I remember the Friday nights from my pre-school days in the ’70s thusly: My parents had a waterbed in the living room. Said waterbed was covered with a velvet crushed black blanket. My babysitter, who used to iron her blonde hair with an iron on the ironing board would create a disco ball out of carefully cut aluminum foil and my god sister and I would perform Donna Summer‘s “Hot Stuff” in my mom’s platform wedges, which were better than her spiked heels, because they wouldn’t puncture the waterbed, which of course, was our stage.
In a week where discussions of slut-shaming self-proclaimed “bad girl” Rihanna have surfaced, I’m reminded that Donna Summer was a sex positive role model before I knew what sex was. Donna Summer was big sexy hair and red lips and long legs poured into spandex. She was disco’s first and biggest pop queen. And disco was permissive, and tolerant and about pleasure. Her signature classic, “Love to Love You” was practically sex in real time, seventeen minutes of ecstasy and abandonment. She was a pop star pleasure activist who made possible Madonna and Prince. Like her maxi single, Donna Summer’s double length albums broke chart records and earned her a dozen Grammy nominations and five wins. Later, like Prince, Donna would disavow her young, free self for religion. She was forced by lifelong fans to perform her raunchier disco songs, even if she did so, as I saw her do five years ago in Atlantic City, in a Sunday perfect white pantsuit.
Gone too soon at 63, her battle with breast cancer was a private one. It’s not entirely fair that she remain frozen in our minds as a 20-something sex positive feminist hero; her real life was undoubtedly as complicated and rich as our own. Still, tonight, I’ll do a dervish disco twirl in Donna Summer’s honor, praying that she rest in pleasure.