Monday, May 21, 2012

Donna Summer – Once, twice, three times born-again

To be born again, surely you have to die first – although hitting rock-bottom in your life usually seems to be close enough to meet this requirement. More problematically, being born-again surely requires also an utter helplessness at (re)birth, as followed, of course, by a gradual acquisition of autonomy, aka growing up. Career-wise, utter helplessness is a doubtful move – although this can be neutered somewhat by being born-again, again. Donna Summer’s career is an exemplary tale of the perennial child – the anomalous sober diva who lived, and died, as the most wounded diva of them all – at 63, still the child-star she had always been.

Her tale is one very much of the times – depression/anxiety (= helplessness) is both the endemic millennial disease and the feeling that dare not speak its name, or to leave a traceable digital trail at least. In her heyday, Donna Summer was, of course, manipulated by PR and record company forces. These days however, such manipulation is as benign as Twit-Book, and so the digital forensic record is in danger of being Twit-Booked out of all depth – instead just scudding along an endless impermeable surface. Just like Donna – a song, or other stuff so heartbreakingly cute you want to bottle it. But can’t – the memory, or dream is gone (or content-locked, any rate); the child remains

To cut to the chase, did Donna Summer make anti-gay remarks in the 1980s, and if so, what were they? To inter-splice my own anecdote here, I think I remember reports of a semi-organised smashing of Donna Summer records by gay men in response her reported remarks about AIDS as “God’s punishment” to gay men.

The forensic digital record here is scant. Some sources say the anti-gay remarks, in which the AIDS disease featured prominently, were made in 1980. This is patently impossible – AIDS was not even given its first, tentative medical label (GRID) until 1981. The year 1980 does, however, coincide with the most-likely year in which Summer became a born-again Christian.

More plausible evidence points to a 1983 concert in Atlantic City being the forum for the remarks. Following Summer’s death, US gay magazine The Advocate reprised a 1989 article from their archives, which apparently quoted a review, by Jim Feldman, of Summer’s “post-born-again . . . comeback concert” in the Village Voice (presumably in 1983 sometime, but no actual publication date provided) as quoting Summer saying at that concert “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and “I have seen the evils of homosexuality; AIDS is the result of your sins”.

Interviewed in 1989, Summer manage to obsfucate whether she had or had not said those things in 1983:

“'I did not make that statement', Summer says angrily. 'Eight years ago [i.e. 1981], I made a reference to AIDS. What I supposedly said I did not say, and my reference to AIDS was really an innocent reference. At the time, I thought AIDS was a herpes pimple, like you get on your mouth. I certainly didn’t have any idea what it really was and certainly if I had, in my heart I would not wish AIDS on anyone. I’m not that kind of person. It’s one of the most horrifying diseases around. I don’t think they’re doing enough for it”. (same URL)

To me, this for the most part sounds like an apology for making a simply ignorant (as opposed to religious/bigoted) remark – a sort of comment about AIDS that sounds very unfortunate in hindsight, but something quite plausible for 1981, and so IMO forgivable. However, if made in 1983, not so much.

But as well as muddling-up her years, Summer muddles her culpability, by switching thoughts in mid-flight between oblique apology and bare-faced denial. As well as “I did not make that statement . . . What I supposedly said I did not say” in the above quote, Summer throws in: “I never said, ‘If you are gay, God hates you.’ Come on. Be real. I don’t understand that. Anybody who really knows me knows I wouldn’t say that” (same URL).

To be very lawyerly/theological here for a moment, the 1983 Jim Feldman Village Voice review did not (AFAICT) quote Summer as saying "If you are gay, God hates you". The old Christian maxim about hating the sin, but loving the sinner, comes to mind. Summer’s denial that she (and/or God) would never hate the sinner thus leaves wide open, IMO, whether she would, or more importantly did, make comments about hating the sin of gay men. Her above-quoted remark “I have seen the evils of homosexuality; AIDS is the result of your sins” seems to fall into this more-Christian category, while “God’s punishment” probably is in the other camp. If you can’t see the difference here, try substituting, for the former, the factual “AIDS is the result of not practising safe sex”, and for the latter, “AIDS is a virus that targets gay men”.

