A Celebration of Donna Summer: The Pioneering Queen of Dance

still from the video of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiró)”
(dir. Rocky Schenck) BMG Music Entertainment, 1999. Donna Summer YouTube Channel

Donna Summer would have been 73 today. The legendary pop diva died almost 10 years ago at the early age of 63 and left behind a tremendous legacy of music. Much of her work in the 1970s defined what popular music meant and she was a pioneer of dance music, creating a dance-pop template followed by great dance divas like Madonna, Janet Jackson, Jody Watley, Britney Spears. She was linked with fellow giants of early dance music including Giorgio Moroder, Paul Jabara, Pete Bellotte, and Bruce Sudano. Her early single “Love to Love You Baby” from 1975 is arguably the most important disco single of the genre. It celebrated the carnal sexuality of the club culture. As Summer’s airy, sensual vocals moaned erotically over the funky beat. The song was a glorious 17 minutes long -a symphonic epic of passion.

“Love to Love You Baby” wasn’t Summer’s first single but it was an explosive introduction to a novel and distinct artist who would change music forever. It hit the US top 10, peaking at number 2, the first of 14 top 10 hit singles. She ruled the pop and dance charts, becoming the gorgeous face of disco music. Though dance music was seen with wary snobbery by rock critics who damned the genre as “inauthentic” or prefabricated, Summer became the voice of a dominant pop music genre that centered the voices of Black and Latino queer people as well as women of color. Disco music was the music of queer culture – a joyous celebration of queer sexuality and queer identity. Gay bars would play dance music and so gay audiences became discerning consumers of the music. As with any sort of subversive, subculture, once the mainstream, moneyed capitalist institutions got their hands on disco music, the music was distorted and white washed, getting the inherent campness wrong and the resultant was the polyestered tackiness.

But artists like Donna Summer continued to make innovative and dynamic music. “I Feel Love,” her 1977 single, was a sonic marvel: a futuristic, space-age banger, scored by a Moog synthesizer. The song is arguably the most influential singles of dance music, its echoes heard in every disco song, dance-pop, New Wave, New Romantic, electronica, house, and techno. After “I Feel Love,” pop music was never the same.

Though Summer personified dance music, she wasn’t content with staying in just one genre: she also looked to rock, soul, gospel, becoming one of the most creative and unique voices of her time. Critics wanted to dismiss disco music as a producer-driven genre (and yes, the producers and songwriters of the disco era were unheralded musical geniuses), but Summer wasn’t a singing mannequin or a cipher. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Summer was integral to the creation of her sound and music. She also had a beautiful and distinct voice, one that was malleable and flexible, able to drift like a cloud over the thick, programmed beats or blast through the productions with a fiery, gospel-hewed fervor.

Because Donna Summer was more than just a gorgeous face fronting dance music, but an actual artist, she was one of the few disco artists who was able to extend her career beyond the 1970s, adapting successfully to the synth-driven dance-pop and urban soul-pop. She started working with other dance producers in the 1980s and 1990s, hooking up with the ubiquitous Stock Aitken Waterman, Quincy Jones, and C+C Music Factory and recorded more excellent dance music that would extend her career into the new millennium, consistently landing in the top 10 on the dance charts.

More than any other singer of the disco genre, Donna Summer possessed a free and exuberant voice that captured, at once, the joy and exhilaration of dance music. Her sound, her music, remains essential when assessing the impact of dance music. She was an original originator, a Founding Mother of dance music, who would become its most important practitioner.

Important Highlights of Donna Summer

Crayons (2008): Summer’s final studio LP released whilst she was alive, this is a solid collection of dance and pop tunes that bear the mark of its time. As always, Summers enlivens everything with that glorious, clear-as-a-bell clarion of a voice (that has not aged). This is a stylish record of contemporary urban-pop, impeccably produced and performed with characteristic zeal.

