Donna Summer — who died today at age 63, adding yet another name to the list of musical icons who recently left us too soon — was known primarily as a disco queen.
Her music was perfectly designed for a sweet spin around a roller rink, with tube socks pulled up high and satin shorts cut way above the thigh. “Bad Girls.” “Hot Stuff.” “Last Dance.” This was feather-your-hair, lather-on-your-shiny-lip-gloss pop music, the records you listened to while getting ready to go out dancing, then listened to again once you started to boogie at the place with the spinning, shimmery disco ball.
But as big as Summer was in the 1970s — and she was HUGE — she continued to make a mark in the 1980s as a music video pioneer.
In 1983, it was still rare to see a non-white face in an MTV music video. The network was only two years old at that point, but African American artists still had to fight pretty hard to get their clips into heavy rotation on the increasingly influential channel.
Summer was one of the first to break through that barrier. And she did it with “She Works Hard for the Money,” a four-minute clip that follows the struggles of working women and does something that a lot of videos at the time were still trying to figure out how to pull off: tell an actual story that tied in directly with its source material. It worked so well that it ultimately made Summer the first African American woman to receive an MTV Video Music Award nomination; the clip earned two nods in 1984, the first year the VMAs was held. (She ultimately lost in her categories to Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson.)
Naturally, the problems of all the females in the video — working moms, low-paid waitresses, seamstresses working in sweatshops that at least had the decency to feature highly synchronized choreography — were ultimately resolved with a video-closing, climactic dance routine in the streets of New York. Hey, this is how we can solve the economic gender gap: Let’s dance it out!
Okay, clearly “She Works Hard for the Money” didn’t solve any problems. But for little girls who watching MTV back then, it did plant some ideas in our impressionable minds: that women can hold down all kinds of jobs, not just ones that involve escorting sharp-dressed men in ZZ Top videos; that when all of us females band together, it can be incredibly empowering; and that if I’m ever having a super-bad day at work, Donna Summer will always have my back.