Donna Summer, who died this week at 63, was the one queen of R&B that I could imagine myself becoming. The crop just before her established the very idea of a queen/diva, and those women were formidable: Chaka, Aretha, Dionne Warwicke, Mavis Staples. They were all lyrical but tough, their soaring, searing, sexy but flat-out defiant voices embodying all the elements of the Black Power era that needed voicing --power, pride, a certain insouciance that came with newfound sense of independence and racial self-determination. That legacy is clear in the stylings of contemporary divas like Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, and Rihanna, post-millennial postracialism notwithstanding.
And then there was disco. Its brief four years in the late '70s was a kind of interregnum in black music, a pause between the eras of ferment and protest and complete commercial capture. Disco has been much derided over the years (mostly by white rock fans) as the most throwaway form of R&B -- commercial capture of the first order -- but I never agreed. To me it continued the tradition of black popular music as a talking drum that told us how we were living and what kind of times we were living in, often in coded language that to untrained ears was simplistic. Of course, that was the point. Donna Summer was a supreme messenger of a time in history that was confusing in many ways, a time in which blacks were beginning to drift apart politically with no new game in sight. The tight, snappy beats and upbeat lyrics of disco gave some order to the quiet chaos, some bolstering cheer to the post-'60s ennui that was starting to envelop blacks -- and the whole country -- like a fog. The dance floor had always been our refuge, increasingly our drug, and we were eager to accept the invitation to forget and, perhaps for the first time, to shed the responsibility of a future that was shaping up as troubled indeed.
But Donna Summer reflected the times in a more subtle way. As a persona and performer, she broke from her predecessors by being more emotionally open, less armored, and more ethereal, as vulnerable in some ways as the "Bad Girls" on the Sunset Strip that she sang about. The rhythms and melodies were about good times, but, in the great tradition of blues and jazz, the messages and images in the songs often spoke to something opposite. Take this lyric from "Last Dance," which is almost never played on the radio version of one of Donna Summer's biggest hits:
I can't be sure that you're the one for me All that I ask is that you dance with me, dance with me...
What seems like any other pop tune on the surface sounded to me, when I was 17, like a sincere appeal for love and companionship -- and in a bigger sense, a plea for all of us to continue to stick together as a people or risk dancing alone. It sounded confident and unsure at the same time, and though I didn't have Donna Summer's liquid voice (I still don't, though I still aspire to it) it is her I become when I sing into my hairbrush in the bathroom. She made it easy.
Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.