Ideas

Close-reading Donna Summer

In just 17 minutes, ‘Love to Love You Baby’ changed music

Donna Summer

Casablanca Records and FilmWorks

Donna Summer

It just keeps going. For nearly 17 minutes, through verse, through chorus, through decomposition and synthesis, through one climax after another, through (it was questionably tallied at the time of its release) some 22 simulated orgasms on the part of its lead singer, “Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer’s 1975 induction into American pop culture, just keeps going.

Summer, who died on May 17, would soon after be crowned the “Queen of Disco,” and eulogies have tended to remember her voice and her attitude as evocative of that brief, faddish era. But the song that introduced her to the American market—“Love to Love You Baby”—did more than launch a fad, or a star. It helped changed pop music’s DNA. The verisimilitude of Summer’s gasps and moans might have fed the song’s notoriety, but it was its length—the extended set of variations that Summer and producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte fashioned at the behest of executive Neil Bogart—that proved its most disruptive contribution, a counterargument to the riff-oriented thrust of rock dominance. “Love to Love You Baby” played long enough for everything to change.

Advertisement

In 1975, rock was the mainstream. Disco was the underground—spun out in long, unbroken, euphoric quantities in clubs, a soundtrack for demographics shut out by conventional rock and roll: women, blacks, Hispanics, gays. Rock was about drive and power; disco was about mood and sensuality, the more intricate insistence of its rhythm married to a lush, string-laden soul, stretched out into something to get lost in.

Disco had made a handful of pop inroads by 1975—the previous year had witnessed both the Hues Corporation’s “Rock the Boat” and Carl Douglas’s novelty “Kung Fu Fighting”—but still in three-minute, radio-friendly doses. An earlier, European release of “Love to Love You Baby” also ran just over three minutes; Bogart liked it enough to give it an American release on his Casablanca Records label, but asked for something more evocative of the club experience. So while the new version also starts to fade out at that point, feinting toward protocol, as the rest melts away, the bass line keeps going. According to the standards of mid-70s radio, the music should stop playing, but, like a club-denizen Bartleby, the bass would prefer not to.

Get This Week in Opinion in your inbox:
Globe Opinion's must-reads, delivered to you every Sunday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

After a few repeats of the riff, the rest of the instruments gradually join the protest: the drums, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, electric piano, the string section, instrument by instrument. The band loops the quirky, off-balance swing between verse and chorus, six-bar phrases instead of the expected four or eight, the music simultaneously lingering over sections too long and imperturbably circling past them.

And circling, and circling, and circling. The song’s style of repetition—a hypnotic reshuffling of musical blocks rather than a foundation for long, virtuosic solos—was extreme by pop standards, but had a close connection with what was happening in classical music at the time. The year 1975 also found musical minimalism having its first pop moment: Within a year of the American release of “Love to Love You Baby,” both Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” and Philip Glass’s “Einstein on the Beach” would have their premieres, and the style would begin its gradual evolution toward the center of American classical music. “When I first heard Donna Summer, I just laughed,” Glass once recalled. “I said, ‘That’s exactly what we’re doing!’”

But not quite. Both minimalism and disco would infiltrate their respective mainstreams, but “Love to Love You Baby” is far more the double-agent, adopting the mannerisms of pop and rock only to turn around and smoothly subvert them. In a way, it’s only at the 4:05 mark, only when the drums rejoin the patiently dogged bass, that the song turns definitively from pop to disco—but by that point, it’s already inside. Eleven-and-a-half minutes in, the song suddenly, startlingly, hails its pop rivals, with a bridge spinning a variation on one of the most characteristic harmonic progressions of the 1960s, one first introduced by Lennon and McCartney in “Eight Days a Week.” Only now it’s in the middle of the dance floor, and it’s not quite sure how it got there.

Advertisement

The bridge builds to its own climax, and the song ends—except it doesn’t: In one last provocation, the track reprises its own beginning, asserting its own popularity by replaying itself. And the song did get replayed, its overtly sexual overtones generating transgressive popularity, its mood and duration making it a favorite for late-night radio, making its way up the charts, under cover of darkness, a quarter-hour at a time. By 1979, Summer would rule the airwaves, with three number one singles (plus a number two)—the triumph of disco was complete.

Before “Love to Love You Baby,” pop music was still, by and large, rock music; within 17 minutes, pop music had changed. It wasn’t just a more emancipated representation of female sexuality, or a more diverse demographic; it was reorienting pop around the ecstatic, around the power of rhythm and repetition to create its own fully immersive, trance-like state. Techno, hip hop, dubstep, the rave, the praise chorus, the extended remix, the mixtape—they all followed, one way or another, in disco’s hypnotically periodic footsteps. Instead of challenging rock’s power, disco had simply questioned its stamina. Can’t stop the music.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
Loading comments...
Real journalists. Real journalism. Subscribe to The Boston Globe today.