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The Heat Beat: The Music of Phoenix Radio and Beyond: Looking back on Summer: The Donna Summer Musical

By Jess Szabo, Arts Writer

The new year has come upon us so quickly, November 2021 probably feels like a long time ago already. But many will still remember the performance of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical” held at the Stanley Theater on November 23, 2021. The musical told the life story of its subject, Donna Summer, through a mix of dialogue and portions of Summer’s own songs performed by the cast.

Judging by the audience reaction to “Love to Love You Baby,” “On the Radio,” and “She Works Hard for the Money,” Summers’ music, and the performance, brought back happy memories of 1970’s disco culture, 1970’s pop music, and 1980’s pop music, all genres Summers’ music spanned. The musical touched on several stories from Summers’ life that would be well-known to most of her fans or just those with a strong interest in popular music. It highlights the response to “Love to Love You Baby,” which was considered risque, and spawned at least a few “not safe for work” urban legends. At the very least, the song was viewed as a celebration of the extreme decadence associated with disco culture. The audience is reminded that although Summer did in fact work hard for everything she got out of her musical career, “She Works Hard for the Money” was actually written as a tribute to a ladies’ room  attendent she met, someone who worked so hard they nearly fell asleep on their shift. Other songs, sung by three different singers, were used to illustrate lesser known details about Summer’s life.

While many of us do not have our own songs to illustrate our life story, everyone in the audience could relate to the experience of music as a vehicle for bringing back parts of our lives. Our favorite music is the soundtrack of our life. Music can bring back memories so strong, we feel as though we are reliving the event, just as the three women who portrayed Donna Summer onstage acted out memories of scenes from her life.

According to a September 14, 2021 Psychology Today article by Dr. Shahram Heshmat titled “Why Does Music Evoke Memories?” the answer lies in our formation of implicit memory. This is our unconscious memory, where classical conditioning pairs the music with the important life event or circumstances. (The best known example of classical conditioning is Pavlov’s dogs, an experiment in which Ivan Pavlov made dogs salivate at the sound of a bell by repeatedly ringing it when he fed them. After hearing the bell during feeding time multiple times, the dogs began to so closely associate bells with their food that the bell alone caused them to feel hungry and salivate.) Similarly, we react to the song the way we reacted to the situation from our past, because our brain has come to associate that music with that particular event, time, or situation in our lives.

This can happen on a collective level, as advertisers who purchase the rights  to songs know all too well. The Rembrandts’ “I’ll Be There for You,” will remind many of us of the people we watched the TV show “Friends” with every Thursday night back in the day.  Most Americans who are fans of the “Rocky” movie series will forever think of of boxing when they hear the song “Eye of the Tiger” by the band Survivor due to its use as a theme song for the films.

Implicit memories formed by the pairing of music and meaning can also form on a smaller group level. Hearing the song that always seemed to be on the radio when you and your family went out to dinner every Friday night won’t mean anything to me, but everyone who lived in your home at the time may remember everything from the smell of the car air freshener to the name of the waitress who always brought your meals every time they hear it.

And of course, powerful memories can be invoked on an individual, personal level. A song can mean absolutely nothing to anyone else, but if your brain has been conditioned to pair it with something meaningful to you, memories and emotions will come flooding back.

“Summer” has received mixed reviews. Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune criticized the show for focusing too much on signaling the virtue of the subject rather than the meaning of the music, while the Schenectady, New York based The Daily Gazette features a review by Matthew G. Moross that calls it “an enjoyable music, dance fest.” But no matter what anyone’s review may say, the show certainly inspires the audience to remember all the songs that form the soundtrack of their lives.

Jess Szabo’ is a novelist, writing teacher, and arts writer from Utica, New York. More of her writing can be found at her website, Artist Cafe Utica www.artistcafeutica.com 

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