It’s hard to imagine contemporary pop music without Donna Summer, who just lost her battle with cancer at the age of 63.
As the eternal Queen of Disco, she added her stellar voice to swirling dance tracks, giving soul and passion to love songs, sexy come-ons, and political rallying cries. Perhaps more than any artist before her, Donna Summer proved that dance music could showcase a singer’s nimble gift. When we admire Beyonce‘s wailing on “Single Ladies” or Lady Gaga‘s anguished cries on “Bad Romance,” we’re also honoring Summer’s influence.
Just as importantly, Summer—along with her legendary collaborators like Giorgio Moroder—demonstrated that disco and dance music could the push boundaries of subject matter. Though she distanced herself from them later, Summer first entered the scene with frankly sexual songs like “Love to Love You Baby,” in which she simulates an orgasm with perfect pitch. Summer may have eventually felt those songs (and their image) were forced upon her, but like it or not, she helped break taboos.
And later, of course, she took control of her image and delivered anthems like “She Works Hard for the Money.” It wasn’t the first feminist dance tune, but it made an important statement all the same.
In the 80s, Summer’s legacy was tarnished by her reported anti-gay statements about the AIDS crisis. In retrospect, though, those statements seem more like rumors than truths, and by the end of the decade the gay community (and the rest of her fans) welcomed her back with the comeback hit “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”
For the rest of her life, Donna Summer remained a respected pioneer in pop music. As we focus on her legacy today, I’d like to offer these three songs to remember her by. They aren’t her only classics, but for me, they’re the first I want to play.
(1) “She Works Hard for Money”
The video alone makes this an essential hit. The image of those hard-working ladies dancing in the street is forever burned into my brain. Don’t let the Man (or your man) keep you down!
(2) “Heaven Knows”
STOP. Her vocals on this song are out of control. It’s because she’s such a good singer that this track soars. Listen to those big notes in the chorus. Over thirty years later, they’re still thrilling.
(3) “Hot Stuff”
This is possibly my favorite disco song of all time. The sass. The sex. The sweet, sweet rhythm. It’s slinky and perfect. When you record a song this good, you earn your title as a Disco Queen.
Previously: Donna Summer Dead at 63
Mark Blankenship tweets as @IAmBlankenship