Unlike modern stars, Summer never courted a gay audience but her transcendental disco was perfectly in tune with gay cultureEarlier this year rumours began to spread that Donna Summer was in negotiation to take the Sunday headlining spot at the summer music festival, Lovebox. The potential signing was symbolic. Sunday at Lovebox is "gay day". Donna Summer's relationship with her fulsome gay fan-base had been fractious ever since there had been rumours of ill-advised comments about the Aids crisis – comments, it should be said, that she denied ever having made.
In 2012, some 30 years later, the time seemed right for any forgiving or forgetting between the two. The possibility of her doing it to a cherry-picked soundtrack of her unimpeachable back catalogue in an east London park, in front of 10,000+ giddy local homosexuals still in thrall to her talent (if not necessarily her PR technique) felt like redemption.
Like her pop stardom, Summer's early gay iconography was not something she hankered after. It was something she was presented with. She didn't craft her ripe talent to a specific audience. It found her on account of it. In a post-Madonna pop universe it seems almost unthinkable that such a thing could happen, but Donna Summer was an accidental icon.
Something about the music she fashioned during disco's supremacy – its poise, gravity and open sex content – touched a mass gay chord at gut level. When Diana Ross sang "I'm Coming Out" or "I Want Muscles" she did it with a sleek wink. She was sensationally market savvy. When Grace Jones recorded an album of growling show tunes to a disco score, its gay intent could not have been more succinct. When Donna Summer breathily intoned her climactic songbook, however, she did it under the tutorship of a hot-blooded heterosexual producer and his faithfully married lyricist in a sterile Munich hit factory. Neither Summer nor Giorgio Moroder nor Pete Belotte were children of the night. They were simply blessed with a divine ability to intuit how 3am under a mirror-ball in a Metropolitan gay nightclub ought to sound, at its most sublime and transcendental. I Feel Love is still it.
Little touches that traced Summer's career breakout – Beverley's campy, chiffon singalong to Love to Love You Baby in Abigail's Party, the crisp guitar run of Hot Stuff that seemed to ridicule traditional rock posturing, the propulsive refrain "Toot, toot, beep, beep" – gave her a strange knowing, all the more poignant for not being designed for the gay market it touched hardest.
In the current pop climate, accessing a gay fanbase is seen as the first notch on the bedpost of future success. Just as junior hairdressers were back in Donna Summer's imperial heyday, aspiring pop singers are now routinely instructed by their handlers that this isn't the business for them if they have a problem with gay people. All the finest female solo artists of the last decade have been handed a copy of Grace Jones' One Man Show and the mesmerising 80s Vogue documentary Paris Is Burning on their first day at diva school, both stone-cold gay classics.
Donna's most obvious modern emotional successor Beyoncé – a beautiful, shy southern church girl with an uncanny ability to follow the rhythm of music and turn it into an approximation of pure sex – had to work hard to earn her righteous gay audience, including a spell under a drag-ish alter ego Sasha Fierce and a superb tribute to Summer herself, segueing one of her first hits Naughty Girl into Love to Love You Baby.
The great irony of Donna Summer's career is that when she left Casablanca records, where she had fashioned peerless gay disco music with the assistance of straight men, she was signed by the most ostentatious gay man in showbusiness, David Geffen. Under this most secular of patrons she returned her most spiritual work. It is almost impossible not to look back at Donna's incredible commercial and creative peaks as a motivational speech in how to do everything the wrong way round. Yet in this last accidental icon and her topsy turvy career something alchemical happened.
Gay men adored her. We continue to. Any potentially received betrayal that had occurred during her aggressive early 80s "god period" was felt only harder because we cared. Perhaps one aspect of her legacy, quite aside from the sensational music she made, will be this. Understanding gay culture, at its trashiest and most moving, is now required cultural reading for any pop performer with a keen eye on longevity. If it takes a fancy to you, the gay circuit will reward you again and again. None of these pre-fame lessons were at Summer's disposal. It was the 70s, a time before huge attitudinal shifts in racism, sexism and homophobia. Some little part of the latter probably happened because of her unfortunate fall from the pedestal of gay idolatry. In some peculiarly moving way she actually opened a door. Rest in peace.