Claims that Donna Summer was the only true superstar of the disco era, that she alone managed to transcend the centricity of producers and songwriters and emerge as an artistic force unto herself, are rendered hollow by the fact that her critical legacy continues to be dominated by the line of thought that holds her collaborations with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte are really the only significant works of her career. Never mind that her shelved 1981 album I’m a Rainbow and her significantly self-titled 1982 album (produced by Quincy Jones but with a phalanx of songwriters ranging from Michael Sembello and Bruce Springsteen to Billy Strayhorn) are both as solid as all but one or two of her disco-era double LPs. Nope, it’s much more important to the overall storyline of pop music that disco died within months of Summer’s world-conquering Bad Girls and its near-back-to-back #1 hits “Bad Girls” and “Hot Stuff,” which means that her career had to die as well.
Which isn’t to say Summer didn’t appear to believe in this storyline herself. The gap between Summer’s most recent studio album leading up to the brand new Crayons is no less than 17 years. Beyond mere career fugue, Summer’s status as the queen of disco, a genre defined by cocaine-addled hedonism and sex-hungry excess, has always been at odds with her overall casual demeanor. Looking back at vintage videos of her performing some of the campiest of her early hits (such as the saxophone-spiked retro romp “I Remember Yesterday”) is like watching Bob Dylan tap dance. Even dressed in a top hat and tails circa 1978 (i.e. the goofiest year in American history, as proven by science), she seemed to be holding back, keeping at least one piece of herself for, well, herself.
Crayons is her attempt to finally share (the idea being that each song on the album is like its own crayon, and all are expected to bring delight to her kindergarten of fans), but the results are about as personal as food-dyed wax. The music is harmlessly listenable, and the requisite nods to her dance-floor legacy, like the sweeping, dramatic house anthem “I’m a Fire” and the lockstep “Stamp Your Feet,” are (at the very least) no less opportunistic than the latest albums by Madonna and Janet Jackson. But if you can tell the difference between the midtempo R&B thump of “Science of Love” and the midtempo R&B thump of “The Queen is Back,” well, maybe tinnitus hasn’t ruined your ears to the extent it has mine.
But maybe the unabashed popism of the album (including interpolations of hip-hop ethos—yes, voiced fleetingly by Summer herself on the otherwise credibly current “Mr. Music”) is its own statement, even if there isn’t a single memorable lyric to be had in the entire box of dozen. And that really becomes a problem in a song like the album-closing “Bring Down the Reign,” which contains references to angels and heavenly choirs juxtaposed against Middle Eastern musical riffs and somehow never actually makes it clear if it’s in reference to the current situation in Iraq or if the titular “reign” is that of Dubya (hell, it could be a Contemporary Christian anthem for all I know).
Yes, Summer is at the point in her career where less inventive suits could convince her to record an entire album with Billy Strayhorn covers, instead of performing a duet with Ziggy Marley or attempting a Jamaican patois as though she were Mariah Carey. And yes, her robust voice is still in remarkably fine fettle—arguably less played out than Carey’s. But it’s patronizing to give a once and future diva props simply for not taking her act to Vegas a la Celine Dion. And it would be regressive to simply endorse the few songs on the album like “I’m a Fire” (which is, I have to admit, the best dance track she’s done since the hella-underrated “This Time I Know It’s for Real”) that keep Summer in her familiar element of neo-disco. Considering how much I’ve defended Summer’s reputation against the cult of Moroder, Crayons had me wishing she would have found a few more songwriters who have at least graduated to using markers.