Another Cyborg, Another Groove:
Donna Summers “I Feel Love” and Afrofuturism
by Tilman Baumgärtel
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love,” 1997

If Afrofuturism is, as Alexander Weheliye puts it «a posthumanism not mired in the residual effects of white liberal subjectivity» (Rollefson 2008), it is also a man’s man’s man’s world. The fictional universe that has been created by artists such as Sun Ra and fleshed out with many lovingly devised details by George Clinton, is full of bewildering creatures, most of them male.
Clinton added such beings to his Parliament/Funkadelic cosmos album after album: Dr. Funkenstein and his clones and Afronauts, Sir Lollipop Man and Mr. Wiggles, the Funkapus and the Rumpasaurus, Starchild and his Bop Gun versus Sir Nose and his Snooze Gun. It is an impressive parallel universe, but there are not a lot of women in this world: only the Brides of Funkenstein come to mind, and Mother Earth herself.
A crucial element of this alternative world is, of course, The Groove, so low you can’t get under it, so high you can’t get over it. The groove is both an important potion/sacrament/joint possession of the inhabitants of Clinton’s parallel universe. But is also the substantial foundation of his P-Funk: the rhythms that his long-time band members – including keyboardist Bernie Worrell, guitarist Bootsie Collins, bass player Billy Bass Nelson and drummers Gary Cooper and Tyrone Lampkin – laid down.
As futuristic as the worlds they described in their songs is, the use of technology in the creation of their music was limited to the electronic amplification of their instruments and voices and the highly innovative use of the Moog synthesizer by Bernie Worrell. The slowly beginning automation of the production of pop music that began in the 1970s with the introduction of sequencer and drum machines did not play a role in their funk. Their groove was created with their hands and feet, not by technology.

In what follows I want to point out another type of musical creature/universe that shares many of the concerns of P-Funk and Afrofuturism, despite the fact that it is never discussed in this context: the musical cosmos that Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder created with their song I Feel Love. When Afrofuturism/P-Funk are about undoing the «normalized disparity between the black body and the cybernetic technological future» (Yaszek 2005), Donna Summer’s international hit did just that but with very different means.
Performed by a female singer, created with a technology that plays its own music with little human input and in a city that couldn’t not have been more removed from the places, where Afrofuturism/P-Funk were conceived, it yet shared many of the concerns of these movements. «Afrofuturism appropriates the narrative techniques of science fiction to put a black face on the future», writes Lisa Yaszek. I Feel Love does just the same – and this time the face is female. (Or is it?)
As Alondra Nelson explains: «Forecasts of a utopian (to some) race-free future and pronouncements of the dystopian digital divide are the predominant discourses of blackness and technology in the public sphere […] Blackness gets constructed as always oppositional to technologically driven chronicles of progress» (Nelson 2002). Then there is »the Teutonic ice queen with the heart of a machine» (Peter Shapiro) that Boston-born, former Gospel singer Donna Summer turned into in Giorgio Moroder’s Munich studio in the mid-70ies.

I Feel Love – text and vocals by Donna Summer, composition and production by Giorgio Moroder – is considered to be the first Disco song to be produced entirely by electronic means, excepting the vocals and the bass drum. This makes the song the «primordial plant» (Fink 2006, 61), the blueprint of Techno, House and other forms of electronic dance music. I Feel Love was a number-one-hit around the globe, when it was released. And it has lost nothing of its potency to this day. Its meandering loops continue to make people dance at birthday and wedding parties, as well as at Techno raves.
Summer and Moroder had previously had an international hit with their cooperation Love to love you, a disco version of the musical orgasm simulation “Je t’aime … moi non plus” by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. Per the request of Neil Bogart, the boss of American record company Casablanca, who wanted a soundtrack for the orgies at his mansion, Moroder extended the song that was originally 4 minutes long to a whopping 17 minutes, creating one of the first minimalist disco symphonies. (American musicologist Robert Fink compared the overall structure of this song with Steve Reich’s seminal minimalist composition Music for Eighteen Musicians (1974-1976). He couldn´t find a difference.) (Cf. Fink 2006, 31−61)

Summer and Moroder followed it up with a song that was even more minimalist and even more monotonous: I Feel Love was conceived for the concept album I Remember Yesterday, which Moroder produced with Pete Bellotte for Donna Summer in 1977. On I Remember Yesterday, each song was a reference to the music of a decade of the twentieth century. After songs that evoked the swing of the 1930s and Motown soul of the 1960s, I Feel Love was intended to represent the music of the 1990s, a music still almost a decade-and-a-half in the future. In retrospect, it was an astonishingly prophetic musical prognosis, since Techno, for which I Feel Love provided the initial impetus, came into its own in the 1990s.