Crayons 1 by Summer, Donna (2004-05-31)
Crayons

“Power of Love” (2005): the death of Luther Vandross was a huge blow to the music community. Vandross was an inspired singer-songwriter and producer, lending his gargantuan talents to the likes of legendary divas like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, and Dionne Warwick. His voice was incredible – smooth, lyrical, expressive. He was the Mozart of romantic soul. On So Amazing: An All-Star Tribute to Luther Vandross, Summer reworks Vandross’ midtempo hit “Power of Love” into a hypnotic club tune.

“Love Is the Healer” (1999): an album track from a 1999 live album, this song is prime later-day Donna Summer. Written and produced with Nathan DiGesare and Thunderpuss, “Love Is the Healer” is high-tech house with great sonic accents, including the Gregorian chants (all the rage in the early 90s). Also, Summer laid down some of her best vocals on this dance hit.

Love Is The Healer
“Love Is the Healer”

“Carry On” (1997): the inaugural winner of the Best Dance Recording Grammy, this early 90s hit that became a dance staple in 1997 due to some fantastic remixes. It showed listeners that despite being in the business for more than two decades, both Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder were still able to make some great, vital dance music that still spoke to current audiences without pandering to current pop trends.

Carry on Pt.2 by Summer, Donna, Giorgio Moroder (1995-05-01)
“Carry On”

“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)” (1994): the first single off a mid-90s compilation, this house-pop tune joined Summer with David Cole and Robert Clivillés of C+C Music Factory fame, and it’s no surprise that the union is inspired. Over the strutting, queer dance beat and pounding keyboards, Summer – at seeming vocal peak – joyfully belts over the bouncing percussion. Though her biggest hits were in the 1970s, songs like “Melody of Love” proved that in the 1990s, she was still as creative and vital a performer.

Melody of Love
“Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)”

“This Time I Know It’s for Real” (1989): Don’t call it a comeback because Summer wasn’t really gone. By the end of the 1980s, Summer’s impact on pop radio had dwindled, so she turned to the British outfit, Stock Aitken Waterman (arguably the commercial – though not artistic – successors of Giorgio Moroder), who created hits for Kylie Minogue. Summer collaborated with the trio on this sprightly, churning tune, which married SAW’s assembly-line dance-pop production with her distinct and heaven-sent vocals.

“Dinner with Gershwin” (1987): Originally written and recorded by Brenda Russell, “Dinner with Gershwin” is a strange, eccentric tune in which Summer warbles the names of the famous names she’d like to hang out with (i.e. Rembrandt, Curie, Picasso, Earhart, Mahalia Jackson). The production – courtesy of Russell and Richard Perry is somewhat dated now, but the angular, clipped arrangement is exciting to hear and the lyrics are fun and just odd enough to make this a winning highlight of Summer’s 80s output.

DONNA SUMMER / DINNER WITH GERSHWIN
“Dinner with Gershwin”

“She Works Hard for the Money” (1983): early 80s pop music flirted with proletariat anthems, most notably with Dolly Parton’s paean to the working gal, “9 to 5.” For “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summer joins CCM giant Michael Omartian for this New Wave-inspired rocker about a working-class female worker, toiling away. Summer’s empathetic performance and the high-octane production are high spots on this corker of a tune. It’s an important song in Summer’s oeuvre because it also proved that the stigma of disco wouldn’t have much of an effect on her career.

“Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)” (1982): Quincy Jones was the most in-demand producer of the early 1980s due to his iconic work with Michael Jackson. He turned to Donna Summer with this tight, funky tune that boasts some of Jones’ distinct characteristics of his 80s work – lots of gaudy synths, rumbling, mile-wide bass, sassy background vocals, vocoder-vocal samples. There’s also a hot sax solo and a whistle. It’s over the top and somewhat fussy and crowded, but it’s still a great, fun jam.

