Friday, May 18, 2012

Donna Summer: Not such a bad girl

Pop music is meant to be pretty easy and relatively unchallenging, which is why it’s easy for so many people to like it. I liked Donna Summer’s music, as many people did, but she was one pop artist about whom I’ve always had complicated feelings, and all of that has been brought back by her death.

The first Donna Summer album I bought was Live and More (1978), followed by Bad Girls (1979). The problem I had with her, and disco music generally, was the association it had among my age peers with gay people. As a deeply closeted gay teen, the last thing I wanted was to be publicly identified as gay. So, I kept my like for disco largely secret.

At the time, there was a—to me—malevolent spirit on the loose. In 1978, Chicago radio disc jockey Steve Dahl was fired from a radio station when it changed formats to disco. In his new gig at WLUP (“the Loop”), he began an anti-disco crusade, which featured a fake group, "The Insane Coho Lips Anti-Disco Army", and the promotion of the slogan, “disco sucks”.

This slogan began popping up on black Loop FM T-shirts, worn by teenage boys with long, greasy hair and carrying a faint whiff of marijuana. It was impossible to go to any shopping mall in the Chicago area—as we teenagers did a lot of at the time—without seeing guys wearing those t-shirts.

There was a strong, testosterone-driven pseudo-macho aggressiveness to this whole campaign, and that resulted in one of the most disastrous publicity stunts ever: 1979’s Disco Demolition Night, at which Steve Dahl went to Chicago’s Comiskey Park and blew up a crate of disco records between games in a double header. It set off a riot that forced the Chicago White Sox to forfeit the second game that night. The stunt was likened to a Nazi book burning—which is what popped into my head at the time—with the overtones of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Disco had its roots, of course, in black and gay nightclubs. It went “mainstream” with the release of the film Saturday Night Fever in 1977, but by then it was already beginning to wane in black and gay clubs. By 1980, it would be all but over and, despite some claims, the Disco Demolition stunt did not kill it off: As so often happens with pop music, tastes simply changed.

Donna Summer returned to her more rock-focused roots, more or less, with disco influences still evident in many of her transitional releases. In the early 1980s, Summer became a “born-again Christian”, and this is where the next complication came in: She is alleged to have said that AIDS was “god’s punishment” for gay people. She denied ever having said that, but even in those pre-Internet days, the story spread and persisted.

I first heard the story when I read an article in Gay Chicago Magazine in 1983 or possibly early 1984. The article quoted a Chicago gay man who said he’d attended a Donna Summer concert in Indiana. Fans were invited to stay afterward, because at the time, Summer often held talks after her shows to tell fans about her religious conversion. The guy stayed out of curiosity, and it was there she allegedly made the remark the magazine reported. At the time, I had no reason to doubt the account was true—even though I’ve never seen that particular magazine story mentioned anywhere else.

In 1999, some 15 years or so after the incident I read about, she was planning a concert at the London gay club GAY, and a local activist group was pressuring Summer to denounce such comments. Reporting on the controversy, NME included this paragraph:
“It's alleged that Summer made the comment in 1983 after an American concert when she invited fans backstage to talk about her then recent conversion to 'born again' Christianity. Although she admits a row did occur and words were exchanged, what was actually said has become something of a pop urban myth.”
I have no idea whether they’re referring to the same incident or not, but I can’t remember ever seeing a reference to a heated exchange before, and that could be significant: Many of us have said things in the heat of argument we later regretted, even things we don’t actually believe when calm.

Nevertheless, by 1983 I was a gay activist and any activist who still liked Summer couldn’t say so publicly. That’s ironic, really: Originally I couldn’t admit to liking Summer for fear of being identified as gay, and later I couldn’t for fear I’d be labelled as not being gay enough.

I don’t think I ever played a Donna Summer record again after the alleged incident. I know for certain that none of her records were among the handful I brought back to New Zealand with me when I went back to Chicago to collect the last of my belongings. Still, I never turned on her or rejected her or my past liking of her music, even if I now sometimes wonder what I ever saw in some of it (that happens as we age, I think).

To me, she wasn’t such a bad girl, she just worked hard for the money—sorry, I had to go there. Donna Summer will always be the one pop music artist about whom I have the most complicated feelings. That’s probably why I was never one of her biggest fans. Even so, I’m sorry she’s died.

Goodbye, Donna, and thanks—despite it all.


Graveetas said...

Whitney & Michael Jackson has more of an effect than Donna Summer for me. But, I'm sadden by her cancer as a side effect from 9/11 attack on WTC.

Roger Owen Green said...

I own the Live & More LP. Someone who I dated briefly bought it for me; still have it.

Jason in DC said...

Well I happen to remember that we actually had tickets to see her at Alpine Valley and she cancelled at the last minute. I think it was the year after Bad Girls.

I do remember dancing to her music at a great club in DC called Tracks. Three or four times a year that would have a night called BackTracks where they would play "older" music.

What was so cool about it was they would play the entire MacArthur Park side of the Live and More album (yes it was an album). They would use the same album every time and it had a skip in it and the crowd would always react to that with a groan.

Tracks is long long gone.

It's sad now that Donna Summer is too. She will be missed.