NOISE: An Audience with the Queen

Donna Summer isn’t back; she never went away

Andy Wang

I apologize in advance for this sentence, but I must tell you: Donna Summer still works hard for the money.

"Touring is really hard," the disco queen says. "I don't think people realize how extreme the pain can be—the physical pain of being on stage."

During her current tour, Summer threw her back out moving her suitcase, but she just sang and danced through the misery.

"My back was still hurting on stage," she says. "I could only do certain movements. You still have to be out there entertaining people and smiling, even when it feels like somebody is hitting you in the back with a baseball bat. And you're playing in places that are 80 or 90 degrees. Add some smoke and add some more light, and it's 110 degrees. I've been playing some outdoor venues, so add some bugs. It's insane when you're on stage."

But Summer perseveres, like the populist pro she is. For the past 30 years, she's been stomping on genres, weaving in and out of disco and rock and gospel, giving her fans exactly what they want.

"I just grew up singing a lot of different kinds of music," she says. "I liked '60s and '70s music and the hippie movement. I listened to everything across the board, from Jimi Hendrix to the Beatles."


What else to listen to

Five compelling reasons to buy Donna Summer's catalogue.

Year: 1975

Album: Love to Love You Baby

Reason: The titular hit single was good enough for No Doubt to cover on the Zoolander soundtrack.

Year: 1978

Album: Live and More

Reason: When no one's looking, you shake your rump to "Last Dance"; 17-minute version of "MacArthur Park."

Year: 1979

Album: Bad Girls

Reason: "Bad Girls." "Hot Stuff." Enough said.

Year: 1983

Album: She Works Hard for the Money

Reason: Title track is about cleaning women, but don't tell that to headline writers across the country when a hooker story is in front of them.

Year: 1989

Album: Another Place and Time

Reason: The cover weirds us out every time we look at it.

Martin Stein

As proof that she's always been a feisty gal who's mixed things up, she proudly reminds me that she's won five Grammys in five different categories. You don't do that and also manage to sell more than 100 million albums without writing hit after hit. But here's Summer's secret: Maybe writing the hits isn't what defines Donna Summer. Maybe writing the hits is what has allowed Donna Summer to be Donna Summer for the last three decades.

Her formula for catering to the masses has always been pretty basic:

"As long as the dance hit is on [an album], people listen to everything else," she says.

It's a trick that's worked on some level for everybody from 50 Cent to the B-52s, from the Smashing Pumpkins to Smash Mouth. The difference with Summer, though, as she quickly points out, is that with her, it wasn't just one or two hits per album.

"There were always four songs they could go to radio with," she says. "Then after that, I had free rein over what I had to do."

Her success is staggering—14 top-10 singles, including four No. 1 smashes; an unprecedented three consecutive platinum albums—but Summer, now in her mid-50s, isn't letting up. Her new single, "I Got Your Love," is available on iTunes.

"I think fans still want new music," she says. "There are artists way older than me who keep recording."

Summer's long been considered a sex goddess, simultaneously an object of desire for straight men and an icon for women and gays, but "as I grow older, that will stop," she says. "I'm not 17 anymore. What I'm noticing with my fans is that it's more about the music now. I'm seeing people with their little kids at my shows, people from their 20s to their 50s. I see people who grew up with the music through their parents."

She may not be 17 anymore, but for Donna Summer, age ain't nothing but a number. She admits that she takes B12 shots to maintain her energy, and that she sometimes thinks about not touring, but, "I still love entertaining people, making people smile. I don't think it's the kind of thing you just stop doing.

"Barring any kind of health issue, I will probably, in some form, always do this," she continues. "Look at Ella Fitzgerald and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. They just sang until they got old and died. I don't think that, when I'm 70, I'll be up there doing dance routines, but you never know. You never know."

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