Donna Summer, Cover of album “I Remember Yesterday”

The basic principle of I Feel Love is an absolute reduction of structural elements, which goes even beyond Love to love you baby. The basis of the piece is a single synthesizer riff consisting of four notes that are transposed up and down. The harmonic framework is also extremely simple – it consists of just four chords. In accordance with the minimalistic compositional elements, the text also consists of just a few phrases, which are repeated over and over again. In the shorter single version, Donna Summer repeats the line I Feel Love twenty-five times in verse and chorus, while in the eight-minute-long original version it is more than twice that. The other six phrases that make up the remaining lyrics are repeated five times each. If one takes the driving sequencer beat away, a short minimalist poem remains, which in its uniformity and symmetry corresponds entirely with art music’s minimalism.

Donna Summer, Cover of single “Love to Love You Baby”

In his search for a futuristic sound, producer Giorgio Moroder initially did little more than use the sequencer of a Moog synthesizer, which he had borrowed from Munich composer Eberhard Schoener for the recording in the most elementary way. As per the instructions, he played a short sequence of four notes, which the sequencer then repeated at the push of a button. Using the keyboard, he was able to increase and decrease the intervals at will [1]. Moroder let the four notes of the riff wander from A to C to D to E, giving I Feel Love a melodic basis that makes most children’s songs seem compositionally and harmonically refined by comparison.

Moroden in Dan Wymans’ Sound Art Studio, 1977

The sequencer loop is so dominant that the inattentive listener barely notices that the song also includes other elements – a rhythm machine and a kick drum accompany the sequencer, and sustained synthesizer tones support the harmonic structure of the piece. A further subtle counterweight to the pulsating synthesizer rhythm appears in some echo effects, which briefly turn the synthesizer sounds into distant thunder. They are reminiscent of effects used in Jamaican dub reggae, where the faster and slower reverberations of a rhythmic element create syncopations that supplement the main rhythm of the piece. Terry Riley’s tape-loop compositions partly operate with similar retarding effects.
It is another production trick, however, with which Moroder transforms the four-on-the-floor beat of the sequencer into a bewildering polyrhythm. Giorgio Moroder later recalled that this dazzling effect, which set the piece apart from other electronic disco productions, was actually the result of an oversight in the studio. «I put a delay [a digital echo] on the bass track purely by chance and – wow! It sounded fantastic when the delay doubled the bass line». In the mix, Moroder put the original synthesizer bass on the left stereo channel and the digital echo on the right, so that the original bass could be separated from its echo on any home stereo system.

Used in clubs, this mix could create problems across the whole stereo spectrum. Moroder comments that «if you were on the left-hand side [of the dance floor], you could hear the downbeat and on the right-hand side you could hear the upbeat. Even Donna herself, dancing to the song one evening, said, ‘what’s going on with the rhythm?’».
I Feel Love makes little secret of the fact that it’s about sexual desire. Donna Summer’s few breathed lines – as in Love to Love You Baby – have an unmistakable erotic undertone. Donna Summer, who demonstrates a powerful alto voice in other songs such as Bad Girls or On the Radio, here sings in a luxuriant falsetto, and succeeds in making the vocal part sound ethereal and physical at the same time. Her lines seem to flow straight from a half-conscious daydreaming into this world [2]. The contrast between dreamy, sensual singing and a strident, synthetic beat is one of the paradoxes that has kept the piece vibrant to this day.
The repetition of a few sentences like “it’s so good”, which all deal with love and desire, combined with the driving sequencer beat, make the piece seem like a hymn to sex and erotic desire. Summer seems oblivious of herself and absorbed in the glories she tries to relate in sentence fragments. One might ask whether she is really singing to a lover – or perhaps to the repetitive technology that accompanies her and which triggers such oceanic states of mind.
I Feel Love is an ultimate pairing of organism and machine. Under the drum fire of the loops, Donna Summer presents herself as half human being and half machine, as a cyborg who is connected to the endless, throbbing stimulation of the machine and obviously enjoying it. The choreography with which Donna Summer presented I Feel Love at live performances underscored the fusion of man and machine, which the piece evokes at a musical level. During her stage dance, Summer alternates between seductive disease and robot. Flowing dance movements and lascivious hip swings are followed by choppy, mechanical movements reminiscent of the electro-boogie of Hip-Hop breakdancing. At such moments, Donna Summer seems like the artificial Maria from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis – a robot that looks like a woman – before turning back into the provocative seductress two dance-steps later [3].

