Classic Donna Summer: Online catalog shows top singer in control
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A computer screen or television set has never been the best place to experience Donna Summer’s music (the correct venue is a packed dance floor, obviously).
But the late disco siren had several clips that were staples of the early music video era. She helped define dance floor fashion aesthetics with an eye for the dark glamor of city noir -- ‘She Works Hard for the Money,’ in particular, lent a seedy and seductive visual style to a song that would become a pop culture staple.
For Angelenos, songs such as ‘Sunset People’ and ‘MacArthur Park’ became local DJ necessities. And ‘I Feel Love’ is widely credited as one of the first -- if not the first -- hit techno singles.
For those delving into her catalog online today, live videos from her peak years show an excellent singer in total control of her unique voice. She was known for breathy sighs that built tension and sex appeal, but she could also rip through a piano ballad with the best of her pop peers, and she had a wide songwriting range -- among other things, she co-wrote Dolly Parton’s ‘Starting Over Again.’
Below are a few staple music videos and some of her best live performances.
‘I Feel Love’
Without this song, there would be no Electric Daisy Carnival, no Sahara Tent or pop-techno wave at all. To modern ears, it’s hard to imagine how revolutionary this song was at the time -- its long-form synth arpeggios and languid vocal repetitions predicted a genre to come.
‘Love to Love You Baby’
Another of Summer’s hit proto-techno singles, with a slinky minimalism and one of the best 12-inch extended mixes in disco.
Summer was known as a disco pioneer, but she had an omnivorous ear for a good song across genres. Hence, turning this Jimmy Webb composition into a platinum-selling banger.
L.A.’s most iconic thoroughfare has produced plenty of musical odes to its pleasures and perils. This is one of the best, and a great vintage-L.A. video to boot.
‘She Works Hard for the Money’
One of Summer’s most iconic songs, it’s surprisingly dark yet empathetic. It’s a tribute to working women everywhere, but also hard not to read this as one of pop’s first sympathy-for-the-sex-worker singles.
An even more overt nod to keeping one’s dignity in the sex trade. But it’s a powerful enough song to make anyone feel a good kind of bad under the club lights.
One of Summer’s best known hits, and a showcase for her full-throated vocals and pop-song acumen.
She could do weepers with the best of her peers, and while much of her music became the stuff of clubland decadence, her ballads like this Oscar-winner feel even more necessary today.
‘Dim All the Lights’
This Grammy-nominated cut showcased Summer’s straightforward R&B chops before turning into a redemptive disco anthem, drawing connections between all her favorite genres.
-- August Brown
2009 file photo. Marc Mueller / AFP/GettyImages