Donna Summer was my Whitney Houston.
I never realized that, until earlier today, when I went outside toward the end of my work day for a last brief break. I pulled out my phone, and before I even realized I was doing it, brought up “Last Dance” on it. And then I stood there, listening to that great disco song, for all eight minutes of its long version. It was a gorgeously sunny day, and there in the cool shade I listened to a song that I’ve loved since I was seven or eight years old, over the tiny speakers on my phone. The sound wasn’t very good, of course. The phone’s not designed for that. It sounds nice as a portable music player over earphones, but the speakers on the phone don’t produce any bass to speak of. It did not do Ms. Summer justice.
And she still sounded utterly, utterly astounding.
Because of my unusual relationship with pop music, I never owned a recording of Donna Summer’s, aside from “Last Dance”, until only just in the last few years. I rarely listened to rock or pop as a kid, preferring to stick with film music and, later on, classical. In fact, I didn’t really start to engage with pop music until I was already actively engaging with classical music. Interesting that both interests blossomed right around the same time…but just because I wasn’t buying pop and rock records or tapes until I was 14 doesn’t mean that I had zero idea of what was going on, mainly because of my sister, who listened to a lot of pop and rock (in addition to classical herself). The soundtrack of my world back then had that music in it, and I keenly remember hearing a lot of Donna Summer for a few years.
But she’d first come to my attention cinematically, through her acting debut in the disco movie Thank God It’s Friday (which I may well watch again this weekend in her memory). In the movie Ms. Summer plays Nicole Sims, an aspiring disco singer who is trying to get her big break by getting the deejay at the disco in the movie to let her sing. He refuses, and refuses, and refuses; he tries to kick her out of the disco and she keeps getting back in. Of course, there’s no doubt in our minds that she’s going to get her shot, but Summer plays her ably as a kid with some skill and just enough confidence to stick with it but also a bit of fear that once her shot is done, that’s it. Finally, the deejay realizes with horror that he has to kill a few minutes of airtime until the Commodores show up, and he’s got nothing to fill it with…so Nicole takes over and starts singing. What’s she singing? “Last Dance”. And of course, after a rough start, she comes into it, and it becomes a performance that has the entire disco dancing and cheering and so on.
Yeah, it’s predictable as hell. But Donna Summer is so beautiful and vulnerable and cocky and confident and willing to stake her life on this one opportunity that doesn’t so much present itself as make itself available to be stolen, that the moment totally works.
And it helps, of course, that “Last Dance” is such a great, great, great song.
Yes, it is. It really is.
Look, it’s fun to laugh at disco, and for a whole lot of reasons. It was music of excess and rhythm-above-all, music that seemingly existed for no reason other than to trumpet a very casual approach to sex that would seem not just quaint but downright dangerous just a few years later. The music, the clothes, the discos with their glowing lights in the darkness, all of it. But there’s never been anything, not one thing, that no matter how fierce the backlash against it, didn’t produce at least something worthwhile. And that was Donna Summer.
“Last Dance” has been a favorite song of mine ever since I saw that bad-but-fun movie (that a seven-year-old kid probably shouldn’t have been watching, but thank God for liberal parents). It sounds like typical overlong disco, with its throbbing beat. But it has real melody behind it, and its master stroke lies in its slow introduction, where Ms. Summer imbues the lyrics with more than a touch of sadness.
Last dance for love
Yes, it’s my last chance
For romance tonight
I need you by me
Beside me, to guide me
To hold me, to scold me
‘Cause when I’m bad
I’m so, so bad….
The way Ms. Summer sings this, it’s not a woman trying to be seductive. It’s a woman feeling desperate. She is being seductive, but she’s also pleading. How many others have there been this night? It doesn’t matter; this is the last one. She needs you, but not because of anything special about you…it’s just the fact that the place is closing and they’re playing the last song of the night. This is it — last call, the last dance.
The beat starts now, and the dance part of the song begins.
Let’s dance the last dance
Let’s dance this last dance tonight
The lyrics repeat, now over the thumping disco beat and the synths and the strings and the brass. This all plays out like a dance on the floor, quick and thumping and seductive, but then there’s a very brief B section where Ms. Summer sings this:
That you’re the one for me
But all that I ask
Is that you dance with me….
That bit right there, that brief, brief moment, elevates the song to something more than just a “Hey let’s dance and then go screw” kind of song. (And the fact that the short version that you hear on the radio omits that part is a major reason why that short version should never be listened to by anybody.) The song takes on a secondary melody, with a break of several seconds in the singing between the second and third lines. What Ms. Summer is saying here is: “I’m looking for someone, I’m looking for the one…and I don’t know if you’re the one and for right now, I’m not asking you to be.” The dance is all there is…the dance on the floor, and maybe the dance to come, the one in bed.
That tiny B section is so blunt in its desperation, and Ms. Summer sounds so vulnerable as she sings it, that “Last Dance” rises, right there, above its genre and its poor reputation that lingers to this day.
The song includes a second slow section, which repeats the lyrics of the opening. It’s an interesting structural shift, and I wonder if it’s not partially meant to depict that second dance, the one that the singer hopes the last dance is leading to. As the song shifts back yet again to the faster tempo, Ms. Summer delivers one of the most amazing high notes I’ve ever heard from a singer (at about the 6:20 mark in the song). It’s the perfect, glorious, vocal climax of a wonderful song.
Donna Summer’s voice was an absolute miracle, as was the complete and utter command she had of that instrument when she was at the peak of her powers. Here’s how good she was, just three years ago, performing “Last Dance” live:
And here she is performing The Star-spangled Banner before a Red Sox game. I didn’t know this performance existed until just tonight.
Donna Summer was a beautiful, transcendently wonderful singer and artist. I truly, deeply hate that she’s gone from this world, and it’s people like her that make me wish so hard that there’s a next one.