Joan Smith: Oh, for the innocence of Donna Summer's hot love

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Donna Summer sang about love but what she really meant was sex. Nobody could be in doubt that the swooning vocals of "I Feel Love" were about something else entirely, and, 35 years later, the song has lost none of its erotic charge. It's been played over and over since Summer's untimely death last week at the age of 63.

I've always loved dance music. Disco turned up at a moment in the 1970s when rock had become mystical and pretentious – just think of the cover image of Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy – making pop sexy again. Summer's timing was brilliant for a generation of women had just read The Female Eunuch and were demanding the right to enjoy sex without shame.

Her first big hit was in 1975, five years after the book was published, and it couldn't have been more perfect: the 17-minute version of "Love to Love You Baby" contains more than 20 simulated orgasms. Summer said she recorded it lying on the floor in a darkened recording studio, thinking about how Marilyn Monroe might have sung the lyrics.

This black woman with the perfectly controlled voice oozed sexuality on stage as dancers in sparkly costumes cavorted behind her. Videos capture the camp exhilaration of the period, when gender-bending was the order of the day. Feminists and gay men loved her, even when she became a born-again Christian and was reported – she always denied it – to have said something very stupid about Aids. When her death was announced last week, Sir Elton John was one of many performers who paid tribute to her.

Now that era seems strikingly innocent. The 1970s produced a ferment of ideas about sex and gender, and disco provided an incredibly seductive backing track. At a time when unthinking sexism was rife in the music industry Summer blazed a trail for Madonna, Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga. It's also possible to see her influence on the hugely successful TV series Sex and the City, whose female characters live out the sexual freedom embodied in her lyrics.

Yet the fact remains that Summer was an unlikely standard-bearer for the revolution in popular culture she's most associated with. She grew up in a religious family, singing in a gospel choir, and the tension between her beliefs and her eroticised stage persona can't have been easy to reconcile; in her autobiography, she recalled a suicide attempt in 1976, between two of her biggest chart successes. In effect, she became a symbol of social and political movements – feminism and gay rights – which are profoundly secular, creating a personal conflict that prefigured today's ideological battles.

Summer apparently told friends she believed that the lung cancer which killed her was caused by toxic particles she inhaled in New York after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Those events are a reminder of the harsh world we live in now, a long way from the hedonistic 1970s. I don't think I'll ever stop feeling nostalgic for "Hot Love" – or the unashamed orgasmic glory that was disco.

Joan Smith is Political Blonde www.politicalblonde.com; twitter.com/@polblonde

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