Unconditional Love: When Donna Summer Met Musical Youth

May 17, 2012

Words by Simone Serwer

Last week I was approached to write about my affinity for the Donna Summer and Musical Youth tune “Unconditional Love.” I’d resigned myself to tackle it this weekend, only to learn this morning that Ms. Summer had succumbed to cancer. I immediately thought about the first time I was introduced to her music—the summer before my first year of primary school, three years after my family had emigrated from Jamaica.

We didn’t have cable but my brother and I were dedicated viewers of Casey Kasem’s America’s Top 10, devouring every video. That’s where I learned the lyrics of “Electric Avenue” (my five-year-old eyes mistook Eddy Grant for the deceased Bob Marley—the only two men I’d seen on TV with long, rope-like hair), “Flashdance…What A Feelin’,” and Donna’s She Works Hard for the Money.” I remember enjoying any video that featured kids, as “She Works Hard” did. They were ungrateful kids who terrorized their overworked mother, but I still appreciated that they were children in an adult-dominated medium.

Based on this song and video alone, Donna Summer became one of my favorite artists, so when she followed it with a video featuring Musical Youth, a bunch of English kids of Jamaican extract, I was more than pleased. In retrospect the video for “Unconditional Love” is rather trite. Summer plays a schoolmarm in a classroom full of uniformed young, white Britons. Musical Youth scale a tall brick wall, bust through the walls of the classroom and, after Summer removes her dowdy dress to reveal blue sequins, she and the “Pass the Dutchie” kids skip into the nighttime then board a double-decker bus, presumably out of town.

For fans of Musical Youth, including legendary director/DJ Don Letts, who’d conceived and directed the video for “Pass the Dutchie,” “Unconditional Love” was the death knell for the band, which had struggled to follow up the success of “Pass the Dutchie.” A legitimate reggae act comprised of trained musicians, as young teens they had limited say in the direction of their career—by the time “Unconditional Love” was released, they’d been led down a slippery, overly commercial trajectory. “When I saw that Donna Summer video my heart just sank to the floor,” Letts recalls in an episode of the series Unsung documenting Musical Youth’s sad story. “Reggae and Donna Summer—No… No.”

Yet I’ve always have a soft spot in my heart for this collaboration with Donna Summer, and in recent weeks have found myself listening to it often and even glimpsing the video on YouTube. For those who believe it’s the worst the band has to offer, please take a quick listen to the Eddy Grant-penned “Let’s Go to the Moon”!

While everyone is remembering Donna Summer today with “Last Dance,” I’ve instead been revisiting the video that made Don Letts say “No…No” because it brings me back to a time when I became aware of what it meant to be a Jamaican child in a land where you were the “other.” From her disco heights in the 70s to her less celebrated pop tenure in the 80s, I’ll always feel love for the lady who worked hard to make us happy through her music.

Simone Serwer is a fashion historian. Read more of her writing at MatterofDress.com.