Friday, November 16, 2007

THIS TIME I KNOW IT’S FOR REAL. Donna Summer has been nominated this year for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here is her “Keltner” analysis based upon the so-called “Keltner” list used to evaluate whether a given baseball player belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. The “Keltner” list was developed by famous baseball analyst Bill James in his 1985 Bill James Baseball Abstract. Over the years we have adapted the questions on the list so they make more sense for musical artists (look here for our other“Keltner” musical assessments).

This time around I made a few changes to the questions to make them even more meaningful for musical artists. Also, in a few spots I changed the wording of the questions from “rock music” to “pop music” because the Hall is certainly not limited to “rock and roll” music.

1. Was Donna Summer ever regarded as the best artist in pop music? Did anybody, while she was active, ever suggest that Donna Summer was the best artist in pop music?

I think you would have to say no on this, but it’s a much closer call than you might expect. Donna Summer was among the top 2 or 3 pop music stars from 1977 through 1980, a period during which she had ten Top Ten hits, including four #1 hits and a #2.

This is as good a place as any to deal with a recurring yet tiresome question – is “disco” within the category of “rock and roll”? The answer is an emphatic yes. Let me quote rock critic Robert Christgau, as he wrote in 1978:

“Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they're always fuzzy), it's a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O'Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop, ... Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears).”

Donna Summer is in fact much more than a disco artist. Her work has featured a fusion of disco, R&B, rock, inspirational, electronica, techno, and dance music. For example, her hit “Hot Stuff” is basically straightforward rock and roll.

Donna Summer’s 1979 album “Bad Girls” was #10 on the 1979 Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” Critics Poll, a remarkably high showing considering that at least as of the year before only 12 of the 98 participating critics focused on “black” music and only 2 of the 98 focused their efforts on disco. In 1980, critic Dave Marsh named Summer’s album “The Wanderer” as the second best album of the year behind only “The River” by Bruce Springsteen.

Last but not least, I swear that I once read an interview with Billy Joel in which he described Donna Summer as the best artist in pop music circa 1980, but I cannot find the quotation on the internet.

2. Was Donna Summer ever the best artist in her genre?

Possibly yes. Assuming we view the relevant genre as disco, then there are four other contenders worth considering: Earth Wind & Fire, the Bee Gees, Chic, and KC and the Sunshine Band. Earth Wind & Fire (who have been inducted into the Hall) had less success on the Top 40 than Summer did, but greater critical acclaim.

The Bee Gees had greater commercial success than Summer did (the Bee Gees are in the Hall). It’s a harder question for me to say if the Bee Gees were “better” than Donna Summer. I’d say that they were roughly equal in quality, but I happen to like Donna Summer more than I like the Bee Gees.

Donna Summer had more commercial success and a much longer career than Chic (also nominated this year) or KC and the Sunshine Band. I think Chic was perhaps better at its very peak, but Summer clearly had more “career value.” Summer is considerably more influential than KC and the Sunshine Band.

3. Was Donna Summer ever considered the best at her instrument/role?

No. Summer was certainly a talented vocalist, trained as a powerful gospel singer. I don’t think anyone ever suggested that she was the single most talented vocalist of her time, though.

4. Did Donna Summer have a noticeable influence on a number of other artists?

You betcha. According to David Bowie, her influence was recognized early on:

One day in Berlin ... Eno came running in and said, 'I have heard the sound of the future.' … he puts on 'I Feel Love', by Donna Summer … He said, 'This is it; look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.' Which was more or less right.”

Donna Summer appears to have heavily influenced Janet Jackson, Madonna, Mariah Carey, and Beyoncé', among many other artists.

5. How long a career did Donna Summer have? Was she a good enough performer that she could continue to perform regularly after passing her prime?

She has had a very long career. Her first hit was in 1975, the infamous "Love to Love You, Baby." As recently as 1997, she won the Grammy for “Best Dance Recording” for her song “Carry On.” Summer placed a song on the Billboard Hot 100 every single year from 1977's "I Feel Love" to 1984's "There Goes My Baby".

She has been a good enough performer that she continued to perform regularly even after “the last days of disco.” She still continues to record and to perform.

6. Is Donna Summer the very best eligible artist in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?

No. I would say that you’d have to put Madonna ahead of her. But I’d put Donna Summer on the short list of the most worthy contenders.

7. Are most performers with a comparable recording history and influence in the Hall of Fame?

Yes! For example, Earth Wind & Fire (who are in the Hall) had slightly less success on the pop charts than Summer did. I would say that Earth Wind & Fire is perhaps slightly less influential than Summer, but reasonable minds can differ on that topic.

See also #9 below, regarding Summer’s chart success. I have to believe that very few artists with twelve Top 10 hits and eleven gold or platinum albums are not in the Hall.

8. Is Donna Summer the best artist in her genre who is eligible for the Hall of Fame (and has not already been admitted)?

Yes. See #3 above.

9. How many songs of Donna Summer hit one or more of the major music charts? How many songs hit #1? How many of her albums went gold or platinum? Did Donna Summer ever win a Grammy award?

Summer has had twenty Top 40 hits. Twelve of those songs hit the Top 10, including four #1 hits, and two #2 smashes. Many of her other songs have hit the dance charts and the R&B charts.

Donna Summer has also had enormous success internationally, with over 40 songs charting in the UK, Germany, or Japan.

Eleven of her albums went gold or platinum, a particularly impressive total considering that many people think of disco as a genre focused on singles. Donna is the only artist to have three double-albums in a row go to number one on Billboard's album chart.

She has five Grammy awards in the R&B, Rock, Inspirational, and Dance categories. Donna Summer was the first African American woman to earn a Rock Grammy.

10. How long did Donna Summer dominate the music scene? Did most of the bands with this sort of impact go into the Hall of Fame?

She dominated the scene for about 3 or 4 years (roughly 1977-1980). Most bands that dominated the scene as Summer did are in the Hall.

11. Is there any evidence to suggest that Donna Summer’s influence or greatness is significantly more or less than what you can see just by counting Grammies and gold records?

Summer wrote or co-wrote most of her songs, which was not a common situation for disco artists. That being said, she was fortunate to hook up with gifted producers such as Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

See also #4 above, regarding her influence on other artists, and #5 above, regarding her ability to succeed long after disco’s heyday had passed.

But more than anything else just think about her amazing hits:

  • The synth-dance riff of “I Feel Love”
  • The way that “Last Dance” moves your heart
  • The power of “On the Radio”
  • The joy of “This Time I Know It’s For Real”

12. If Donna Summer was the best performer at a concert, would it be likely that the concert would rock?

I have never heard her perform live, but I gather that she is a thrilling live performer. That being said, she never headlined an “arena” concert tour as far as I know.

13. What effect did Donna Summer have on pop music history? Was she responsible for any stylistic changes? Did she introduce any new equipment? Did she change history in any way?

As noted at #4 above, her song “I Feel Love” was very influential due to its innovative use of synthesizers.

14. Did she uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?

This Boston-born woman has upheld the standards of sportsmanship and character. For example, Summer has played for AIDS benefits and has donated proceeds to AIDS research.

Several of her songs have been banned for being sexually suggestive, but, well, I’m certainly not going to hold that against her!


Bottom line: Summer belongs in the Hall. This is not a close case.

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