Music by VICE

The Emancipation of Donna Summer

2017 marks 40 years since Summer's audacious, pivotal pair of albums 'I Remember Yesterday' and 'Once Upon a Time.'

by Ira Madison III
May 24 2017, 2:48pm

Donna Summer Circa 1975, Getty Images

We even seek to tame goddesses. Despite psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston's creation of DC Comics superhero Wonder Woman as a feminine counterpart to Superman, the Amazonian demigoddess was subverted in the 1950s after psychologist Frederic Wertham released a takedown of comic books titled Seduction of the Innocent that "called Wonder Woman and her sidekicks lesbians, and therefore a 'morbid ideal' for girls, and a threat to masculinity." If even a demigoddess as strong as Wonder Woman could bend to the will of men, why should disco goddess (and the "First Lady of Love" as she was dubbed in the 70s) Donna Summer avoid the same fate?

Just two years before a mental breakdown that led her to renounce her sexual image and rediscover her faith, Summer herself was in bondage, longing to escape the image that had been thrust upon her. During that time of oppression, she would release two concept albums—I Remember Yesterday on May 13, 1977 and Once Upon a Time on October 31, 1977—the latter of which told a modern-day Cinderella story of a young woman trapped in a loveless, bitter world, longing for escape. It's not improbable to deduce that the Cinderella in question was Summer herself.

Read more: The Guide to Getting into Donna Summer

A 1978 Rolling Stone profile of Summer recounts a nauseating incident at the Sahara Tahoe's High Sierra Room in Vegas (currently known as the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino). A patron describes the erection he gets when Summer performs "Love to Love You Baby," her breakout single full of erotic moans and groans (featuring a "marathon of 22 orgasms" according to a Time editor in 1975). The patron pats his crotch and refers to his dick as "little bastard" to journalist Mikal Gilmore, who then witnesses the patron squeeze Summer's ass, leer over her breasts, and try kissing her on the lips when she obliges him an autograph on his copy of Once Upon a Time. Summer doesn't cause a disruption. Rather, she literally turns her cheek and lets the patron kiss her there. But it's hard to ignore the irony of Summer being sexually harassed and groped while clutching a copy of the concept album that describes a modern-day Cinderella trapped in a heartless existence.

She was anthropomorphic poppers; she gave you a high; you felt as if her body was writhing along to the beat with you. You owned her body.

Summer describes Once Upon a Time as "the first record I can really say is a part of me" in the interview. The disco opera double album told its Cinderella concept through with production by her frequent collaborator Giorgio Moroder and a rather cohesive storyline. First there's longing. Then there's an escape, romance, and finally a happily ever after. The album wasn't as successful as the first to be released that year, I Remember Yesterday, but it's certainly one of Summer's most personal.

In her debut studio album, Summer sang folksy rock songs that were reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac and other bands of the day. But when disco hit and she was handed "Love to Love You Baby," her career trajectory forever changed. She became the "First Lady of Love," known for her sexy moaning on tracks and for in essence handing her body over to the public. You could dance to a pulsing beat in a disco while Summer mimed orgasming on a track. She was anthropomorphic poppers; she gave you a high; you felt as if her body was writhing along to the beat with you. You owned her body.

Or so her fans thought, as evidenced by the man who had the gall to grope her as the evening was being documented by Rolling Stone. The Sahara Tahoe, where she had her residency, was iconic. Elvis Presley played the resort for six years. He died in 1977, and a year later when Summer was set to perform there, she wanted to be worthy of the space. Balking against sexual harassment was out of the question, surely, for a black woman whose career was built on her sexuality and the perceived ownership of her body.

Summer often compared herself in those days to Marilyn Monroe, a woman who died because she was stuck being the fantasy of men. Once Upon a Time was about Summer's emancipation from her image as a sexpot, and even if she hadn't yet broken free by the time of its release, she could live in that moment while on stage.

She'd begun rebelling against her image with I Remember Yesterday. Though the cover is sexually suggestive, with Summer laid across a bed, arms draped across her breasts, the album is a departure from the erotica of her previous albums. It opens with jazzy, big band sounds, in the title track "I Remember Yesterday." Summer quite literally reaches back into music history, mixing in big band with disco, demanding that she be taken seriously as more than a mere "disco queen." She later delves into the sounds of the 50s and the 60s on the album, showing more versatility than she'd previously been able to display.

When the album reaches its staggering conclusion, however, Summer is no longer looking to the past, she's looking to the future. I Remember Yesterday ends with the now-iconic and incredibly influential "I Feel Love," which laid the groundwork for electronic music's popularity and forever altered disco music as it was known. Moroder's track has a Summer warbling "I feel loooooooooove" over a thundering, pulsating beat that still feels original and captivating four decades later. This song signified that while Summer may have been disco's reigning queen, there was much more to her than meets the eye. She wasn't content to deliver serviceable disco tracks; she was focused on changing the conversation of disco itself.

Ultimately it would take two more years after the release of the albums for Summer to fully embark on her road to independence. In 1979, she reclaimed her faith and struck "Love to Love You Baby" from her tour as she became a born-again Christian. There's always a narrative that embracing religion later in life is a form of embracing conservatism and denouncing your past. But if anything, it propelled Summer's dominance of pop music.

Summer's emancipation led to the recording of Bad Girls, the best-selling album of her career, where she comes out the gate roaring: "I need some hot stuff, baby tonight / I want some hot stuff, baby this evenin'." The difference being that now Summer was no longer relinquishing ownership of her body in her music—the only erotic fantasies she rasped about over a beat were her own.

Ira Madison III is a culture writer for MTV News, GQ, and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter.