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An Unsung Heroine Becomes the Queen of Disco
Donna Summer

An Unsung Heroine Becomes the Queen of Disco
At the height of the United States’ counterculture, an era that coincided with the end of the Vietnam War, a wave of social inclusion and respect drew many young people. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the musical genre of disco emerged from the urban nightlife scene and spread throughout New York City and beyond. 

Like all trends, disco fell from popular favor. Seldom do pure disco tunes reign atop Billboard charts. However, its impact on other musical genres and subcultures is clear. Disco was a statement of empowerment. Ballads celebrating love and inclusion brought together communities separated by law or social stigma (according to the 1960s LGBT rights). African-Americans, Latino-Americans, and LGBT people frequented venues such as the  famed NYC club Studio 54) where disc jockeys played disco mixes and showcased popular performers. The short lived genre launched some musicians who began their careers at the height of the disco craze and went on to sustain illustrious careers. Donna Summer, “the queen of disco,” epitomizes this.  

Summer, whose 1974 hit “Love to Love You Baby” was one of the first disco hits to be released in an extended form, was born in 1948, during a time of intense racial and gender discrimination. At just ten years old, Summer’s debut performance was as a fill-in in at a church recital for a vocalist who failed to show up. As a young adult, Summer was increasingly intrigued by the counterculture movement. Just weeks before her high school graduation, she left Boston to pursue a career in music. Though her band was never offered a record deal, Summer auditioned for Hair!, a countercultural rock-musical, which eventually brought her to Germany. Her celebrity abroad brought fewer racial and gender encumbrances, and she thrived with the help of German producers before her return to the United States. 

Disco, a genre that shares a certain sentimentality with hip-hop music (hip-hop began around the same time and place, and similarly gave voices to marginalized Americans), reflected a shift in culture and thought. Bolt Pearson’s article, “Don’t Let the World Rot” discusses multiple genres and expressions of music and thought, as counterculture responses. As Summer’s travels and experiences demonstrate, disco was an internationally recognized and respected genre. In Aquarius and Beyond: Thinking Through the Counterculture, Robert Garbult recounts the magic, and sense of freedom, that he experienced at local disco festival hosted in his hometown in Wales.

By Logan Williams



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