Donna Summer: She Worked Hard For the Money

She worked hard for it honey.

“Sometimes it gets to the point where you’ve been pushed for so long, by this monstrous, monstrous force, this whole production of people and props that you’re responsible for, by audiences and everything that rules you, until you take it upon yourself to be a machine. And at some point a machine breaks down.”

~ Donna Summer

My enduring memory of Donna Summer, the most popular artist of the disco era who passed away at age 63 from cancer is when I wore a younger man clothes I danced with a girl I did not like to “Love To Love You, Baby.”  All 17 minutes and 18 seconds of it.

Summer was the undisputed Queen of Disco (Sorry, Gloria Gaynor), but the downside of being the ruler of a genre of music that is as despised as much as it is admired is once disco fell off (and it fell off hard) her career was pulled down along with it.  A 1978 Rolling Stone cover story about Summer posed the question, “Is There Life After Disco?”  The answer was of course .   There just aren’t a lot more hits in the pipeline.

It isn’t that Summer was a talentless mouthpiece for the lush production of strings, horns, and  Giorgio Moroder’s synthesized beats.  She was the peanut butter to the jelly of her European producers’ coldly efficient and relatively anonymous music.

The highs and lows of Donna Summer are documented perfectly in the 2005 best of compilation, Gold.   Disco was great to dance to but man, is it ever lousy to listen to.  It’s the perfect triumph of machine over man and nobody was better at cooing seductively over bloodless, passionless, and robotic sounds than Summer.   More than any other style, disco music is frozen in time and like white linen suits and feathered hair it hasn’t aged well.

I Feel Love” may deserve the credit for the template for what electronic dance music has been for the past 25 years, but you can’t make love to it.   Immediately after listening to disco,  I always have to follow it up with some Led Zeppelin or Funkadelic, or anything else that sounds like human beings were involved in making it.

Take your order, sir?

At 34 songs spread over two discs, Gold is overly generous by half, but if you’re interested in marking where Summer’s career ran off a cliff, it’s the phony attempt at “new wave” relevance with “The Wanderer” which is bad, but “Love Is In Control (Finger On the Trigger)” is one overproduced hot mess of a song with Quincy Jones throwing everything in his trick bag at it as he tries and fails to kick-start Summer’s faltering fortunes.   Summer herself wasn’t fond of the six months she spent recording with the man behind Michael Jackson’s biggest solo hits.  She told a reporter, “Sometimes I feel it’s a Quincy Jones album that I sang on.”

Like many other artists whose success hinged on being the best at a specific genre at its commercial peak, Summer struggled to stay relevant in her post-disco diva days.   She changed record labels, worked with various producers, dabbled with various sounds and there are a smattering of moments of interest as she sticks a toe in pop, funk, new wave and non-disco dance music, but the supreme moment of accomplishment remains “She Works Hard For the Money.”

She works hard for the money. So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money. So you better treat her right.

Onetta here in the corner stand and wonders where she is.
And it’s strange to her, some people seem to have everything.
9 am on the hour hand and she’s waiting for the bell.
And she’s looking real pretty. She’s waiting for her clientele.

She works hard for the money. So hard for it, honey.
She works hard for the money. So you better treat her right.

After being forced by David Geffen to abandon Moroder and her European production team and shelving, I’m A Rainbow, another two-record set and the ill-matched Jones produced Donna Summer, Summer was compelled to deliver one more album to her former label, Casablanca.  The result was the inspired She Works Hard For the Money.  Paired with producer Michael Omartin, Summer wrote or co-wrote every song including the Number One R&B title track.

The album is spotty, but “She Works Hard For the Money” is historic as its accompanying video was the first by a Black woman put on “heavy rotation” on MTV back in ancient times when the “M” in MTV stood for music.   Summer (despite being a disco queen couldn’t dance a lick) stands around in the video observing its female protagonist indeed working hard for the money.  Though Summer the based the song on an exhausted Black woman working as a bathroom attendant she observed, the video featured a White woman named “Onetta.”  Go figure.

The other odd thing about Donna Summer besides her inability to dance is when I would d.j. parties, if I played one of her songs they would clear the floor.   Nobody would dance to them.  That overproduced Eurodisco sound worked okay in a club, but fell flat on its ass at a house party.

Donna Summer never found a second act as successful as her disco days, but she made her mark, had some hits and left a lasting impression upon music.  That’s not too shabby a list of accomplishments to be proud of.   R.I.P., Queen of Disco.

My Donna Summer Top Ten playlist:

1.  She Works Hard For the Money
2.  Hot Stuff
3.  Bad Girls
4.  Dim All the Lights
5.  Sunset People
6.   Last Dance
7.   This Time I Know It’s For Real
8.   I Feel Love
9.   No More Tears (Enough is Enough)
10. Love to Love You Baby

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3 thoughts on “Donna Summer: She Worked Hard For the Money

  1. Donna Summer was the disco diva in my junior high days. My friends and I saw her movie TGIF (Thank God It’s Friday) more than once. Terrible movie/fun music. Her song Last Dance was her big hit in the movie.

    On Nightline last night, they told the story behind the music, how she was inspired to write “She Works Hard for the Money” after noticing the tired bathroom attendant at an awards show. She then wrote the beginnings of the song on toilet paper.

    RIP, Donna.

  2. She’s one of the few reasons I can think of to watch “Thank God It’s Friday.” Your list missed one important latter day wonder– “State of Independence.” I absolutely love that song. Along with “On the Radio,” it’s one of my favorites.

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