Donna Summer’s chart career had already wound down by the time I was old enough to gain an awareness of popular music. I was first exposed to her the same way I was exposed to most of the classic artists whose golden years pre-date me – through the hours I spent watching VH1 Classics in the early 90s. I don’t remember the exact occasion when I first saw the live video of her groundbreaking chart-topper I Feel Love, but I do remember being mesmerized by this ethereal-looking woman, eyes shut tight, her voice almost at one with the pulsating dance beat she was singing to. The song would already have been at least 13 years old, but I remember it sounding like something from another world. The only song that had a comparatively bewitching effect on me was Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. Two very different records by two very different women, but both profound influences on how I would listen to music for the next twenty years.
Pre-internet, I gathered more knowledge of Donna’s remarkable discography in snatches. Was that high, breathy voice really the same one employed to booming, jubilant effect on This Time I Know It’s For Real? Or the one that brought such rich warmth to the sublime State of Independence? Not to mention her highly sexed early seventies records. Some of that disco raunch sounds humorously campy now – I particularly love her rendition of Could It Be Magic, which breaks after the first chorus while she has a protracted audio orgasm. But at the time the audacity must have been astonishing.
Her versatility was astonishing, and her willingness to stay abreast of emerging trends in a genre that she helped to create was admirable. A few years ago I picked up her most recent studio album and was surprised to hear not the gentle laurel resting of many heritage acts but a game and intermittently successful modern pop-dance record. She may not have had the chart afterlife of divas such as Diana Ross or Cher, but you suspect this was largely down to the fact that she only recorded a handful of new songs between her last two studio albums, separated by 17 years from 1991 to 2008. Like Kate Bush, she was obviously driven by something other than a desire to remain in the public eye.
Other people are far better qualified than myself to talk about her legacy, her influence on dance music, her under-recognised abilities as a songwriter – she wrote or co-wrote the majority of her hits. I don’t even have all her records – her output at her peak rivaled Rihanna today for sheer volume of material and not all of it is by any means essential. What I can say is that for as long as I have had a serious interest in pop music – that exhilarating, oft derided but ever-enduring art form that has shaped my life and walked with me through the most joyful and the most miserable moments of my life and everything in between – the voice of Donna Summer has been somewhere in the background, whether it’s through her own records or any of the innumerable pop classics that owe her a heavy debt. She blazed the trail. Now it’s up to her successors to carry the flame. They have a hell of a lot to live up to.