18 May 2012

Summer Nights

The death of Donna Summer comes just as the press is assessing the impact of President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. Many black churchgoers disagree with the President on this issue, and they’re making their feelings known, especially to reporters and pollsters: many resent the linking of gay rights to the civil rights movement, and many believe that the Bible’s proscriptions against homosexuality and promotion of heterosexuality (and, occasionally, of monogamy) do not permit Christians to support marriage equality. Black churches, along with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were instrumental in the passage of Proposition 8, which ended legal marriages in California, even while Barack Obama won overwhelming support from blacks in the same November election in 2008.

What does this have to do with Donna Summer? The singer, whose first performances were in the church choir of her girlhood, was born-again in the late 1970s; a few years later, as the AIDS crisis exploded, she was quoted as saying that AIDS was God’s punishment of homosexuals. She denied making that statement, but the reputation stuck: namely, that an artist whose success always depended on gay men had no sympathy for her most stalwart champions. It took her years to recover, and even now some gay men are unwilling to enjoy her music.

Donna Summer learned in the 1980s what Barack Obama is learning now, if he didn’t know it already: that relations between black Christians and gays are tense and not easily reconciled, and that anything you say on the subject can alienate your loyal base.

Today, few people seem to remember much if anything about the rift between Summer and the gays — and even less about the flak she caught from Christians whenever she defended gays. (Which she did, many times.) Instead we’re recalling her as the high priestess of disco hedonism, presiding over an endlessly orgiastic night. She was the woman who simulated (or stimulated) 23 orgasms while recording “Love to Love You Baby” and who glamorized promiscuity and prostitution in song.

She was uncomfortable with this image, and yet what she really believed seldom seemed to matter, in those days. We saw her as a sex symbol, the mistress of revels for a generation obsessively committed to revelry. Blame the songs, if you will.

If indeed she never meant the things she sang, that’s perhaps why I can hear in her music a kind of detachment, a disembodiment even while ostensibly absorbed in the pleasures of the flesh. Her voice floats, high and serene, over the thumpa-thumpa instruments, the repetitive and inane lyrics, and the hangover melodies that drill into your head and don’t let go until sometime the next day.

I daresay she’s happier and far better understood now that she’s singing in the choir celestial. She was an unlikely denizen of Disco World, but that may explain why the dancers made her their queen — for a time.

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