The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Donna Summer – “Bad Girls”

HIT #1: July 14, 1979

STAYED AT #1: 5 weeks

Memes existed before we called them “memes.” Consider: Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” currently the #1 song in America, draws a whole lot of its power from its creaky-door ee-urr sound effect. That effect, deeply embedded in the song’s beat, is the kind of thing that pushes a track over the top. In the case of “The Box,” the song hadn’t even been a single when kids start making TikTok videos out of it. It took on a life of its own. But the power of the ee-urr goes way beyond the TikTok; most of the people who have been listening to “The Box” these past few weeks have never seen any of those clips. The ee-urr isn’t about TikTok. The ee-urr has a power that goes way beyond.

The sound of the ee-urr is Roddy Ricch’s own voice. The song was pretty much done, but Roddy was fucking around in the studio, and he decided to see how it might work if he threw that sound in there. That’s the exact same thing that happened more then 40 years earlier, when Donna Summer made “Bad Girls,” the biggest hit in a career full of them. The song was done, but Summer thought it sounded a bit empty. So she added a fun little sound-effect hook to the too-quiet parts: “Toot toot! Hey! Beep beep!”

TikTok did not exist in 1979. If it had existed, people definitely would’ve made memes out of the toot toot bit. (They might still. That kind of thing sometimes happens with older songs.) And if “Bad Girls” had spent its five weeks at #1 in this hypothetical TikTok-enabled 1979, then people might’ve credited TikTok with the song’s success. They would’ve been wrong. The toot toot, like the ee-urr on “The Box,” isn’t a pander to kids with active phone lives. It’s in there because it’s catchy as hell — one more supremely canny 11th-hour decision that pushes a song from good to great.

“Bad Girls” existed in Donna Summer’s mind for a long time before she added that toot toot. The possibly-apocryphal “Bad Girls” story goes like this: Summer was at the Casablanca Records office in Los Angeles one day in 1977, and she sent a secretary on an errand down Sunset Boulevard. Police mistook this secretary for a sex worker, and she told Summer about it when she got back to the office. Both she and Summer were pissed about it, but it got Summer thinking about all the sex workers who really were out there on Sunset.

Summer had divorced her first husband, the Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer, in 1976. By 1977, she was dating Bruce Sudano, a member of a vaguely Doobie Brothers-esque New York vocal group called Brooklyn Dreams. Summer collaborated with Brooklyn Dreams on the 1978 single “Heaven Knows.” (“Heaven Knows” peaked at #4; it’s a 9.) She also co-wrote “Bad Girls” with Sudano and two of his Brooklyn Dreams bandmates — including Joe “Bean” Esposito, the guy who later sang the “You’re The Best” montage song in The Karate Kid. When Summer played the “Bad Girls” demo for Casablanca boss Neil Bogart, he thought it was too much of a rock song for Summer. He suggested Summer give the song to Cher. Instead, Summer forgot about the song until a studio engineer found the demo and reminded her of it.

“Bad Girls” is not, of course, a rock song — at least not in the Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte-produced version that Summer released in 1979. Instead, it’s a big, funky stomper with riotous horn blasts and whistle-blasts and squelchy guitars. As with previous Donna Summer smash “Hot Stuff,” it’s got at least some theoretical connection to some version of rock music, but it also works in continuity with the Moroder/Bellotte synth-disco bangers that Summer had been making for a few years. On the Bad Girls album, opening track “Hot Stuff” flows directly into “Bad Girls,” and the two songs make a hell of a pair. They both even have guitar solos, though the “Bad Girls” solo, unlike the “Hot Stuff” one, does not come from a big-name hired gun like Jeff “Skunk” Baxter. (It might be a bass, solo, actually, now that I think about it.)

Where “Hot Stuff” was about longing for sex, though, “Bad Girls” is about using other people’s sex-longing for financial gain. As with Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” “Bad Girls” is a song about sex workers that never puts any moral weight on the idea of sex for money. Instead, the track has a happy and urgent bounce to it. The song itself seems excited about the idea of the thing — not turned on, necessarily, but charged with the idea of people doing things that they’re not supposed to do. Summer herself sounds tough and brassy and fired-up.

Through most of the song, Summer is commenting on the lives of these “bad girls.” Summer has empathy; she sometimes describes them as “sad girls,” too. But there’s no hectoring, and Summer never takes the exhilaration out of her voice. These are just girls, she reminds us: “You ask yourself who they are/ Like everybody else, they come from near and far.” And she hints at the idea that they might’ve ended up in Los Angeles with bigger dreams: “Like everybody else, they wanna be a star.”

Summer identifies with these girls: “Now you and me, we are both the same/ But you call yourself by different names.” Sometimes, she even takes on the role of the girls, using part of the song to put on a different voice and to proposition some faceless dude. That’s the role that Summer plays on the Bad Girls album cover, posing under a red streetlight and staring the camera down. In the song’s video, part of a 1980 TV special that Summer taped, she’s a sex worker picked up by police; in the last shot of the clip, she’s waving happily to her friends from the back of the cop car.

Not long after “Bad Girls” hit, Summer became a born again Christian and decried the “sin and decadence” of her past life. But one great thing about a song like “Bad Girls” is that it never judges sin and decadence. Instead, it uses sin and decadence as its engines, finding a sense of fun and freedom in vice. Even after her born-again moment, Summer kept that same empathy for working women, as on the 1983 hit “She Works Hard For The Money” — a song that’s supposedly about working-class women but that could just as easily be about sex workers. (“She Works Hard For The Money” peaked at #3. It’s a 6.)

The other great thing about “Bad Girls” is that it’s simply expertly made pop music, a lusty synthetic bounce that sounds like the kind of thing these bad girls might love. If Summer had been too serious in about talking about the sad girls, she wouldn’t have included any toot toots or beep beeps.

The “Bad Girls” single came out only a couple of months after “Hot Stuff,” when “Hot Stuff” was still climbing the charts. As a result, Donna Summer absolutely dominated the summer-1979 pop charts, Disco Demolition Night be damned. Both songs stuck around the top five for a long time. And before we’re done with 1979, Summer will be in this column again.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Aaliyah interpolating “Bad Girls” on her 1996 Missy Elliott/Timbaland collab “Ladies In Da House”:

(Aaliyah and Timbaland will both eventually appear in this column. Missy Elliott’s highest-charting single, 2002’s “Work It,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 1999 film The Out-Of-Towners where John Cleese dances to “Bad Girls” and really commits to the bit:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Lil Kim’s never-officially-released 2000 RuPaul collaboration “Bad Girl,” which samples “Bad Girls”:

(Lil Kim will eventually appear in this column. RuPaul has never had a top-10 hit; their highest-charting single, 1992’s “Supermodel (You Better Work),” peaked at #45.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Portia De Rossi dancing to “Bad Girls” in a 2004 episode of Arrested Development:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Lizzo quoted the “Bad Girls” toot toots and beep beeps on her 2018 single “Fitness.” Here’s the video:

(Lizzo will eventually appear in this column.)