I’m a Rainbow (recorded in 1981; released in 1996): this record was shelved and in the ensuing years it became a legend among Donna Summer fans. Looking to dance-pop, synth-pop, and New Wave, the album was a concerted effort to move away subtly from her disco roots. Along with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, Summer also works with other top-shelf talent like Harold Faltermeyer, Bruce Sudano, and Silvester Levay, putting together a superb collection of pop songs. The bright, neon-spiked “Melanie” is a major highlight (and should have been a single) and despite it being arguably, one of the worst songs ever written, Summer manages to even make Andrew Lloyd Webber’s garbagey “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moving and affecting. A shame that this album was shelved.

I'm a Rainbow (2014 Remaster)
I’m a Rainbow

“The Wanderer” (1980): Once Donna Summer entered the 1980s, she was facing an ever-shifting musical landscape. Though identified by disco, Summer always had designs on pop/rock, so this single is a fantastic indulgence. It’s a New Wave song with some post-punk inflections, crunchy guitars, and a bouncing beat. She affects a curling sneer of a voice when singing the song (there’s also a slightly rockabilly sound to some of Summer’s delivery). Like her other work of the 1980s, it showed a flexibility in her sound and abilities.

On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II (1979): Arguably one of the best greatest-hits collections released, this 16-track, double-LP compilation is a brilliant encapsulation of the most important artist of the disco ear and one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. The track list has the greatest disco music ever recorded. New tracks added to entice buyers do not sound like last minute additions, but are excellent songs in their own right: the title track is a classic and her duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” is a camp classic.

On the Radio by Donna Summer (2012-08-08)
On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes I & II

“On the Radio” (1979): The title track of her greatest hits album, “On the Radio” follows the format of a classic Donna Summer tune: a sweeping ballad that will turn into a booty-shaking jam. The chorus of the song is crazily catchy and belies the tension in the lyrics which are quite moving, despite the discotheque pacing.

“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” (1979): The pairing of Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand is destined to be a camp classic and a kitsch standard. Summer and Streisand were both enjoying unprecedented success in the 1970s, scoring hit singles and selling millions of records. Both divas – icons and queens of gay male fans – were known for their large and expressive voices. A song like this pit the two against each other, culminating in an exciting – yet still hilarious – match. Written by dance great Paul Jabara and Bruce Roberts, the song is a delicious, over-the-top disco tune that embraces a silliness and queeny queerness.

Enough Is Enough / No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) [Vinyl Single 7'']
“No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”

“Dim All the Lights” (1979): Donna Summer admitted that she originally wrote this song for Rod Stewart but was so in love with it, that she kept it for herself. The song is essentially two-in-one: it starts off as a bluesy ballad (I can hear Stewart singing this bit) before it boogies into a shuffling disco ditty.

“Bad Girls” (1979): One of Donna Summer’s most enduring hits is a sassy, saucy disco number which is a story song about prostitutes. Despite the subject matter, Summer imbues the song with a pointed, wary attitude. The backup vocalists add as much to the song’s appeal as Summer herself; they trade vocal licks with the diva, adding to the fun.

Bad Girls (1979): Arguably Donna Summer’s best studio LP which brings in a lot of her favorite sounds, including disco, rock, soul, and pop. It’s a diverse and wide-ranging record that allows for audiences to see just how masterful Summer is. The ballads show off Summer’s fantastic voice and the album’s innovative use of synthesizers and electronic instruments makes Bad Girls a seminal pop record of the 1970s. Producer Giorgio Moroder perfects 70s guitar-driven pop/rock as well as continue to develop the muscular, sweaty tech-driven dance music.

Bad Girls
Bad Girls

“Hot Stuff” (1979): Donna Summer’s embrace of rock sounds imply a second side career as a Tina Turner-esque rock goddess. Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte create a jumping, jangly disco-rock song that matches Summer’s rock star aspirations. There’s a fantastic undulating synthesizer as well as a crunchy rock guitar by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter.

“Last Dance” (1978): Paul Jabara won a well-deserved Oscar for this song which was written for Thank God It’s Friday. The accompanying soundtrack is pretty brilliant with excellent disco tracks. Jabara is a master at writing dance music and captures the wistful, lilting mood of when the last song is called at the end of a night of dancing at a club. It encapsulates that kind of feeling of yearning and want as well as regret that comes up when a night winds down and romantic feelings are still left unspoken and unrequited. Donna Summer performs the song beautifully, finding the tone of Jabara’s lovelorn, reaching words.

