It was time to flip the groove, strip it down and build it up again. In 1979 and 1980, black music, which has always dictated what's next in pop, broke free of disco's velvety excess and polyester pretensions. The melodramatic strings and relentless 4/4 beats of the music had grown tired as Afros across the country shrunk into tight, greasy Jheri Curls. And blacks and Latinos in the South Bronx - folks who couldn't afford the admission into the posh discos of Manhattan - planted the seeds of hip-hop, a movement that would eventually flower into a billion-dollar industry.
But before rap arrested pop and urban airwaves, there was a transition, a bridge, so to speak. Donna Summer, disco's queen, and Diana Ross, the diva supreme, helped listeners cross over to the next phase. Summer's Bad Girls (1979) and Ross' diana (1980) glittered with disco glory as they revealed hints of how pop would mutate during the Reagan era. The two masterpieces - just reissued as part of Universal Records' Deluxe Edition series - took us into the '80s and beyond with sass, class, innovation and sophistication. The albums burned with uncut "girl power" years before the Spice Girls knew what it was, years before Salt-n-Pepa, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera flaunted their so-called independence.
Summer had already given us a glimpse into pop's future in 1977. Her hit "I Feel Love" - with its hypnotic, entirely electronic track and cool, steely vocals - is a classic piece in minimalism and paved the way for techno. On Bad Girls, she extended disco's let-it-all-go party vibe but laced it with dark, overtly sexual lyrics and generous doses of rock, funk and horn-fueled R&B.; It is Summer's most aggressive, most focused set, clearing the path for such brazen hotties as Pat Benatar, Madonna, even Pink and Shania Twain. Although disco's thumping beat anchors the monster hits off the album - the title cut, "Hot Stuff" and "Dim All the Lights" - shades of slick country ("On My Honor") and raw electronica ("Lucky" and "Sunset People") also swirl through Bad Girls.
The LP was Summer's third double-disc set in two years, but unlike the others (Once Upon a Time from '77 and Live and More from '78) it was far more consistent, teeming with stories about "bad girls/sad girls" looking for some "hot stuff." But lust and seediness gave way to romance and tenderness as the rock ballad "My Baby Understands" and the gospel-spiced "All Through the Night" showcased Summer's vocal prowess in vastly different settings.
Throughout Bad Girls, the disco temptress let us know that she wasn't just a hot-tailed sex fiend who could moan "love to love you baby" for 16 orgasmic minutes, which is how she ignited her career in '75. Summer was, in fact, one of the most versatile soul singers to emerge in the '70s, an artist who could give us Broadway-style belting (remember "MacArthur Park"?) or smoldering eroticism ("Love to Love You Baby," of course, and "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It") on high-concept albums.
Speaking of erotic soul, Ross' 1976 smash "Love Hangover" rivaled Summer's early, slightly pornographic hits with its marriage of steamy vocals and seething instrumentation. But in 1980, Ross, like Summer, was looking for a new direction, something edgier. With diana, she joined forces with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the beat kingpins behind the disco-pop ensemble Chic.
Motown chief (and former Ross lover) Berry Gordy had shaped the ex-Supreme into an unapproachable, grand-style diva. At the dawn of the '80s, however, Ross took out the hair extensions, hung up the sequin gown and poured herself into a pair of washed-out jeans for the cover of diana, the biggest album of her 40-year career. (The look, as we all know, was only a one-shot thing. Ross the Boss would quickly return to the colossal hair and Bob Mackie get-ups.)
The cover photo reflects the sound of the album: lean and stylish. It is also highly polished (it's Motown, so that's no surprise), but, at times, diana comes off as funky and earthy. The album's biggest hits were "Upside Down," which stayed at No. 1 for a month in the summer of 1980, and the gay anthem "I'm Coming Out." The LP's street-but-sweet pop serves as a blueprint for such current acts as Beyonce, Ashanti and Tamia. Janet Jackson, who was 14 when diana dropped, surely owned a copy of the record, because you hear echoes of Ross throughout her best work.
On the Deluxe Edition of diana and Bad Girls, listeners get a bonus disc of extended dance mixes and alternate takes. On Ross' set, you get the much-talked-about-but-never-before-heard Chic mix of the album. When Rodgers and Edwards turned in the original diana, Ross and Motown, displeased with the dense sound, remixed the entire album. The version that came out in 1980 sported a cleaner sound with Ross' vocals pushed to the front. Summer's deluxe reissue features extended mixes of "MacArthur Park" and "I Feel Love," plus an airy, funk-splashed demo of "Bad Girls," a song initially intended for Cher.
Upon original release, diana and Bad Girls hit immediately, selling more than 2 million copies apiece. But it's ironic that Ross and Summer, at the start of the '80s, whistled in such a fresh, progressive approach to pop but struggled throughout the decade. Neither diva ever repeated the artistic highs of her masterstroke album. But what they cemented in style, attitude and sound rocketed us into today.