Radio stations played Donna Summer songs all weekend, taking you down memory lane, way back in time to the late ’70s and ’80s, when the world seemed to make sense. After the news hit that Summer died from cancer last week, DJs across the country paid tribute to the “Queen of Disco,” who sang the songs that became the soundtracks of our lives: “Last Dance,” “She Works Hard for Her Money,” “Hot Stuff,” “Love to Love You Baby,” “Dim All the Lights,” “Bad Girls,” “On the Radio.”
What memories flash in your mind now when a DJ plays Donna Summer:
You are in eighth grade, standing in the middle school gymnasium during a school dance. By then the balloons had fallen. The gleam of the wood floors on the basketball court stained with punch. The popular girls had their boyfriends. And you were left standing by the wall. Waiting. By the time the DJ played “Last Dance,” the party was almost over and still no boy had come to ask you to dance. But you stood there anyway listening to the song, hoping that by the time it was over the cutest boy in the school would finally notice you before the song ended. But he never did. So as you grew, “Last Dance,” will always remind you of middle school — when you were awkward, not having yet grown into your body and you were still young enough to believe that being the most popular girl or boy in school was important.
Post reporter Avis Thomas-Lester remembers her friends in high school dressing up and preparing to go out. “At the time, I hung out with a group of girls. We called ourselves, ‘The Force.’ We all thought we were cute and fabulous. When the song ‘Hot Stuff’ came out, we made that our theme song. It was an eight-track or a cassette. We would listen to that song, ‘Hot Stuff,’ over and over again before we went out.
“I used to braid my hair and curl the braids on sponge rollers, so it would come like Donna Summer’s. She had an outfit, a halter top, and she wore it with red lipstick. I went to the store and bought a white halter top and went to the drug store and bought red lipstick to wear with my curly hair.
“She was fabulous. When you walk into the joint, you’d try to flip your hair back the way she did in the video and cut your eyes at the DJ, the way she did. You wanted to emulate her, emulate her style.”
Joanna Showell, professor of communications at Bethune-Cookman University, thinks about relationships and possibility. “ ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was relationship-driven. It made you believe in love and romance and fun and youth — not one-night stands. Looking at her made you feel you could respect having a shapely body and being a woman.”
Showell thinks about Summer and remembers Dick Clark, and “the ball is dropping in Times Square. Today, you watch those specials and they have people you can’t relate to. Back then, it would be Donna Summer and K.C. and the Sunshine band. Nothing depressing. You were thinking about joy, of wanting to be with somebody.
“She had long hair before Diana Ross, and she wore it proudly. You always wondered, ‘Is that hers?’ But she had the nerve and the audacity. Every thing she did signified womanhood. She accentuated the curve of the body. She made sultry good. She made it classy and romantic. She was fun and flirty. There was a difference between being free and being loose. She put sultry in sexy.”
You remember an interview with Summer several years ago. In that interview, Summer explains the song was about a woman who worked as a bathroom attendant handing out mints, mouthwash and towels to women who had dashed into a bathroom somewhere ritzy to freshen up. The woman was so tired, but still working. Of course, until you heard that interview, you thought the lyrics were about street walkers. But Summer had explained:
“I was at a Grammys party ... and I went to the ladies room and on my way in I saw this little old lady sitting at the end of the bar. And she was asleep,” Summer said in an interview with “Nightline.” “She was the bathroom attendant. And at that same moment, a group of ladies walked into the room and started spraying their hair and doing all these things. And my first thought was ‘God, she works hard for her money, that lady.’ And then I thought, ‘Man, that’s a song. So I went and grabbed my manager and we went back into the bathroom and started writing the song on a piece of toilet paper.”
So now, every time you go out to one of those fancy hotel balls or fancy theaters, and a woman is sitting in the corner handing out mints, you tip, and Donna Summer comes dancing through your mind, spinning in one of those ’80s videos, twirling with that long black hair, looking into the camera right at you, under those twinkling disco lights. She is gone too soon, but her songs, the sound track of our lives keeps playing, stuck in the groove of life.
Read more on The Root DC