“MacArthur Park” (1978): Summer’s cover of Jimmy Webb’s ballad is one of the most bewildering songs ever. Starting off as a slow, swinging, funk ballad with an urgent, piercing vocal performance before she unleashes a sneering laugh, as the strings and disco beat explode. Despite the quixotic lyrics, the production and arrangement adds a fiery earnestness which Summer matches with a passionate, committed performance (her snarling howls are great). The synth work is also brilliantly bonkers.

“I Feel Love” (1977): The mission of “I Feel Love” was straight forward: to change the face of dance music. Produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the song is a deep, dark, space-age disco sci-fi number. Summer’s voice is a sensual force of a nature. Every dance song, every synth-pop song, every New Wave song owes its sound to “I Feel Love.”

Love to Love You Baby (1975): though the title track is the main draw (a 17-minute opus of funk and sex), the flip side of the album has been unfairly overwhelmed by the success of the song. Pete Bellotte and Giorgio Moroder craft a string of perfect soul-pop songs with spirited vocals by Summer. The gutsy “Pandora’s Box” is a fantastic slice of piano-driven pop and “Need-a-Man Blues” is a whirling, driving tune. The title track is a classic, but the other cuts showcase Summer’s versatility (as well as Moroder’s and Bellotte’s).

LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY VINYL LP DONNA SUMMER 1976[GTLP008]
Love to Love You Baby

“Love to Love You Baby” (1975): One of Donna Summer’s earliest hits, this song is arguably the sexiest song in history. You can hear in its production and writing, the blueprint of Madonna’s “Erotica” and Janet Jackson’s “Throb.” Few mainstream pop songs celebrated female sexuality and “Love to Love You Baby” was at once a feminist manifesto of feminine sensuality and a celebration of the sexy power of dance.

In celebration of Marianne Faithfull: Rock’s Greatest Chanteuse

Still from the music video for “The Gypsy Faerie Queen”
(dir. John Maybury), Prettybird LTD, 2018. Marianne Faithfull YouTube Channel.

On what is her 75th birthday, A Seat in the Aisle is celebrating the work of rock legend Marianne Faithfull. The word ‘survivor’ is thrown around a lot in pop culture, but the word seems to be tailor-made for Faithfull, a woman who has weathered personal and career travails and obstacles. In the 1960s, her fresh, English rose beauty made her a precious star – she sang pretty folk songs with a lovely, ethereal voice. But life and art got in the way, and with 1979’s Broken English, she staged one of the most impressive comebacks in rock history. The Marianne Faithfull of Broken English was a rough, wary, world-weary songstress, no longer content trilling coffee house fare. Her pretty instrument was replaced by a gorgeously ravaged voice, splintered, blistered, and crumbling, like a ruin.

Marianne Faithfull became rock’s Marlene Dietrich. Rock’s Lotte Lenya. Rock’s Elaine Stritch. She was a singer that applied her destroyed voice to a catalog of songs that matched the ditch-deep voice and hard-won gravitas. She wrote songs that told stories of her storied life, writing from the perspective of a wise sage. She also looked to Brecht, Coward, Weill, creating a repertoire of a brilliant storyteller.

She is an original, one who in her nearly 60-year career still surprises her audiences. In 2021, after decades of music, she returns with an album of spoken-word poetry, proving that she is one of her generation’s greatest performing artists.

Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Moments

She Walks in Beauty (2021): Faithfull collaborated with Warren Ellis and recorded a collection of spoken-word poetry, mining the great works of Keats, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, and Tennyson. Ellis creates a lovely, lilting soundscape for Faithfull’s expressive readings. Recorded during the pandemic, during which Faithfull herself was struck by the disease, She Walks in Beauty is a poignant album – a possible swansong – for a career studded with idiosyncratic turns.