In I Feel Love, technology and body, the human being and the media apparatus enter into a symbiosis that had never before existed in pop music. Disco is full of organic-technical hybrids, some of whom emerged from the musical empire of Giorgio Moroder, who himself had made music under the moniker Munich Machine. These hybrids include the Jackson Five’s Dancing Machine, Moroder’s Munich Disco rival Supermax’s Love Machine, Moroder’s ex-protégé Dee D. Jackson’s Automatic Lover and Kraftwerk’s Menschmaschinen, to name but a few.
These disco cyborgs use pop music to pose the question what man might look like in a world dominated by technology after the “end of man” and the “death of the subject” (Michel Foucault). The idea of a fusion of man and machine is here no longer the horror vision from films such as “Metropolis” or “Terminator”, but part of a redefinition of what the human being is. Disco, as a discourse, gave such “post-human” ideas a face long before they were discussed in the critical theory of the 1980s and 1990s.
Another Donna, Donna Haraway, describes the figure of the cyborg as a model for liberating women from essentialist attributions of their “natural” role in her Cyborg Manifesto (Haraway, 1991). For her, the cyborg is a creature of a “post-gendered world”. As an “unnatural”, technologically created creature, it has left behind the “natural” dualisms of gender and race in favour of a hybridized form of existence. And the fictional character who lent Donna Summer a siren-like voice in I Feel Love is a cyborg in just this sense. She systematically refuses the attributions that were commonly applied to black entertainers at the time. In I Feel Love she doesn’t portray the Blues mama or soul diva, and with her angelic singing enters a terrain that is usually reserved for white singers.
The anti-essentialist attitude expressed in this performance also fits in with the fact that the fully electronic version of I Feel Love severs all relation to the Afro-American roots of Disco. Peter Shapiro notes that «I Feel Love once and for all severe ties with the naturalism of black dance music. Moroder and Bellotte […] made the Afro-American Summer play the Teutonic ice queen with the heart of a machine and let her sing about the most fundamental act of biology, while at the same time surrounding her with the most synthetic textures ever heard on a record» (Shapiro, 2005).
With I Feel Love, Donna Summer celebrated the “unnaturalness” of her new role with such gusto that the audience became suspicious. If a black artist could turn away from the qualities usually attributed to her ethnicity, might not the same be the case with her gender? – a line of thought that Donna Haraway might approve of. Rumours began that Donna Summer had to be in drag!


It is one of the paradoxes of this piece that it opens a space for difference precisely through its rigid, mechanical order. Despite its driving beat, I Feel Love is of an extraordinary rhythmic complexity, thanks to Giorgio Moroder’s echo effect on the sequencer. The piece therefore contradicts clichéd ideas about Disco and Techno music as an uninterrupted boom-boom-boom in four-four time. Through the echo effect, which obscures the bass riff, Moroder managed to get precisely repeating machines to loosen the rhythm and to turn the strict four-four time of the sequencer into a bewildering polyrhythm. Moroder has turned the machine into a sloppy machine. It no longer repeats like a machine, but like a living being, with small inaccuracies and minimal shifts. If the dissolution of the contrast between technology and organic nature is one of the themes of I Feel Love, then its polyrhythmic synthesizer riff is the musical realization of this idea.

