I can’t say that I was ever a huge fan of Donna Summer, but I was sad to hear of her passing. ‘The Donna Summer Anthology’ was one of the cds I would always check out of the library when I was a kid (others included ‘Barbra Streisand – The Concert’ and the soundtrack to ‘Miss Saigon’…are we seeing a theme here?) and she was one of those legends whose music was just always there – so ubiquitous that you forgot it came from a real person and never thought about her as an individual. In some ways, I suppose that’s a great tribute to her work.
When such a star dies, the outpouring of appreciation is always moving and life-affirming. You almost feel part of a community with music at its core. I remember walking through Trafalgar Square the day after Michael Jackson died and finding a group of fans gathered around a boombox, dancing and singing to his music. They had attracted onlookers, stood in a circle around them, clapping and filming on their mobiles. It was utterly joyful. There is something uniquely powerful in sharing the transcendent state which the best music, the best artists, bring to us.
Donna Summer, of course, had largely faded from public view in recent years. You weren’t likely to pick up a newspaper or switch on the tv and read about her. With Michael Jackson, whatever his activity (or lack of it) he was put in front of us. With increasing frequency, he was put in front of us for us to laugh at, pity, demonise, ridicule. The same thoughts came to mind when Whitney Houston died. How could they not? As with Michael Jackson, she had very public problems. Unlike Michael Jackson, she had attempted to return to the ‘ordinary’ business of the pop fray, putting out new music, making new videos and trying to convince us all that it was business as usual (as usual as the business of being Whitney Houston could be). The disastrous ‘X Factor’ performance joined the Diane Sawyer and Oprah interviews in being material for ridicule.
One of the most striking speeches I read from Whitney’s memorial came from her real bodyguard, Ray Watson. It was familial and warm yet, in the most striking excerpt, he admonished our culture of ripping these people to shreds:
We got to give a little back to all our entertainers. We got to treat them with dignity and treat them with love and stop ridiculing them. It means so much if we just give them a little love and not just buy a ticket. We buy a ticket, they give their lives to you. They’re not with their families. They’re in and out, on stage, off stage, on planes, off planes, traveling, on buses, just so we can have some entertaining. Whether they’re on the court or whether they’re on the stage or whether they’re on TV, they’re giving us entertainment to make our lives just a little brighter and our nights a little smoother. So, let’s give back to them. Let’s give them love, not just a ticket.
Of course, it’s possible to overstate things. People like Whitney and Michael lead lives that most can only dream of. They enjoyed untold wealth, influence and luxury as a result of their ability to entertain. It’s also easy to imagine such an argument being used to mute any criticism of an artist, however valid it may be. However in asking us to look at what we do when we are so readily vicious about these artists whose music soundtracks our lives, I think it’s valuable. We do live in a culture where celebrity personalities are emphasised and amplified and, in many ways, people like Whitney and Michael became ‘targets’ indistinguishable from the current crop of desperate reality tv stars.
When I saw that crowd in Trafalgar Square, I wondered if Michael Jackson could ever truly have understood how much he was loved. The joy that Michael and Whitney brought us was obscured by all of the negativity in their latter years. With someone like Donna Summer, we sometimes just forgot it. I’ve long thought that we are far more critical of the legends who have the temerity to keep creating. At some stage, we seem to want them to stop and allow us to hold onto our nostalgia for what they were – and by extension, who we were when we loved them. It’s ever more easy to instantly share our superficial opinions with the world and the quickest way to create an ‘identity’ is to affirm the things that you are not. We don’t often enough take the time to share our affections instead. As lovely as the tributes are, it’s sad in a way that the artists have to die before we even realise how much they meant to us.
RIP Donna Summer