(L-R) Dua Lipa, Donna Summer, Loleatta Holloway & Aluna
Photo design: Lauryn Alvarez
Love To Love Them, Baby: From Donna Summer To Dua Lipa, Meet The Women Singers Who Shaped (And Continue to Shape) Dance Music
Earlier this month, on Music’s Biggest Night, Dua Lipa teleported us from our living rooms and yearlong quarantine to Studio 2054, her homage to New York City’s legendary Studio 54 nightclub where disco thrived from 1977–1980. In a stunning visual display entailing costume changes and dramatic dance interludes, Lipa performed two songs (“Levitating,” “Don’t Start Now”) from her GRAMMY-winning album, Future Nostalgia.
“I wanted to do something that felt fresh and new,” Lipa told GRAMMY.com last year, “something that touched on a memory, something that always rings so true to me, especially in my childhood.” Her dancefloor inspiration was integral to the perfect storm that was a 2020 disco-pop revival, with artists like Doja Cat and Victoria Monet also trying on the groove for size and dancefloor veterans Jessie Ware, Róisín Murphy and Kylie Minogue showing us how it’s done.
The success of these recent releases is validation for strong women vocalists who make dance hits spanning multiple decades, sounds and perspectives. Though the genre has evolved over the years, women singers remain a constant. And while they’re not always given their due, it’s their voices we remember, their lyrics we sing and their legacies we celebrate.
Decades before Lipa was born, disco began as a musical movement of four-on-the-floor rhythms, deep synthesizers and lush melodies combining to create a sound for spaces in which Black, Latinx and queer audiences sought refuge and escape. What started underground made its way to the top of the charts and radio airwaves, thanks in large part to disco divas and their soul-stirring hooks.
The indisputable queen of them all was Donna Summer, who catapulted to international superstardom in the ‘70s with classics including the erotic epic “Love to Love You, Baby,” siren-like “I Feel Love” and the aptly steamy “Hot Stuff.” Together with GRAMMY-winning Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, she brought the sound of urban counterculture to middle America and beyond by simple musical seduction; her voice was warm and sensual, disguising disco’s radical message of liberation to unsuspecting listeners.
“This is it, look no further,” Brian Eno reportedly declared to David Bowie after hearing “I Feel Love” for the first time. “This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” It was an accurate prediction of Summer’s impact. A bona fide hit machine, she charted 32 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 (including four No. 1s) over the course of her career and nabbed 18 GRAMMY nominations, winning five.
While “I Feel Love” radiated euphoria, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”—the first (and only) winner of the Best Disco Recording GRAMMY—was a timeless anthem for hard times. Its message transcended the era and also spoke to the moment. "The problems that we shared during the day,” Gaynor said, “we came together in the evening, to overcome together, or to get away together, and one of the ways we came together was on the disco dancefloor."
Sister Sledge, Anita Ward, Thelma Houston and Cheryl Lynn each had disco hits of their own, cooing in sultry tones across mirrorball-lit dancefloors. But being a disco diva was about more than being a singer: they were powerful, fabulous and aspirational. Long after disco’s heyday, the legacy of their artistry lives on through new-school chanteuses like Lipa, Ware, Minogue and Murphy.
The party eventually came to an end, as disco’s ubiquity in the ‘70s prompted a racist backlash in 1979 that abruptly led to its mainstream downfall. After some time in obscurity, club hits came back with a vengeance in the ‘90s as dance music’s next evolution: house music.
Martha Wash was the powerhouse voice behind two of the decade’s biggest hits, Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody” and C+C Music Factory’s “Everybody Dance Now (Gonna Make You Sweat).” Both songs, released in 1990, topped the Billboard Hot 100 and charted in the Top 10 internationally. While these achievements should have boosted Wash’s profile as an artist, the tracks’ producers had used her vocal recorded from studio demos without crediting her. Adding insult to injury, they cast other women to dance and lip-sync in Wash’s place for their music videos and live performances.
Loleatta Holloway, a vocalist best known from her ‘70s disco hits (including “Hit and Run” and “Runaway” with The Salsoul Orchestra), had faced a similar situation the previous year when Black Box sampled her 1980 single “Love Sensation” without permission on their U.K. No. 1, “Ride on Time.” Believing they were entitled to both compensation and credit for their work, regardless of it being a sample or a demo, Wash and Holloway each successfully sued the artists and their respective labels, winning both credit and financial settlement. Wash’s victory was bigger than herself; it set a precedent enshrining that record labels are responsible for assigning proper vocal credit for all releases, regardless of how the vocal recording was made.
As Holloway and Wash were writing new rules for vocalists, a singer/songwriter named Crystal Waters was working a government job by day while writing her own club hits on the side. Her second single, “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless),” a socially conscious house track based on a true story, has a deceptively simple hook that burrows itself in your brain. Released in 1991, it was the first of Waters’ twelve No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart, including “100% Pure Love” and “What I Need.” Like fellow dance music singers Ultra Naté and CeCe Peniston, Waters took four-on-the-floor tracks to the next level with pop-structured lyrics that were cathartic, catchy and universally relatable.
During this time, Madonna and Janet Jackson approached the dance charts from a pop perspective. Both known for their theatrical performance style and vocal prowess as much as for their versatility, they could drop a ballad one moment and a club-ready track the next, from Madonna’s “Vogue” and “Express Yourself” to Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” and “Throb.” These expert shapeshifters paved the way for future chameleons like Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Beyoncé, pop artists who stepped onto the dancefloor with tracks like “Born This Way,” “Till the World Ends” and “Run the World (Girls),” respectively.
