“People would be on the balcony at Studio 54 actually doing it while ‘Love to Love You Baby’ was playing.”
-Stephen Burrows, fashion designer and Studio 54 regular
The death of Donna Summer has the country reminiscing about the disco era and all it embodied—excess, hedonism, and nights at Studio 54 that inevitably culminated in Summer’s hit, Last Dance.” Scholars of popular culture have noted that the disco era and the disco movement married gay, black and more “mainstream” lovers of the genre into a kind of “synchronic communal fantasy" on the dance floor. Disco had a uniform and an ethos, surely, but the music itself was the medium of a seismic cultural shift felt across the country.
And at the center of disco’s half-decade-long run of unquestioned primacy was a former church singer who had run away to perform in Hair, a girl from Boston (nee LaDonna Gaines) who reinvented herself as Donna Summer.
The engine that catapulted her to the top was the 1975 breakout song Love to Love You Baby. In it, Summer doesn’t just sing about loving to “be loved” and “to love”—thinly veiled references to “fu*k”—she groans it. Over and over, with increasing urgency and conviction, culminating in a simulated but pretty real-sounding orgasm.
The song was startling and fresh and caused a commotion long before Madonna and then Lady Gaga shocked us with their S&M lifestyle-influenced costumes and their anthems of female yearning and assertiveness. Summer shocked and thrilled with her voice, which in Love to Love You Baby segues from breathy high registers (“Do it to me again and again, you put me in an awful spin, in a spin”), a kind of send-up of a woman stroking a man’s ego, to an assertive, groaning growl as she moans repeatedly that Yes, in fact, she loves it.
Listeners and revelers may not have been sure what exactly was so fresh—Bette Middler, recalling Love to Love You Baby, said, “It was revolutionary…[and] outrageous. It wasn’t thoughtful, it was sexual.” But it is likely the re-centering of sexual experience on what is fulfilling for a woman that startled, with the moans punctuating the point that women want to be wanted, but have wants themselves, too. Until then, the sexy songs we danced to were most often about hot women and the desire they inspired in the men who wanted them. Now we had a woman saying that sex was hot for her. And actually making her point, performatively and unapologetically, in real time.
It was as if Love to Love You Baby pared back all the other sounds and aspects of disco—the beat, the rhythm, the pace, the sweaty ecstasy—and revealed that at the core of an entire lifestyle and powerful musical and cultural movement there was a woman having an orgasm. Next to it, “The Hustle” sounds like a Presbyterian hymn.
And Americans ate it up, turning Love to Love You Baby into a chart-topping number-one hit for weeks. As we consider the influence Summer had on disco and, later, her enduring mark on dance music and hip hop (according to popular culture historians like Alice Echols), we consider the reach of her style and her voice. But we might also acknowledge the ways she brought the possibility, the desirability, of a female-centered sexual pleasure to the dance floors of The Loft and 12 West and Danceteria and Studio 54, as well as the teen girls’ bedroom and the family rooms and rumpus rooms of suburban homes in unlikely places like Nebraska—and the entire country.
The year 1975 marked the publication of Woman’s Orgasm: A Guide to Sexual Satisfaction by Georgia Kline, and the founding of both SSTAR (The Society for Sex Therapy and Research) and IASR (International Academy of Sex Research). But with a single song, and for a glorious few weeks, Summer and her producers put female orgasm at the center of disco and American culture.
Bernstein, Jacob, “Memories of Donna’s Disco Nights,” New York Times Styles Section, p. 2, May 20, 2012.
Echols, Alice, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (Norton, 2010).
Haggerty, George, Gay Histories and Cultures (Taylor and Francis, 2000).
Shapiro, George, Turn the Beat Around: the Secret History of Disco (MacMillan, 2006).