40 years later: What did Donna Summer really mean by one of the raciest lyrics she ever wrote?

(September 12, 2019).  Before the late Queen of Disco rediscovered the church and her faith in 1979/80, Donna Summer was also known as The First Lady of Love, a label she didn’t necessarily like even with steamy songs like “Love To Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love” and “Hot Stuff” in her repertoire.

But there was one song she released towards the end of her disco heyday that isn’t nearly as talked about as some of the others, but whose lyrics may have been just as racy…literally.

Donna Summer released “Dim All The Lights” as the third single from the Bad Girls album in the late summer of 1979.

Forty years ago this week, Donna Summer entered the Billboard top 40 with the third smash hit from her legendary Bad Girls album, the classic pop/disco gem “Dim All The Lights.”

That song wound up being the album’s third-biggest hit but holds some unique places in music history that not even “Hot Stuff” or “Bad Girls” can claim, not to mention those questionable lyrics, which this article explores deeper on the occasion of the song’s 40th anniversary.  

The Background

Donna Summer wrote “Dim All The Lights” by herself with no input from any of her normal songwriters and collaborators.  It would be the only big hit solely credited to her as all the others were either written by other people or by Summer in collaboration with different songwriters.

As one of the last big hits of the disco era, “Dim All The Lights” was nominated for a Grammy for Best Disco Recording in the only year the category existed.  It lost to Gloria Gaynor’s iconic “I Will Survive,” an irony not lost on many since Gaynor was known as the first Queen of Disco before unwittingly passing the torch to Summer, who had more hits as the ‘70s neared their end.  

“Dim All The Lights” was also known for the super long note Summer famously held during the first verse (“let it fill you uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuup”) just as the song morphed from the slow R&B groove at the intro to the uptempo disco gem that it ultimately became.  

She held that note for 16 seconds – a record for any top ten hit at the time…although that would be broken by Barbra Streisand’s “Woman In Love” a year later, marking yet another bit of irony for trivia geeks like yours truly…more in a moment with “No More Tears” discussion below).

“Dim All The Lights” slowly made its way up the chart in the wake of the album’s faster climbing, twin No. 1 singles, “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls.”  Roughly two months after its debut, “Dim” peaked at No. 2 for two weeks – just missing giving Summer that rare No. 1 triplicate – before making its inevitable trek down and eventually off the chart.

A number of factors likely prevented “Dim” from becoming Summer’s third consecutive No. 1, including that it was released in the midst of a growing disco backlash in late 1979.  

Accordingly, it was stuck at No. 2 behind two decidedly non-disco No. 1 songs: first the blues-rocker “Heartache Tonight” by the Eagles, and the following week the pop/soul ballad “Still” by the Commodores.

“Dim All The Lights” was stuck at No. 2 in November 1979, while Donna’s duet with Barbra Streisand was right behind at No. 3 (on its way to No. 1).

Then there was the fact that Summer had to virtually compete with herself as the song was peaking.  Just weeks after its release and against the singer’s wishes, her label Casablanca Records in a joint effort with Columbia Records released her duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough is Enough),” causing an over-saturation of Donna Summer at pop radio that likely robbed “Dim” from being able to achieve its full chart potential.

Still “Dim All The Lights” was a big million-selling single, and ultimately both it and “Tears” simultaneously occupied two of the top three positions on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart that November, making Summer the first woman to accomplish that feat not once, but twice (she had done it earlier that year with “Hot Stuff” and “Bad Girls”).

Yet aside from all its notable places in pop music history, arguably even more so than its predecessors, “Dim All The Lights” had another side to it that fans have questioned over the years: its lyrics.  

The Racy Lyric

The tune began innocently enough with Donna singing the title line over a simmering slow groove: “Dim all the lights sweet darling, ‘cause tonight it’s all the way…”  

She even sweetly made reference to an old victrola in the next line before cautioning us that “love don’t come easy” and “when you find the perfect love, let it fill you up.”  (Even Donna knew that there was nothing like playing records on an early-1900s vintage record player to get someone in a romantic mood.)

But the lyric that had many fans scratching their heads then and even now came about four-fifths of the way into the song.

At around the 3:37 mark (album version, of course) during the bridge, Summer sang the racy words “do it tonight, you know the moment’s so right/ turn my brown body white,…” [sound of screeching halt with needle scratching all the way across the album].

Hold up, wait a minute!  Before we dim the lights any further, what exactly did she mean by that brown-to-white morph suggestion?

Was she evoking some kind of color-blind fantasy in which two lovers could co-exist colorless in the dark, free from any racial biases or inhibitions? (At the time, Summer was in a relationship with her happily-ever-after future husband, Italian-American singer and songwriter Bruce Sudano.)

