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.