Depending on how old you are the mention of Donna Summer usually turns to disco or her ’80s pop output. For us 40 somethings, we have fuzzy memories of one and sharp MTV memories of the other. I remember both, although the famous Giorgio Moroder partnership established in the ’70s often seemed like a tease because it was not a always consistent for entire albums. When they did connect they laid the blueprint for future dance music.
So in that respect, like a lot of disco and R&B music, I experienced it as singles. 45’s from an older cousin’s record collection actually. Around 1983 I was not a big fan of pop music in general. Much of it to me sounded alike to me. On occasion I would submit to its carpet bombing airplay and MTV promotional tricks by sheepishly going to the record store and buying an album that was actually on a display in the front of the store. That’s where my own Donna Summer record collection started (and ended) with She Works Hard For the Money. Summer’s 12th album ended up as a means out of a contractual agreement with Summer’s old disco era label Casablanca.
Around 1980 Donna Summer’s career took a giant step away from the image Casablanca crafted for her as a disco diva sex kitten. Their heavy handed control of her professional life spilled over into the personal prompting the conditions that saw Summer becoming a Christian.
Her new found faith conflicted with her old image, but she still wanted to work with Giorgio Moroder. They recorded an album which her new record label Geffen had different ideas about. Instead the label, hardly a year old insisted that Summer work with Quincy Jones on a self titled re-christening of her career from 1982. Hot from his work with Michael Jackson, the Jones produced album got favorable reviews. Despite the very Jackson-like “Finger On the Trigger” the album failed to re-establish Summers as the chart buster she once was. A court battle with Casablanca over her old contract had concluded. To appease Casablanca, Geffen allowed another rejected and just completed followup to Donna Summer to serve as the fulfillment of Summer’s contract with Casablanca (who was now PolyGram Records who released it under their Mercury subsidy).
If all that was confusing, the results were not. While the Michael Omartin produced album was not her best for critical acclaim, She Works Hard For the Money put Summer’s back on the top of the pop and R&B charts as well as establishing her as a MTV favorite for the video of the title song. Just fresh through the gates that Micheal Jackson and Prince opened, She Works Hard For the Money became one of the few hit videos on MTV by a black artist.
That impact pushed the album into the top 10 and the lead single to #3 on the pop chart. It was the first time Donna Summer had a hit of that caliber in nearly a decade. The general public connected to Summer’s new image as a hard working woman who was in control of her own destiny. Her faith had tempered the subject mater of her songs as well, opening her up to social justice and spiritual issues as on the Jesus song “He’s a Rebel” .
Always one to mix up genres on one album, Summer dabbled in reggae with the lighthearted “Unconditional Love” that featured the English reggae-pop band Musical Youth. She Works Hard for the Money still had the sense that Summers was trying to find her way through a new sound as her string of singles over the last two years had wildly different sounds.
My favorite moment from Summers music actually occurred on the previous album. The song “State of Independence” combined her electronic heritage established with Moroder with her new found faith as it featured a full gospel choir in the ending chorus.
No such rapturous moments occurred on She Works Hard for the Money, but for fans from the disco era Donna Summer, she was back and that’s all that really mattered. Any doubts that she had found her mojo for the ’80s was lost after a string of hits for the remainder of the decade. Despite some success, she could never capture the magic she established with Mororder and a disco ball again. For those who grew up during the MTV era, Donna Summer was as much a fixture for us as she was for disco fans a decade earlier.