She Walks in Beauty (with Warren Ellis)
She Walks in Beauty

Negative Capability (2018): Faithfull’s talent as a song interpreter is unparalleled but she’s also a strong songwriter, herself. If this is Faithfull’s final album of music, then it’s a tremendous high note. At this point in her career, her voice is wizened and thickened, flecked with a sadness. The original tunes on the record are moving, but the highlight is a revisit of her iconic signature “As Tears Go By” which is immeasurably improved with a regal, tragic elegance.

Negative Capability (Deluxe Version)
Negative Capability

Horses and High Heels (2011): A fantastic album of covers in which Faithfull gives her inimitable stamp. The best part of the album is Faithfull’s affectionate nod towards her 60s past with her gravely – yet hopeful – take on Carole King’s elegiac “Goin’ Back.”

Horses And High Heels
Horses and High Heels

Easy Come, Easy Go (2008): Faithfull’s a singular artist but when paired with the right duet partner, she can create magic. On this album of covers which includes songs from Dolly Parton, Bessie Smith, Smokey Robinson, and even Leonard Bernstein, Faithfull is able to apply her particular brand of cabaret-rock to rock and pop-era tunes. She’s gives a gutsy take on Parton’s “Down from Dover” and a gloriously camp version of the Motown chestnut “Ooh Baby Baby” with queer rock icon ANOHNI. The album’s strangest but most entrancing moment is a jazzy duet with Jarvis Cocker on the Sondheim classic “Somewhere” from West Side Story.

Easy Come Easy Go by Marianne Faithfull (2008-11-14)
Easy Come, Easy Go

Before the Poison (2004): PJ Harvey invigorates Faithful in what could be best described as a late-career renaissance in which she collaborates with young, fresh producers and singer-songwriters. Producers Harvey, Nick Cave, Hal Willner, Rob Ellis are able to reacquaint listeners with Faithfull’s inner rock chick by giving her a platter of indie rock and jangly, guitar rock.

Before the Poison
Before the Poison

Kissin’ Time (2002): With Kissin’ Time, Faithfull sees her brand of rock filtered through thick, glossy, electronic rock. Hooking up with a diverse range of producers including Billy Corgan, Dave Stewart, Jarvis Cocker, and Étienne Daho, Faithfull’s inner New Wave diva is unearthed. Though she’s never sang on tracks as smooth as these, she still manages to pierce through the sheen with her heartache. Her tribute to Nico on “Song for Nico” is warm and lovely; and her homage to 60s Brill Building pop, “Something Good” is nostalgic and fun. The best track is her elegant hymn “I’m on Fire,” a brilliant collaboration with Corgan that is arguably her best song from her later career.

Kissin Time
Kissin’ Time

Vagabond Ways (1999): By 1999, Faithfull had dedicated most of her career to theatre hall songs, and this was another comeback for the singer. It’s a fine return-to-form with a collection of solid rock/pop songs that remind listeners that despite her exalted, lofty reputation, she’s still a masterful rock singer. Producer Daniel Lanois, most famous for his work with U2 and Emmylou Harris, brings his atmospheric sound to the record, but is far more restrained, allowing for the sturdy bone structure of the tunes to shine.

Vagabond Ways
Vagabond Ways

20th Century Blues (1996): As great a rock singer as Faithfull is, her strange and eccentric voice is a perfect match for art songs and cabaret. Her affinity for these songs – written by legendary tunesmiths like Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Noël Coward – highlights her chanteuse persona. She’s a clear disciple of Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya, using the deep tones and shades in her gritty voice to add new sounds to these classic songs. “Falling in Love” again is a swooning highlight and her take on “Mack the Knife” transports listeners to a piano bar in the Weimar Republic.

20th Century Blues
20th Century Blues

A Secret Life (1995): Faithfull is paired with the moody, dense Angelo Badalamenti (best known for his scoring work on Twin Peaks) for a gorgeous, lush album that finds a ponderous beauty in her voice. It’s a cinematic record, one that is large and expansive and includes some of her best singing. Aesthetically, it’s one of her most accessible albums, but there’s still a Gothic darkness to the songs.

