As a child, one of my first musical memories was Donna Summer's Bad Girls. Not only would I listen to the 15-track pop masterpiece ad nauseum, I would stare at the album cover for hours. Donna Summer coolly gazed at you with a steamy look in her eyes, casually dressed in a teddy like she just finished some "bad girl" shenanigans, but still managed to keep her wig tight and face flawless. Illuminated by a heavenly blue backdrop, there she was again, to the side, posed on a corner, leaning up against a street lamp and chatting with a police officer. What did Donna do? Was she about to get arrested? Do women that pretty go to the slammer? I thought. There was a storyline in the album’s photos and I wanted to know it. Hot pink letters read: "Donna Summer Bad Girls." Years later, my mother would joke: "I knew you were gay when at 2-years-old you wouldn't stop playing that damn Donna Summer album!”
This morning, Summer died of lung cancer at the young age of 63. The five-time Grammy winner will go down in history as a force in pop music and — we can’t forget — one of the original, modern day gay icons.
Donna Summer’s gay icon status is unique for its time. "I Feel Love," "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" and "MacArthur Park" were soundtracks for an era right before the onslaught of HIV/AIDS epidemic. She had a soulful voice, over-the-top fashion, and an edge that gave her an immediate following in the LGBT community, especially among gay men. Back in 2008, I interviewed Donna Summer and asked about her gay fans, "I don’t know if I would have a career if it hadn’t been in some ways for the way 'Love to Love You Baby' started off and everybody jumped on it. It was really in the gay clubs the song took off — they really embraced that new sound. I have to give credit where credit is due.” Unlike some artists of today who actively seek out a LGBT following — the community came to Summer.
That said, Summer had a complex relationship with the LGBT community. So much so that as the texts poured in on my phone with news that the disco diva passed, the next sentence in many of the texts were, "Wasn't she homophobic?" It's a rumor that stuck with her for the latter part of her career.
By the early '80s, Donna had become a born-again Christian. In many ways, she denounced her disco past and vowed to never perform her classic "Love to Love You Baby" — I guess the 22 orgasms were too much for Christianity. During her 1983 tour, Donna allegedly — and I stress allegedly — told the crowd, "I've seen the evil homosexuality come out of you people... AIDS is your sin. Now don't get me wrong; God loves you. But not the way you are now." Well, all gay hell broke lose! TheVillage Voice blasted her. Donna Summer's music was banned in gay clubs. The LGBT community was ready to dim all the lights on her career. She soon released a statement that seemed less like a denial, but more of an apology:
"It is very difficult for me to believe this terrible misunderstanding continues. Since the very beginning of my career, I have had tremendous support and friendship from many in the gay community. It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic. My medium of expression is music, all I can ask for is understanding as I feel my true feelings have been misrepresented. As a Christian, I have nothing but love for everyone and I recognize it is not my place to judge others. I believe with all my heart and soul that AIDS is a tragedy for all humankind. A cure must be found and all of us have to do whatever we can to help."
In late years, Donna would outwardly deny that she made the comments. However, there was always a cloud of, "Did she say it?" that hovered over her career. Nonetheless, she performed at countless LGBT pride events and would participate in several HIV/AIDS charities. But some wondered if Donna remained a fixture in the gay community because she had to. What would Donna Summer be without the loyalty of her LGBT fans?
Regardless, I was ridiculously excited to interview Donna Summer in 2008 for her first album in 17 years, Crayons. I decided against asking about the alleged comments from the ‘80s, I was sure she was tired of being asked the same question for 25 years and giving the same answer. Instead, I wanted to know her thoughts on LGBT rights. When I inquired about gay marriage, she answered, "I don’t really have an opinion on it, to tell you the truth. I think people have to do what they feel they have to do. Not being gay myself, I don’t have the same frame of reference—do you know what I'm saying?" I was disappointed at her vague response. Regardless of sexual orientation, is a human right that difficult to form an opinion on? But, she continued, "I don’t know what it is to feel like you can never be married or any of that because I am married, I have kids and I have all those things. It's uncharted ground for me personally; I can’t even make a comment on it."
Her answer wasn’t offensive, but strange to me. On the other hand, I realized: Donna Summer’s music transcended rumors of homophobia and iffy answers on same-sex marriage. The mezzo-soprano was the vessel to some of the best club music ever recorded; she never had a responsibility to be spokesperson for the LGBT community. Sure, it would have been amazing if she had empowering comments that would come from artists like Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Barbra Streisand (with whom she famously sang on the number 1 hit "No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)"). But we cannot depend on pop stars to empower us, we must affirm ourselves.
Nothing will ever take away the joy of Donna Summer’s music. For me, her dance anthems are more powerful than rumors of homophobia. She ferociously sang of love and loss with enough soul to make any generation dance the blues away.
No other song personifies that fusion of dance and emotion more than “On the Radio,” an ode to a lover who never told his lost love how he truly felt. A letter falls out of his “old brown overcoat,” which is found and read on the air. At the end of the song, Donna sings, “The only friend I know is my radio…” Whether your heart is aching from love, loneliness, rejection or fear, the radio always understands and that is what Donna Summer’s music represented.
Rest in Peace to the original Lady of the Night.
CLAY CANE is a co-editor and contributing writer of For Colored Boys, available this summer. Follow him on Twitter here.