From Donna Summer to Christian Bale

Today is a day of beginnings and ends.

Tonight, I have my first book event.  A special preview of my book at Austin’s BookPeople.  I have prepared for this day in my mind for a long time, wondering and imagining how the evening will go.

But a couple hours ago, I heard that Donna Summer had passed away, apparently of cancer, at the age of 63.

She was my favorite singer, and in many ways formulated my ideas of marketing and prejudice and injustice in the entertainment industry that led to the way I marketed and supported Christian Bale’s career.

I first heard Donna Summer when I went to see Thank God It’s Friday, a cheesy movie that nevertheless earned an Oscar for Best Song for Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.”  That was the movie kids went to see, because Saturday Night Fever was restricted, so TGIF was the PG-friendly alternative. The movie was fairly unremarkable, with the kind of sitcom humor pushing it along until Donna Summer takes the stage to sing.  “Last Dance”  soared, and her voice captivated me.  But her career hit a wall in the 1980s when, as the Queen of Disco, she (and other disco era stars like the Bee Gees) faced the anti-Disco backlash.  Donna Summer also very publicly became a born-again Christian which didn’t help her popularity.

From my point of view, her music defied genres.  She wrote her own songs, her voice was incomparable. And her music was head and shoulders above anything else coming out in the disco genre. We tend to forget that she was the first female artist to use synthesizers, the first woman to win Best Rock female Grammy’s. Her music was diverse, dabbling in country (she wrote Dolly Parton’s hit song, “Starting Over”), rock, pop and dance, but the media pigeonholed her as Disco Queen. Radio rarely played her.  When she and Bruce Springsteen dueted on “Protection” – he said he wanted to work with Summer because he felt that the backlash against her was “overtly racist.”  I was very frustrated to hear music snobs dismiss her without even listening to her. So ironically, enjoying her music – especially her work in the later years – was very counter-culture defiant.  Her best post-disco record remains The Wanderer.  But she surprised everyone in 2008 with her first new record in 17 years with the vibrant Crayons. Only now are singers citing her and producer Giorgio Moroder as major musical influences.

She did not help herself with any savvy PR or marketing. In fact, her biggest weakness was a terrible video presence.  In the age of MTV and music videos, Donna Summer – whether herself or her record company – did not invest in slick videos.

Maybe 15 years ago, I was in discussion with her representatives to build her a web marketing campaign. Her manager was interested (but not overly so) by the work I had done on Christian’s career on the Internet.  A couple agents I knew in LA also discouraged me from working on her career – they asked me, “What’s easier? To launch a new career or to relaunch an old career?”  So after a couple mock-ups had been exchanged back and forth, they lost interest.  However, she wrote me a very nice note and signed a photo, which hangs on my Wall of Fame.

Christian himself faced some similar challenges.  He was a British actor on a visa in Hollywood.  He was pigeonholed as British, and there seemed to be no way to convince producers that he was a competitor against other up and coming actors at the time.  He was angry. I was frustrated for him.  He just wanted a chance, a break.

“How’d it go?” I’d ask him after an audition.

And he’d look at me with a sad look and say, “I’m being discriminated against for being English.”

For Christian, the web marketing worked amazingly well. His fans could overwhelm surprised producers who didn’t know who he was, and we could position him as a future star of the world, birthplace irrelevant.

I felt the same passion and outrage and frustration for Christian’s career as I did for Donna Summer’s.  To be dismissed out of hand just because of a stereotype? I could understand that all too well.

This was her last song recorded earlier this year with her nephew, Omega Red.


9 thoughts on “From Donna Summer to Christian Bale

  1. Ramon Cervantes says:

    Thank you for your remarks. They totally express what we, her loyal fans have thought for years. We were equally frustrated at her lack of better marketing and video presence and just total descriimination by radio and most of all by the “industry” who in large part kept her out. Maybe now the members of the estimeed, RRHOF will reconsider their past poor judgement. Best of luck on all your new ventures.

  2. Paul says:

    I shared similar thoughts on a submission to the L.A. times: Your article about the passing of Donna Summer and her influence on today’s music is so true and underscores the breath of talent that our current singers rely on as inspiration for their budding talents.  Donna Summer has been recognized as an icon, a symbol, and most importantly, a voice for the disco era.  So much that of all her hundreds of songs, those that are remembered most are the few dozen that made people feel good to get up and dance, feel love and rejoice in the freedom of the 70s sexual revolution of expressing oneself on the dance floor.  For me, as a fan since 1975 at the impressionable age of 15 (now 51) Donna was a voice of inspiration to let loose and enjoy life.  And I did.  During the 80s she was a pop prophet singing the praises of freedom for women, for religion, and for the joys of life, whatever that would be for the listener.  Summer didn’t shine so bright during those years for many, but for me, she remained a beacon because of her meaningful lyrics and independence that she held onto.  As years past my fan-tastic love of her led me to purchase many pieces of her Expressionist artwork that became Donna’s venue for “singing her songs”.   Finally, my dream of meeting her came true in 1999 and then again a few times later over the years.  My heart grew fonder as I realized this was a woman, a person, with genuine love and kindness for the good things life has for so many.  As you listen to her many songs you hear her sing of the love of life for us to enjoy.  She was a normal, joyful, respectful and faithful woman who ended up becoming the icon of a generation, yet an individual who flourished because of her unique and undeniable talents.   Donna Summer, I will always feel love for you until its time for my Last Dance.
    Paul Martin

    • Donna brought great light into my life. I am so glad to have met her on a few occasions. She was a muse to me. I wrote and recorded”Riding Home From Baltimore” after meeting her. It tells the tale of my first experience as a kid hearing her on the radion while riding in the bacseat of a car. This song got a great remix by the award winning KLUBJUMPERS and was released in 2010. It was released and got a good push, but did not chart. However, each lyric and note sung were out of pure love and admiration! Donna…there will always be a you. Until my “Last Dance”, I will forever hold you dear to my heart.

  3. Michael says:

    This was a great tribute to Donna. I’m still in shock that she is gone. What a loss to the music world. I feel like I have lost a family member.

  4. Jeff says:

    As I read Your story Paul, I couldn’t help but to reflect on myself, as I have some what the same story as you, and our ages are very close. My boss told me of Donna’s passing, he wanted me to find out by him before I saw it on the computer. My heart just sank. I thought it was a terrible joke. But I would soon discover the truth………… not everyone could be wrong. It’s taken this long just to write about it. I was blessed to see her in concert twice, her last being the Crayons tour, which I will remember forever. My Deepest regards to all her family, friends, and all who loved her. I thank you from the bottom of my heart Donna for all the gifts that you have given me over the last 36 years of my life. If there wasn’t a heaven before, I’m sure there is one now.

  5. a starr says:

    This is the best I have seen on Donna. It’s so true that she was under marketed and under appreciated. I do believe she was ignored maybe. But she still was the best. I won’t have another best. She was it from when I was 16 to50. Thank you for your I site.

  6. I can’t believe, reading this sounds as if I wrote it myself. Obviously, my main reason for reading this at all is because of dear Donna. However, I have always wondered why Christian pretends to be american in almost every interview he does. How pretentious, I used to think. Now I know why…

    I wish I knew why Donna didn’t tour the UK again. I only ever saw her once in 1995 for a full concert. Other times since have just been one PA and she hosted Discomania a few years ago. She had many fans here, she toured the rest of Europe, so it couldn’t have been flying. I guess I will never know now. I miss her, like you miss a family member who’s no longer with you. Disco forever, I say…

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