A Secret Life
A Secret Life

Blazing Away (1990): Blazing Away works both as a greatest hits record and a chronicle of Faithfull’s talent as a life performer. Recorded in St Anne’s Cathedral in New York City, Faithfull seems inspired by the grandeur of the venue and imbues her performances with a faded regal queenly elegance. The set list is a testament to Faithfull’s legacy and mythic history. Songs from the 60s, 70s, and 80s populate the track listing, and Faithfull’s performances are evergreen.

Blazing Away-Live by Marianne Faithfull (2006-05-03)
Blazing Away

Strange Weather (1987): In a career marked by a series of comebacks, Strange Weather is one of her greatest. An important album in her career as it was the work that gave audiences a fully-realized glimpse at Faithfull’s talents – not only as a rock singer but a genius songstress. The songs on Strange Weather indulge in Faithfull’s love of German art songs, folk songs, and dance hall ballads. The instrumentation on this record is lush and full, supporting Faithfull’s voice (which possesses a surprising power). Though Broken English is the record that reset Marianne Faithfull’s career, Strange Weather is the record that established her genius.

Strange Weather
Strange Weather

Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits (1987): Faithfull’s recording career before Broken English is difficult to sift through – there are some inspired moments, some real songs of beauty, but there are also a lot of cookie-cutter folk-pop songs that feel bland and anonymous. That is why this collection is a great distillation of her 60s work. It includes covers of 60s pop songs like “Yesterday,” “Monday, Monday,” and Brill Building stuff like “Something Better” and “With You in Mind.” Faithfull’s voice is shockingly different for those familiar with raspy machete of a voice. Not all of the tunes are lighter-than air, though: her early version of “As Tears Go By” has a mournful quality and “Sister Morphine” has a spunky power. For Faithfull completists, this is an important entry in her discography.

Greatest Hits by Marianne Faithfull (1990-05-03)
Marianne Faithfull’s Greatest Hits

Broken English (1979): Broken English is Faithfull’s magnum opus and her greatest work. It’s also a record that brought audiences to the ragged, tattered voice that would be a perfect vehicle for her particular brand of brilliance. Though a thoroughly British performer, Broken English‘s smarmy, dirty, 70s disco-rock brought the singer to a pre-Giuliani New York. It’s a punk-pop album with licks of New Wave, dance, and rock. Each song – even the tracks she didn’t have a hand in writing – is personal and Faithfull is able to inhabit the voice of the characters. As a singing actress, she does a dizzying job conveying the desperation and insanity of the titular narrator in “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan.” Despite the studio burnish, the album has an appealingly torn sound. This is an indispensable entry in the singer’s career.

Broken English
Broken English

After experimenting with pop music, Dolly Parton returned home with ‘White Limozeen’

White Limozeen by Dolly Parton (1989-05-11)

The 1980s was a particularly fruitful decade for Dolly Parton. She ruled the 1970s as a country music queen and set her sights on Hollywood and pop superstardom. She found success as a light comedic actress and became a fixture on TV chat shows, charming audiences with her quick wit and her bodacious looks. She also added businesswoman on her resume, opening Dollywood, an amusement park near her native Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. By 1987, Parton’s star was so big, she was given her own variety show and CBS records signed her to a record deal. Part of the idea was that Parton would continue to do her pop music thing, by releasing a pop album, followed up by an album that was more in line with her C&W roots.

But 1987 proved to be a bit of a mixed bag. Her variety show, Dolly proved to be an expensive flop. Though a natural comedienne, the show tried to pass her off as a 80s Carol Burnett, but she was a decade late. Though her star power attracted some big guest stars – including 80s mainstays like Hulk Hogan, Delta Burke, and Whoopi Goldberg – she proved to be ill-suited for comedy sketches. During this time, she also released her biggest music disappointment, Rainbow, a MTV pop album that failed to make Parton a pop star.