Or, as some have crudely speculated, was she referring to something more carnal in nature…like being covered by nature itself in the form of the magical color-transforming potion known as male ejaculate?

Or was it something even more dubious – like Summer’s desire for her lover to imagine her as a white woman?  After all, the singer had married two Caucasian men in her lifetime, including Sudano and the Austrian actor from whom she took her alternately spelled name, Helmuth Sommer.

It’s that last supposition that has caused the most consternation from fans who’ve analyzed Summer’s lyrics over the years.

If Summer’s brown-to-white command suggested a desire that – by dimming the lights – her partner would somehow not see her as a black woman, that would be a harrowing message from someone who many black women (and black people in general) saw as an idol.

“Dim All The Lights” – album version by Donna Summer

In a society that preaches the virtues of a color-blind existence where race shouldn’t matter, especially when it comes to love, we all know that it often does.  

Juxtaposed with this has been the idea of black pride and the acceptance of one’s self and her ethnic heritage, a message particularly needed for black women who’ve been derided in American society perhaps more so than any other demographic.

In that sense, turning one’s “brown body white” during love-making seemed to fly in the face of either ideology.

It is interesting and perhaps coincidental then that the only part of the song where the producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte distorted Summer’s vocal was that bridge where the questionable lyric is contained.  They used a warbling reverb effect that made it sound as if Summer were singing underwater.  

Still, it wasn’t completely disguised, and it didn’t go unnoticed, particularly when it came from a woman who – in the minds of some – wore the “scarlet letter” of interracial dating and marriage, as it was largely viewed, especially during the last century.

While societal views on the subject have definitely improved since then, interracial dating is still seen as foreign territory by many, a place where people don’t dare go – lest they face the pressures that can come with it…the stares from strangers, the ostracism from family members, the threats from disturbed racist people.  

For those who do boldly venture into it, an unfortunate misperception by some is the notion that – in order for it to work – one has to lose his or her ethnic identity for the sake of his or her partner.

That’s where the interpretation – or misinterpretation – of Summer’s lyric takes on more significance.  It’s one thing for the song’s protagonist to be intimate with a man of a different race, it’s another to have that man imagine her as a white woman to satisfy him (or heaven forbid, her).

Donna Summer performs “Dim All The Lights” on VH1 Presents – Live & More Encore.

Of course, this is all speculation – as it has always been – and it may be impossible to ever know what Summer meant by the words “turn my brown body white.”  In researching this article, I haven’t found any evidence that the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was ever asked about it during her lifetime.

But there are only a few ways to skin this cat – and fans and followers can make one of just a few assumptions about the Queen of Disco’s intended message.

To that end, “Dim All The Lights” holds yet another distinction.  

In 2010, Billboard ranked it among the 50 Sexiest Songs of All Time, based on chart performance.  

They placed it at No. 43 ahead of tunes like “She Bop” (a song about masturbation) “I Want Your Sex” (self-explanatory), and “Freak Like Me” (again, self-explanatory) and just behind “Raspberry Beret” (metaphorically about virginity being lost) – some pretty heady (and sexual) material indeed.  

Of course, “Love To Love You Baby” (No. 33), “Bad Girls” (13), and “Hot Stuff” (6) were on the list, too.

Interestingly, Billboard cited the following as “Dim’s” sexiest line: “Don’t leave even one drop, no do it tonight/ You know the moments are right, turn my brown body white…”

So even Billboard thought the lyric to be highly provocative, although the publication took the high road – or the low road, depending on your perspective – and appeared to apply the more carnal interpretation of Summer’s lyric.

Either way, “Dim All The Lights” is still one of the best of a long line of great hits by the legendary disco queen and a song that holds up well forty years later on its milestone anniversary.  Aside from the great melody and Summer’s always marvelous vocals, perhaps the beauty of the song lies in that lyric’s ambiguity.

Call it a case of the song’s dubious message being lost in its divine delivery from disco royalty.  

DJRob

Donna Summer (1948 – 2012)

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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2 Replies to “40 years later: What did Donna Summer really mean by one of the raciest lyrics she ever wrote?”

  1. I have always been amazed by song lyrics, their meanings, and more importantly the writers. I especially have been intrigued by female artist who sing very feminine lyrics written by men. Case in point – Queen of the night – written by L.A. Reid, Babyface, and Daryl Simmons, but sung by Whitney Houston (I love the bass line in that song). My point being, we should consider the songwriters, how they envision the artist performing the song, and what they want to convey. Prince was out of the box and up front with sex dripping lyrics. My favorite cut – Head. It got right to the point. I also still love to hear Nasty Girl by Vanity Six.

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