Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Donna Summer

  • Love to Love You Baby [Oasis, 1975] B-
  • A Love Trilogy [Oasis, 1976] B
  • I Remember Yesterday [Casablanca, 1977] B-
  • "Once Upon a Time . . ." [Casablanca, 1977] B-
  • Live and More [Casablanca, 1978] C
  • Bad Girls [Casablanca, 1979] A-
  • On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volume I & II [Casablanca, 1979] A
  • The Wanderer [Geffen, 1980] A-
  • Donna Summer [Geffen, 1982] C
  • She Works Hard for the Money [Mercury, 1983] B+
  • Cats Without Claws [Geffen, 1984] B
  • Another Place and Time [Atlantic, 1989] B+
  • The Donna Summer Anthology [Casablanca, 1993] **
  • Endless Summer [Mercury, 1994] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Love to Love You Baby [Oasis, 1975]
Did you come yet? Huh? Did you come yet? B-

A Love Trilogy [Oasis, 1976]
This is marred by new what's-going-on-in-the-next-apartment distractions; again and again. Donna bids the object of her affections "come . . . come . . . come" before adding "to my arms," so that when she cries out "don't let go" you have to wonder of what. But it does boast two otherwise uninterrupted sides of baroque German disco fluff and proves that she can carry a tune as well as a torch. I can even imagine playing it at a party. B

I Remember Yesterday [Casablanca, 1977]
Cut of the month is "Love's Unkind," a remake of "Then He Kissed Me" that I prefer to the original for the way its solo saxophone opens a window in the wall of sound. But the Supremes and Dr. Buzzard (and Natalie Cole?) takeoffs are stale if not stuffy, and when Kraftwerk goes to the disco the best you can usually hope for is air conditioning. B-

"Once Upon a Time . . ." [Casablanca, 1977]
Roll over Pete Townshend and tell Jerry Leiber the news--here's the first disco opera, a double-LP concept album with actual lyrics that tell an actual story printed on the inner sleeves. First two sides are uniformly strong but without real peaks, and from there it's downhill to a climax indicated by the two final titles, "I Love You" and "Happily Ever After." But you can dance to it. B-

Live and More [Casablanca, 1978]
When a studio creation does her greatest hits on stage, she diminishes them (arrangements worthy of the Supremes at the Copa, which is more than I can say for "My Man Medley"), and when her more is "Mac Arthur Park Suite," she makes you remember what less is supposed to be (I much prefer Andy Kaufman's interpretation). C

Bad Girls [Casablanca, 1979]
You tend to suspect anyone who releases three double-LPs in eighteen months of delusions of Chicago, but Donna is here to stay and this is her best album. The first two sides, four songs per, never let up--the voice breaks and the guitars moan over a bass-drum thump in what amounts to empty-headed girl-group rock and roll brought cannily up-to-date. Moroder makes his Europercussion play on side four, which is nice too, but side three drags, suggesting that the rock and roll that surfaces here is perhaps only a stop along the way to a totally bleh total performance. Me, I still love my Marvelettes records. A-

On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volume I & II [Casablanca, 1979]
The title tells us Summer wants to be a pop queen rather than a dance queen, and the music tells us she's got a right: almost in a class with '60s Motown. I mean, this woman will never compete for Lady Soul, but she enjoys singing as much as Diana Ross ever has, and if her timbre isn't as magical her robust technique makes up for it. Despite the repeat of the title tune (the first time is dandy), the overlap with Bad Girls (another must-own), and the inevitable "MacArthur Park" (almost tolerable in this non-suite version), her best-of proves that whatever the virtues of her disco extensions, she makes like a rock and roller at AM size. A

The Wanderer [Geffen, 1980]
If you can't abide her unnaturalness--her plastic, opportunistic willingness to belt out any well-fabricated sentiment--then this rock move will turn your stomach. Personally, I delight in the synthetic perfection of the thing, from pop sin to schlock redemption. Here a night predator, there a card-carrying Christian, she epitomizes the fervor people invest in received emotions. She loves a good hook the way she loves her own child. And you can (still) dance to her. A-

Donna Summer [Geffen, 1982]
Turkeys this humongous will soon go the way of the dodo, and for the same excellent reason--they defy all aerodynamic principles. Misshapen and useless despite a not-bad hit single and a not-bad Springsteen song, it's an object lesson in record-biz malfeasance from the Horatio Alger lies of "Livin' in America" to the lumpish desecration of "Lush Life," and Summer thanks God so often it's surprising she couldn't talk Him into joining Dyan Cannon, Kenny Loggins, Stevie Wonder, and Peggy Lipton Jones in the All Star Choir that chants this Inspirational Verse from Jon Anderson and Vangelis: "Shablamidi, shablamida/Shablamidi/Shablamidi, shablamida." C

She Works Hard for the Money [Mercury, 1983]
In which schlocky Michael Omartian replaces magic man Quincy Jones and Summer is born again. You know why? Because Omartian believes in Jesus, that's why. The result is the best Christian rock this side of T-Bone Burnett, and not just because it's suitable for Danceteria, although that helps. After all, can T-Bone claim to have introduced the concept of agape to the secular audience? B+

Cats Without Claws [Geffen, 1984]
The mildly compelling steady-hooks-all-in-a-row construction suggests that Michael Omartian knows his Ric Ocasek, and it will do just fine for those who get a glow just hearing her rare back and sing. But what made the last album was two undeniably singular singles. This time she leads with a cover. Which Ben E. King rared back and sang better a quarter-century ago. B

Another Place and Time [Atlantic, 1989]
I tried to credit her comebacks, giving up only when that song about fucking Einstein cracked WBLS. But though Stock Aitken Waterman are no Einsteins, they're smart enough to know a voice when they hear one, which usually happens when they listen to other people's records--they've invented a pop machine that enables singers as adenoidal as the average British teenager to pass for Motown Mark XC after one or two treatments. Since Summer's great gift has always been her ability to emote inconsistent banalities as if her life depended on them, which after all those failed comebacks it kind of does, she lights into these retooled tunes with a phony enthusiasm that must have scared the shit out of Bananarama. Ever up, ever danceable, ever there, she's once again a believer, or rather "believer." And hidden over on the second side is a succinct new cliche about why women leave their men. B+

The Donna Summer Anthology [Casablanca, 1993]
more proof than we needed that she actually recorded "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" ("Love to Love You Baby," "Bad Girls") **

Endless Summer [Mercury, 1994]
You want meaning, I've got a nice Nick Drake CD I could sell you. This here is emotional sensation, the staple of contemporary bigpop. Her belated one-disc best-of does include the permanent excrescence "MacArthur Park" as well as a Vangelis hymn that has actually aged rather well. So you can blame the hit parade on her if you want. She'll be proud, and vocally, she'll still love to love you mister--or sister, or kid, whatever, she's utterly ecumenical (although at low points she's been known to poke nervous fun at the gay men who made her a star). When she's not simply stupendous, she simulates passion with a velvety finish. A