Given the failure of Dolly and Rainbow, Parton returned to the country music fold with her 1989 comeback album, White Limozeen. More than any other album before in her career, White Limozeen worked with her image and legend. Parton’s public persona is one of spangly glamour. Her looks are inspired by the local harlot of her hometown, who was ostracized by the townies for her heavy makeup and short skirts.

White Limozeen is a country-pop record that is very much of its time. The late 1980s found country singers raiding the mainstream pop charts with smooth, glossy production. Electric guitars, drum machines, and synthesizers crowded out slide guitars and fiddles. On White Limozeen, Parton didn’t drop her pop pretensions, but looked to reclaim some of the audience that may have felt abandoned by her movie star dreams.

As if to reassure her audiences that she hasn’t gotten too big for her britches, the album opens with “Time for Me to Fly,” a bluegrass cover of the REO Speedwagon hit. In the 2000s, Parton would record a trilogy of bluegrass records, each containing a out-of-leftfield bluegrass interpretation of a rock song. “Time for Me to Fly” works as a banjo-picking number, with Parton singing the empowered lyrics with gusto, as if she wrote them herself. So much of Parton’s music is about her fragility, so it’s nice to listen to her sing about being assertive and strong; her ebullient personality practically dances with her nimble vocals.

The energetic “Time for Me to Fly” is followed by the album’s second single, “Yellow Roses,” which went to number 1 on the country charts. The song is a swinging country ballad with a swaying steel guitar that just about touches camp. It’s a song that sounds like it would be performed at some honky tonk – it even contains a spoken interlude. The song doesn’t rank among the singer’s best written efforts, but it’s very pretty.

The next track is the album’s first single and 18th number one country record, “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.” A sprightly, fast-paced song that encapsulates country-pop radio circa 1989. A rare song that Parton recorded that she didn’t write, it’s a good-natured tune, but shows a creeping glossiness and namelessness – as if Parton was merely performing in front of studio musicians and producers. Country superstar Ricky Skaggs produced the song, and it both shows White Limozeen at its worst and best: at its best, because it charts Parton’s return to rootsier music; at its worst, because it also highlighted just how far Parton strayed from her talent.

The next track is a contrast to the loud and busy “Why’d You Come in Here Lookin’ Like That.” It’s a guitar-ballad, “Slow Healing Heart,” which again Parton did not write – Jim Rushing did. As with the other songs she didn’t write, Parton doesn’t connect to the lyrics in the same way – and really, few songwriters can approach her genius. On a shallow listen, the song feels a bit like a cliche – it’s a heartache ballad about a lost love.

“What Is It My Love” a Parton-penned ballad is a gorgeous ballad. A wonderful comparison to “Slow Healing Heart,” as it shows just how much more powerful Parton is when she’s singing her own lyrics. “What Is It My Love” doesn’t feel as “country” as the other songs – it’s a moving pop ballad, with heartwrenching lyrics and a stunning performance by Parton. It’s a gentle vocal performance and it’s paired with a beautiful string section. It’s one of the few moments in Parton’s 1980s output that rivals her best work in the 1970s.

The title track is the most important song on the album. Not because it’s the best (it’s not), nor because it was the album’s biggest hit (it wasn’t), but because it’s the most self-referential moment on the record and one of the most self-referential moments in Parton’s recorded history. The lyrics – penned by Parton and Mac Davis – tells the story of a small town country girl finding success in Hollywood. Parton’s persona – Daisy Mae in Hollywood – provides the song with its verisimilitude. The song also is a perfect theme song to Parton’s career up to that point – a starry-eyed young lady who becomes a star.

Parton’s best songs are autobiographical, but the majority of her songs deal with her past. She rarely wrote about her stardom, instead creating mountain poetry about her impoverished childhood or aching heartbreak. “White Limozeen” is the song that writes about her departure from her humble background. A white limousine is a marker of money – but also new money. It’s a symbol of social mobility and access to privilege. In “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton tells the story of a little girl who is teased for wearing a coat made of rags; in “White Limozeen” that little girl grows up to become a Hollywood starlet. It’s one of the few songs in Parton’s oeuvre that actually plays with her public image and history.

