers-in a family as large
as it was religious, she learned to sing in her church choir. Disinterested
in school, she left for Germany when she was 20 years old to sing in the
hippie musical Hair, and she put down roots in Munich where she married Helmut
Summer, the man responsible for her artistic surname.
In 1974 a meeting took place that changed Donna's future and the future of
dance music for the next 30 years. The singer met Giorgio Moroder and Pete
Bellotte, two restless producers searching for new formulas to fill the dance
floors of the discos. "I had just finished raising my daughter and wanted
to resume my career in a new direction. We were introduced and began to work
together," Summer recalls. The combination proved to be explosive. Donna
had all the passion of American soul music; her collaborators were studio
magicians who worked wonders with an electronic instrument called a synthesizer.
Soul and technology, sunny sensuality and unrestrained commercialism. Ladies
and gentlemen, the sound of disco. "We weren't aware of creating anything
new," asserts the singer. But Neil Bogart, the owner of Casablanca Records,
certainly was. When he heard Love to Love You, Baby he took the record to
the U.S., tried it out at a party, and was overwhelmed by the reaction to
it. Bogart asked Moroder to record a much longer version to be edited in
the U.S., and the single, which originally hadn't appeared on the list of
European hits, became an instant hit in its 17 minute version.
It was a milestone - the most popular dance album ever recorded - and also
the beginning of Donna Summer's ambivalent relationship with her own hits.
She had recorded the risqué song for fun, inspired by Jane Birkin
and Serge Gainsbourgh's multi-orgasmic Je T'aime, never thinking the whole
world would hear her sing the obscene lyrics and moan with pleasure at the
end. Donna had become the sex goddess she never wanted to be.
Love to Love You Baby is the only one of her hits she refuses to sing today.
"I don't feel comfortable, you know? I'm a Christian and I don't think it
would set a good example for my daughters." Sorry, Mrs. Summer, but we have
to talk about this song, the first in a tremendous series of hits that lasted
until the end of the decade. Newly installed in the United States with her
old collaborators from Munich, releasing an average of two albums a year,
Summer managed to maintain a steady course in the world of disco music. Quite
an achievement for a genre that because of it's fly-by-night philosophy -enjoy
life any way you can - and it's methods - the producer rules the artist -
produced great songs but no lasting singers.
Why didn't Summer disappear like other artists of the disco period? "By the
grace of God," she responds. Even more incredible, Donna controlled her career
by taking an active part in composing and producing her songs; she was also
restless enough musically so as not to get stuck in a particular mode. She
flirted with other styles like rock (producing Hot Stuff, the song to which
the characters in The Full Monty danced decades later), and even allowed
herself to record conceptual albums like I Remember Yesterday.
In 1979, her career reached it's peak. She played the role of a new singer
in "It's Finally Friday" (?), a movie about the disco fever, in which she
produced one of the best moments in pop and cinematic history - her emotional
interpretation of The Last Dance. She also recorded her most popular album,
the double Bad Girls, and sang Enough Is Enough with Barbra Streisand.
But Donna was uncomfortable at the top, especially with the image of sex
goddess on her album covers, and she suffered a crisis. "It's not that I
hated disco music," she recalls. "It was more the sex thing. I hated that
people thought of me as a sexual object; I thought I had more talent than
The 80's brought new challenges. Summer abandoned Casablanca Records - it's
logo was, at this point, a boat navigating between rivers of cocaine - stopped
taking tranquilizers, became a born-again Christian, and began to mention
God in her interviews. Her first record for Geffen was a relative commercial
failure, and her productive association with Moroder and Bellotte came to
To top things off, the American press published quotes from Summer affirming
that she thought AIDS was a punishment against homosexuals. She denies ever
having made such a statement. "I said nothing of the kind, don't ask me."
Who could have started that rumor? "I don't know. It was so many years ago
that I have no desire to talk about that", she states glumly. True or not,
her statements drew a final wedge between the artist and her numerous and
faithful gay fans, already upset by her conversion to Christianity.
Summer's career took an unstoppable nosedive. From that time until last year
she continued to give concerts, attended by an audience hungry for nostalgia,
but she concentrated on two basic occupations: her family and painting, a
pastime which she insists bring her considerable income: "It's not a hobby,
it's business! My agent has told me that I've sold paintings for a million
dollars, a considerable sum for a new artist." Take it seriously. This month
one of Donna paintings will be in an exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New
We come to 1999. Riding the tidal wave of comebacks for middle-aged singers,
Sony has contracted Summer in an attempt to recreate the same miracle Cher
produced for Warner Bros. Truth be told, Summer has the same charisma and
more vocal power than Sony's voluptuous "ex".
Her rescue mission was designed as follows: first a VH-1 special on American
television; then an album with songs chosen by Sony. The album contains songs
from her recent concert but also a new song, the "house version" of Con Te
Partiro, which adds to the commercial potential of the older, classic songs
with new material. Sony wanted to make clear that Summer was more than just
good memories. The only thing left was a reconciliation with her gay fans,
crucial to the rehabilitation of any great singer; a benefit concert in New
York for a gay organization erased all suspicions of homophobia.
Even so, the record has received only a lukewarm reception in the United
States (unlike in Spain where it's sold 50,000 copies). But Donna isn't too
upset. The ex-goddess of disco can still afford the luxury of rejecting lucrative
offers, such as the one to sing on New Year's Eve, at the end of the millenium,
her 52nd birthday. "I heard that they're paying Barbra Streisand 15 million
dollars. Since I haven't been made a comparable offer, I'm staying home."
Her future projects generate more excitement. "I'm writing rock, classical,
opera, musicals... I want to merge rock and classical but in a different
way than what's been done up 'til now. I also want to merge classical with
Will the audience back her new ventures? When an artist has been as instrumental
in a genre as Donna was in disco, it's difficult to move in new directions.
"Yes, it's tough," the singer concedes without moving a muscle. "People want
you to be just one thing. But I knew how to escape that and produce songs
that weren't disco even back in the 70's. So why wouldn't I be able to do
that now?" Who dares to contradict her?
Donna Summer and producer Giorgio Moroder had thought of the 1976 album I
Remember Yesterday as a musical journey through the past, the present and
the future. To represent the future they'd composed I Feel Love, a song featuring
Summer's sensual whispers, Moog synthesizer arrangements and an implacable
robotic rhythm. Something like Kraftwerk taken to the dance floor after sex.
They two had unintentionally created one of the cornerstones of what we refer
to today as techno. The song which served as a base and inspiration for
electronic music and whose galloping bass line has been widely imitated,
retains an astounding popularity. A few years ago it began to reappear on
the lists of hits and people danced to it as if it were the latest tune.
Moroder has been widely revered by the dance world and Summer's classic songs
- from the 70's - have been "mimicked" by a wide assortment of artists, from
"hip hoppers" to Madonna. What does the singer think of such imitations?
"When they use portions of my songs they're showing me respect and admiration.
Some do so illegally, but I have a good attorney to handle those cases."