Beyoncé dabbled in dance music, but her Destiny’s Child bandmate Kelly Rowland opted for a fully immersive experience, reinventing herself as a solo artist with a fresh, pioneering sound. In 2008, producer David Guetta, a well-established club DJ in his native France, had recently cracked the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time with “Love is Gone” and was looking for a bigger and better sequel.
That summer, Rowland went clubbing in Cannes, France at the club where Guetta was DJing. She became particularly enamored with a track he played during his set, the instrumental version of what would become their 2009 collaboration “When Love Takes Over.” She asked to write and record vocals for it, the final result being a big-room serenade sweetened with his piano melody but commanded by her euphoric, heart-swelling chorus.
“When I finished producing it, we were like, ‘Wow, we have a monster hit,’” Guetta said in a 2009 interview. “We could feel that it was really, really big.” More than an anthem, “When Love Takes Over” was the launchpad for America’s EDM boom, a neon era of radio-friendly dance-pop that could also bang on club dancefloors and festival stages. The song topped 15 charts across 12 countries, including Billboard’s US Dance Club Songs, and was nominated for Best Dance Recording at the 2010 GRAMMY Awards show.
Rihanna was also looking to take her music up a few BPMs after her 2009 album Rated R. Her first venture into EDM, 2010’s “Only Girl (In the World),” produced by Stargate and Sandy Vee, was a success, eventually winning Best Dance Recording at the 2011 GRAMMY Awards show. For her 2011 album Talk That Talk, Rihanna recruited Calvin Harris, a Scottish producer who had achieved critical acclaim and A-list studio sessions but who had yet to break through with a global hit. Harris produced two singles on the album: the winding, acid-electro house track “Where Have You Been” and “We Found Love,” on which Rihanna bares her vulnerable falsetto. They reunited for Harris’ massive summer hit (penned by Taylor Swift), “This Is What You Came For” in 2016.
Rowland’s relationship with Guetta, and Rihanna’s with Harris, was symbiotic. Rowland and Rihanna each became early adopters of a fire-blazing dance-pop phenomenon while Guetta and Harris got to increase their profiles with a new, large and lucrative American audience hungry for more. Hoping to find similar success, pop artists like Ariana Grande, Ellie Goulding and Kelis paired with Guetta, Harris, Zedd, Skrillex and more in the early 2010s. As dance music became more popular, the dynamic between producer and popstar shifted and producers became the popstars themselves, though a vocalist was usually not far behind.
In the current second-wave EDM era, where white men still sit at the top, Aluna has made it her mission to change how dance music perceives and treats women artists, especially Black women artists, asserting their importance even when it isn't obvious. “She’s there in the lyrics, she’s there in the voice, sometimes you see her in a video, but you don’t see her right there in the middle,” she told Billboard last year. “That’s really the shift we need to make.”
Aluna was best known to the world as one-half of electronic-pop outfit AlunaGeorge. Her cherubic vocals are instantly recognizable whether she’s singing on their own songs, such as “You Know You Like It” and “Attracting Flies,” or appearing on Disclosure’s “White Noise.”
In 2020, she made a huge statement by embarking on her solo career and releasing her debut album, Renaissance, that October. Tired of fielding daily requests from people who “wanted [her] voice, not [her] face. Not [her] Blackness,” Aluna made herself the record’s focal point as the main artist and producer rather than simply feature on different producers’ songs.
Whereas Aluna has beamed across radio airwaves worldwide, Anabel Englund has long been the voice of dance music’s underground. As a member of tech house supergroups Hot Natured and Pleasure State, the singer/songwriter’s smoldering tone and earworm melodies are the centerpiece of songs like “Electricity” and “Reverse Skydiving,” both of which she co-wrote.
Englund released her debut album, Messing With Magic, last October, and landed her first Billboard No. 1 on the Dance/Mix Show Airplay chart that same month with syrupy house chiller “Picture Us.” “Working with a group, I have to share my energy as part of a whole,” she said. “Being on my own, I’m able to harness my energy into what I have to say.” Like Aluna, Englund assumed co-production duties on the album in addition to singing and songwriting. Her former bandmates make appearances throughout while she remains the marquee name, never being overshadowed.
A more recent arrival to the scene, Lipa dabbled in dance music before diving headlong into Future Nostalgia’s disco-inspired sounds, including on her 2017 self-titled debut album (“Hotter Than Hell,” “New Rules”). In 2018, she collaborated with Harris and Silk City (Diplo and Mark Ronson), respectively, on the ‘90s-house-influenced hits “One Kiss” and “Electricity.” The latter song won Best Dance Recording at the 2019 GRAMMY Awards show and in a big look for dance music, Lipa performed “One Kiss” during the main ceremony. To cap the night, she also won the GRAMMY for Best New Artist. Between house and disco, Lipa has provided two of dance music’s foundational genres a massive revitalized platform in the pop world.
Long after disco’s prime, Summer’s captivating artistry lives on in chanteuses like Lipa. Meanwhile, the voices and lyrics of Aluna and Englund pick up where Crystal Waters left off, and Wash and Holloway’s legacy can be heard in a new generation of house music divas like Karen Harding, Alex Mills and Kaleena Zanders. Just like Lipa showed on the GRAMMYs stage, each of these singers proves that the women on dance records are capable and deserving of the spotlight, hopefully always getting brighter than the ones that shone on the many women before them.