Not only is the song itself important, but the album’s cover is too. It’s vintage Dolly Parton, 1980s Hollywood superstar. She’s dressed in an expensive, rhinestone and crystal-encrusted floor-length gown, matched with a white mink stole. She’s standing in front of the titular limousine, with fans snapping pictures. Looming above Parton’s head is a marquee, announcing her starring in “White Limozeen” as if it were the title of her latest movie. She’s standing on a red carpet. It’s an important image that plays up the song’s ethos of local girl done good and is now a superstardom. Parton’s stardom was bifurcated – but music seemed to have taken a backseat to her sights on Hollywood crossover superstardom. That’s why it’s so key that the image and the signage – “Dolly Parton in White Limozeen” implies that she’s in a movie.

The next song doesn’t have the impact that “White Limozeen” does. It’s another Mac Davis collaboration, and this time, he sings on the track, as well. Like a lot of the album, it’s another slick, country-pop song. Davis’ voice is appealing, though a bit nondescript as is the production, but again, Parton’s engaging personality and genius of a voice, manages to cut through some of Skaggs’ gloss.

The following song, “Take Me Back to the Country,” another song that Parton did not write. Karen Staley wrote the funky number which lends itself to some of the themes that “White Limozeen” brings up, though this time, the big city is a place of angst and tension. The country mouse, city mouse dichotomy is one that reduces both sides – the country is seen as unsophisticated, backwards, and dull, whilst the city is seen as crowded, loud, and unfeeling. Staley’s lyrics are full of cliched ideas of the city, being a rat race, full of crime and crowds. It’s a disappointing song for Parton to perform as she’s a smarter and far more complex artist than that. Though the title and the song feels a bit like pandering to the country audiences that felt she walked out on them.

The penultimate track is a pretty ballad, “The Moon, the Stars and Me,” a plaintive ballad about love loss. Parton didn’t write this song, either, but the song’s topics may have had more relevance to her life because she performs the song’s bruised sadness ably. The song’s production is also less fussy than the rest of the album, which makes it a solid entry.

The final song on the album calls back to Parton’s faith, an important part of her personality and life. It tells of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. A cover of Don Francisco’s Christian Contemporary hit, “He’s Alive” is a majestic, epic song that is a bad fit for the album, but an excellent track. Though she didn’t write the song, but because it connects to her religiosity, she sings it with a fervent passion. When the gospel choir joins Parton at the climax of the song, the singer sings in a rarely-used soulful belt. It’s a strange note to finish the record – the song feels far more important than White Limozeen as a whole, and in fact the humor of the other tracks feel almost blasphemous and dismissive in comparison to the sacred spirit of “He’s Alive.”

White Limozeen was a gold-seller for Parton, the first of a string of successful albums she recorded for CBS in the early 1990s. This comeback was brief, however, because just as soon as she settled into a second career as a best-selling singer, country radio gradually pushed away older singers, and Parton struggled to have her singles played. Eventually, she found herself without a major label. In 1998, she released Hungry Again to warm reviews, and it acted as her White Limozeen of the late 1990s, heralding a return to her roots. After Hungry Again, Parton would release what would become her most critically-acclaimed music in her long career, her bluegrass trilogy, starting with 1999’s The Grass Is Blue, followed by the classic Little Sparrow (2001), and ending with 2002’s Halos & Horns. More than White Limozeen, the bluegrass trilogy reminded critics and audiences of the Mozart-like prodigious talent of Dolly Parton. But White Limozeen is an important entry in her storied career, even if it isn’t an essential recording because it was the first record to reassess her place as both a recording artist and a professional celebrity, and the tension that arises from both those identities. The album didn’t solve or smooth that tension – it took Parton a few more years to balance the artist side of her persona with the oversized celebrity, but it was an important first step.

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