You better treat her right: Donna Summer in 1983

After her disco career crested, Donna Summer recorded an amalgam of New Wave and Teutonic dance-trance called The Wanderer, on which she sounded confident and in control. It’s not in print, a situation that might change with Summer’s death and the dissemination of Dave Marsh’s ecstatic 1980 Rolling Stone review. 1982’s eponymous album, completed after Geffen Records shelved I’m a Rainbow, bore all the signs of clawing at air: the only track with a  Summer songwriting credit shares space with a standard (“Lush Life”), a Vangelis-Jon Anderson distillation of every seventies self-empowerment fad  (“State of Independence”), a Springsteen donation (“Protection”), and a decent top ten pop single cowritten by the album’s producer Quincy Jones called “Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger).” It’s gotten a few reappraisals since, one of which is by Slant Magazine‘s Eric Henderson that I wish I could find. To my ears it’s a middling success; my favorite track happens to be the one on which Summer injected songwriting, “Love is Just a Breath Away.”

For She Works Hard For The Money Summer got her best sales since 1979’s Bad Girls: top ten album and title single, the latter of which could lay claim to sharing with “Every Breath You Take” the Summer Song of 1983 award. But in the wake of Donna Summer and I’m a Rainbow‘s rediscoveries it’s been forgotten in recent years. There’s a hint of desperation to the thing, as if everyone knew what was at stake if the album wasn’t a hit, but that makes the artist’s contributions more impressive: every song bears a Summer songwriting credit and aesthetic fingerprint. For a blockbuster album it boasts a lot of Songs About Issues. Fortunately producer-songwriter  Michael Omartian brought the beats, which are squarely of the Flashdance syndrum variety, and the guitars, which are impressive: lots of counterpoint and unexpected fills. The reason why “She Works Hard For the Money” was so huge in 1983 had to do with how it was a product of the rock-disco hybrid that still sold records yet was a lesson in how to turn a formula on its tiny head. I get a sense that Omartian and Summer hugged themselves with relief after nailing the thing. How many songs of this ilk show such empathy for the poor — an empathy as dependent on the commitment of the beat as they are to the lyrics, which are among Summer’s best:

Twenty-eight years have come and gone
And she’s seen a lot of tears
Of the ones who come in
They really seem to need her there

It’s a sacrifice working day to day
For little money just tips for pay
But it’s worth it all
To hear them say that they care

On one hand it’s easy to giggle at the privilege of a star as rich as Summer presuming that the maid’s satisfaction comes from knowing that “they” — the Sunset People whom Sumner depicted in her 1979 opus — need her. On the other hand Summer restrains her vocal until she lets’er rip in the last two lines as if to say, it’s worth it all to say that she cares. In 1983, the year before we confirmed our approval of Morning in America, Summer dared to outline the complexity of master and servant in a consumer economy.

She Works Hard For the Money presents an artist noticing the world outside the recording studio with the zeal of the converted. She offers a redundant paen to “Women” (what was the title track then?) and an excellent if attenuated ode to the homeless with call and response vocals called “Stop, Look and Listen.” She writes a song called “Tokyo” about meeting a man, “something very strange,” in the Imperial Hotel who claims to be a spy; it’s a real “Ian Fleming mystery,” the synths chirp. It’s worthy of the flaneur ethos immortalized in Bowie’s Lodger. The most eye-opening track is “Unconditional Love,” a collaboration with Musical “Pass the Dutchie” Youth in which Summer affects “island” patois as if Lionel Richie wouldn’t do the same a few months later. She even reconfigures Jesus as the Iconoclast For All Seasons in “He’s a Rebel,” faster than light and walking a miracle mile. Omartian and Jay Gradon’s guitars are clipped and hard, a match for Summmer without outpacing her.

The album’s opus is the self-written “I Do Believe I Fell in Love,” whose electric piano follows a chordal pattern endemic to lots of early eighties El Lay confessional moments but Summer, belting at the top of her register, administers a jolt of eros. The odd point is the middle eight, in which she and Omartian pile multitracked Summer over Summer in an effect as eerie as period Kate Bush; the triumph is the outro, a return to her roots in arpeggiated electronics, bolstered now by piano and drums as Summer repeats the chorus as if willing herself to believe a sentiment she has nevertheless transfigured into pure agape. An appropriate end to an album that is as close to a song cycle about a contemporary woman as the eighties could conceive.

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4 Responses to You better treat her right: Donna Summer in 1983

  1. zenzam says:

    Mr. Soto: Your essay over on RA is fucking brilliant. The best overview of Donna’s career I’ve read since her death. Thanks for really knowing your shit and sharing your insights on this marvelous woman.

    Frederick Woodruff

  2. Quentin says:

    Very big Summer fan & music examiner/writer. You did a fantastic job with this essay. This album, along with “Donna Summer” and “Cats Without Claws” are the only ones of hers I do not own, I keep hoping to find them on one of my many record store treks. That, or that her discography gets a return soon. But great work, you’ve further affirmed the amazing strength of this period of her work.-QH

  3. Thanks for your effort for composing “You better treat her right:
    Donna Summer in 1983 Humanizing The Vacuum”.
    I actuallymight surely wind up being back for a lot more browsing and commenting
    here in the near future. Thanks, Leticia

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