In any case, a much-harder-to-Google 1985 Advocate article (“Summer and Smoke” by Adam Block, The Advocate 23 July 1985) sets the record straight, more or less. Context matters, and Block carefully first sets a tableaux of just how far Summer had moved from 1979 Manhattan to 1983 New Jersey:

“In 1980, after five years as a reigning voice of the disco scene, Summer began to take control of her own career. She sued her manager, left her record company, remarried and became a 'born-again' Christian. In 1983, touring behind her comeback smash 'She Works Hard For The Money', Summer had graduated from the gay discos to suburban arenas. She was also making small talk between numbers. Gay fans followed her to the burbs, and if the shows struck them as careful and gutless, her remarks astonished and enraged many”.

He then quotes Summer telling the crowd in 1983, “It was Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and as telling gays in her audience, “I'll pray for you tonight . . . I've seen the evil homosexuality come out of you people . . . AIDS is your sin . . . Now don't get me wrong; God loves you. But not the way you are now.”

The wording here is somewhat different to the above-quoted Jim Feldman Village Voice article; probably different enough to absolutely require Summer’s “Now don't get me wrong; God loves you” clarifier (at least until her immediately following backhander “But not the way you are now”; of course Feldman, as quoted by the Advocate, included neither this clarifier or backhander). But fortunately for posterity, Summer did, sometime between March and July 1985, make a written statement about the matter (AFAICT, the only such one from her). It said:

“It is very difficult for me to believe this terrible misunderstanding continues. Since the very beginning of my career, I have had tremendous support and friendship from many in the gay community. It is a source of great concern to me that anything I may have said has cast me as homophobic. My medium of expression is music, all I can ask for is understanding as I feel my true feelings have been misrepresented. As a Christian, I have nothing but love for everyone and I recognize it is not my place to judge others. I believe with all my heart and soul that AIDS is a tragedy for all humankind. A cure must be found and all of us have to do whatever we can to help.” (same URL)

As Block notes, this was not a retraction, but an apology – and a belated one, after much stone-walling, at that. Personally, I can’t go past her line “I feel my true feelings have been misrepresented”. I do hear you there, Donna – but I still can’t actually feel that, and I defy anyone else to, in fact. And I say this as a proud flag-waver for perennial children, worldwide. (Separately, I also disclose, in case it's needed, that I am a gay man).

As I said near the outset, memories (for everyone) and childhood (for most people) are fleeting. To mine and Donna’s everlasting regret, feelings can’t be bottled – i.e. communicated/traded in the ordinary sense – only bottled-up, in a place where only you can feel your feelings, especially your “true” feelings. So being born-again, again, becomes the best you can do.

Donna Summer’s second being born-again was juridical – her 1991 lawsuit (settled out of court, confidentially) against New York magazine (5 August 1991) for printing “God’s punishment” type statements, apparently made by Summer years earlier. So while no one could precisely have felt Donna Summer’s feelings, they did have to pay for them, at least on one occasion.

Her final being born-again was also in Manhattan, this time from August 2001:

“In a 2008 interview with The Daily Telegraph, she said she had a premonition about the [September 11] attacks a month beforehand. Afterwards she said she suffered from severe depression and could not leave her Manhattan flat. ‘I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I had to keep the blinds down and stay in my bedroom’ she said”.

The same article goes on to explain how Summer (a non-smoker) thought that the lung cancer that was to kill her was caused by dust particles from the collapse of the WTC on September 11.

Like feelings, premonitions can be difficult things to be shared – and so perhaps, even to be acted upon. For me to comment further on Donna Summer’s August 2001 premonition would be like someone spruiking Christian commentary on AIDS in a New Jersey arena in 1983. Hot stuff – or God’s punishment? I’ll let someone else be the judge here.

Meanwhile, back to my feelings . . .

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