In his book Unlocking the Groove, American musicologist Mark J. Butler argues that such experiments with seemingly straight bars are one of the most important characteristics of electronic dance music. Butler calls rhythmic shifts such as those in the spooling bass line of I Feel Love “metric dissonances”, a notable characteristic of electronic musical styles such as Techno. He initially observes that «the repetitive nature of electronic dance music, along with the almost uninterrupted presence of a loud, emphatic bass line, might lead one to believe that its use of rhythm is homogeneous and simple» (Butler 2006, 137). However, Butler goes on to provide numerous detailed analyses of Techno tracks, to show how loops can be used to create highly complex and rhythmically ambivalent structures from seemingly simple patterns. For Butler, the contrast between simple four-four time, which seems to dominate most Techno pieces, and metric dissonances that contrast the simple pulse, is a central characteristic of Techno.

It is almost as if the producers of such tracks had wanted to translate Deleuze’s dictum, that difference dwells in repetition, into music. When Deleuze writes about the meaning of repetition in art, it almost sounds as if he is describing the echo delay in I Feel Love, which produces diverse metric variations from the simple sequencer beat: «it is perhaps the highest object of art simultaneously to set in motion all these repetitions with their essential and rhythmic differences, their mutual displacement and disguise, their divergences and decentrations, to intertwine and envelop them […] in illusions, the ‘effect’ of which changes each time […]» (Deleuze 1994, 97). I Feel Love does just that. The song transforms a hammering machine beat into an organic-sounding rhythm (paradoxically with the aid of another technical device!) and opens it up to shifts and decentrations.
The metric subtleties of this song are probably not consciously perceived by most of its listeners. But there is no doubt that the tension between rigid beat and natural-sounding rhythm is what makes not only this song, but electronic dance music in general so appealing. The experience that a rigid, straight beat can lead to an endless feeling of freedom has apparently been intensely perceived in Disco’s gay sub-culture.

American author Walter Hughes argues, for instance, that «Disco is not so much a decadent pleasure as a disciplining, regulative discourse that paradoxically allows, or even creates, a sense of freedom. If Disco is a form of discipline, then it resembles many other notable aspects of urban gay culture, such as body building, fashion, sadomasochism and safer sex […]. Gay male identity is largely defined by a series of practices that combine pleasure with self-discipline. The realization that the control and regulation to which homosexuality is subjected in our society can themselves be erotic practices […] may therefore be an important moment in gay self-perception. This moment, which involves snatching this power from others, is staged nightly at the disco» (Hughes 1994, 148). Musical styles such as High-NRG and Techno, which were to develop out of the pounding sequencer loops of I Feel Love, invite to turn domination and disciplining repetition into such “techniques of the self” (Foucault). In this way, Disco has succeeded in snatching machine repetitions from Thanatos’ domain and in turning them into a medium of Eros.
Which brings us back to George Clinton and his bands Parliament and Funkadelic, and their description and application of the Groove and the Funk. Funk is «the antithesis of everything that was sterile, one-dimensional, monochromatic, a-rhythmic and otherwise against freedom of bodily expression in the known universe», as George Clinton himself has said in an interview (Tate 1993). Of course, you will never find a dictionary-style definition of funk in any of the lyrics of Funkadelic/Parliament or in the interviews with George Clinton. But in many song lyrics, the experience of The Funk is described as similar to a transcendental experience.

In Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow (1970), funk is described as a path to enlightenment and higher consciousness: «Open up your funky mind and you can fly […] Free your mind and your ass will follow […] The kingdom of heaven is within». In Standing on the Verge of Getting It On (1974) there is the line: «Music is designed to free your funky mind. We have come to help you cope out into another reality». That state of mind does not seem to be too different from the realm that Donna Summer has entered when she is only able to croon: “Ooh, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good…” (And of course, there are all those puns in the lyrics of Parliament and Funkadelic that seem to indicate that “Funk” is really just another world for “Fuck” – think of song titles such as If Anybody Gets Funked Up (It’s Gonna Be You) (George Clinton) or P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up) (Parliament).
As in her I Feel Love, the descriptions of this strung-out state are accompanied by highly monotonous rhythms, even though in the case of P-Funk, these rhythms are created by living musicians, not a sequencer and an imprecisely repeating digital effect unit. But what gives the Funk it’s Groove are precisely it’s subtle variations and metrical dissonances that the musicians implement in the stomping rhythms the play. They give P-Funk its organic, livid quality. And while the Groove of I Feel Love might be more punishing, it is precisely those subtle variations of a stomping four-to-the-floor sequencer pattern that Giorgio Moroder has created in his Musicland Studio that give the song its own mechanical groove that was copied and developed by many techno producers in the decades to come. That there can be funk in electronic beats also lead to the adaption of the monotonous synthesizer patterns of Kraftwerk both by early Electro Boogie number in Hip Hop in the early 80ies and by the inventors of Detroit techno a few years later.
Both Africa Bambaataa (who mutated Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europa Express into the Electro classic Plant Rock) and Detroit Techno artists like Juan Atkins or Derrick May (who famously described Techno as “George Clinton and Kraftwerk stuck in an elevator”) created their own artistic universes full of robotic beats and cyborgs out of a combination of sequencer patterns and the Afrofuturism of George Clinton’s P-Funk. If Afrofuturism is an anti-essentialism that transcends binary attributions and the “normalized disparity between the black body and the cybernetic technological future”, then Donna Summer’s I Feel Love adds the transgression of timeworn concepts of gender, technology, and ethnicity to the mix.

[1] For a detailed production history, cf. Buskin, Richard: Classic Tracks: Donna Summer I Feel Love, Sound on Sound, October 2009, which includes many new original statements by Moroder and Bellotte. Another account of the recording session is Reynolds, Simon: Song from the Future: The Story of Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love, Pitchfork, June 29, 2017, The synthesizer riff strongly reminds of the bass riff of Do what you wanna do by the black disco formation T-Connection.
[2] Summer had, in fact, extemporized the melody and lyrics in the studio while listening to the song, which her producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte had already recorded. The lyrics of the finished piece were inspired by the hypnotic hammering of the sequencer loops, and were intended merely as placeholders that were later to be replaced by “real” lyrics. Cf. Howard 2003, Summer 2003.
[3] It fits into this cyborg universe that early in the 1980s, Giorgio Moroder produced his own version of Metropolis with an original electronic soundtrack.

Butler, M. J., Unlocking the Groove. Rhythm, Meter, and Musical Design in Electronic Dance Music, Indiana University Press 2006.
Chin, B., The Disco Beatmasters: From the Studio to the Dance Floor, Booklet in the CD compilation “The Disco Box”, Rhino Records.
Deleuze, G., Difference and Repetition. A&C Black, London 1994.
Fink, R., Repeating Ourselves. American Minimal Music as Cultural Practice, University of California Press, Berkeley 2005.
Haraway, D. J., Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York 1991.
Howard, J., Donna Summer – Her Life and Music, Cranberry Township 2003.
Hughes, W., In the Empire of the Beat, Discipline and Disco, in: Ross, Andrew & Tricia Rose (Hrsg.) Microphone Fiends. Youth Music and Youth Culture, Routledge, London/New York 1994, pp. 147−157.
Nelson, A., Introduction: Future Texts, in «Social Text» Vol. 20, No. 2 (2002), pp. 1-15.
Rollefson, J. G., The “Robot Voodoo Power” thesis: Afrofuturism and anti-anti-essentialism from Sun Ra to Kool Keith’, in «Black Music Research Journal», 28(1), 2008, pp. 83-109.
Shapiro, P., Turn the Beat Around. The Secret History of Disco, Faber & Faber, New York 2005.
Summer, D., Eliot M., Ordinary Girl – The Journey, Villard, New York 2003.
Tate G., “Doin’ It In Your Earhole”, Liner notes to Tear the Roof Off, 1974-1980, New York, Casablanca 1993.
Yaszek, L., An Afrofuturist Reading of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, in «Rethinking History» Vol. 9, No. 2/3, 2005, pp. 297-31.

Tilman Baumgärtel is a writer who lives in Berlin. He has published eleven books on avant-garde cinema and media culture and teaches Media Studies at Hochschule Mainz. The English translation of his book “Schleifen” on the history and the aesthetics of loops is forthcoming from Zero Books in 2020.