On 15 March 1980, “On the Radio” by Donna Summer peaked at #5
All through this blog, I’ve been pretty derisive of disco for being mindless and boring. I was worried that “On the Radio” by Donna Summer was going to be more of the same awful disco. Musically… it kind of is: it’s in a more somber, pensive key than most other disco, but other than that, there’s the same kickdrum-violin onslaught that makes for easy but boring djing. But the lyrics are actually something else entirely. The song starts with what is a familiar feeling for most people, being wistful for a lost love, but it doesn’t address it in the usual terms. In the usual disco song, the singer would sing something like, “I heard a song on the radio and it reminded me of you.” But this is different: “Someone found a letter you wrote me and they told the world just how you felt.” These lyrics personalize the synchronicitous relationship of a random event with one’s daily emotions: it highlights how when we have strong emotions, whatever they are, ambient events suddenly have meaning. Of course the song didn’t fall through a hole in the pocket of his overcoat, but that Donna can think that some random song could have been written by her estranged man makes for a much more heartfelt sentiment.
This approach also sets up tension more direct lyrics can’t establish: “On the Radio” could turn into a stalker song, an unrequited love song, or a happy reconciliation song, and the interesting lyric makes us actually care which way it goes. We don’t know what kind of character Donna is until she resolves her emotions. This is an effective way to spice up a worn genre, pull a listener’s interest in, and win over a curmudgeonly jade like me. So let it not be said that I categorically hate disco — I can like it when it lets me consume the music, not just listen to it.