As Houston dries out and begins to rebuild, and Irma takes aim at Florida and the East Coast, and while the West Coast burns, here is a consideration of a certain song on Gloria Gaynor’s birthday.
“People always want to ask me about my drug problem. I never had a drug problem; I had a self-esteem problem!”
I only have a single song by Gloria Gaynor in my music collection, but what a major song it is. It just hits me on a visceral level and it has since I was a tender 24-years-old. I have several cover versions from such dispiriting artists as Diana Ross, Johnny Mathis and Cake, but the original is the best and it just cuts like a knife.
At first, I was afraid I was petrified
I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights
Thinking how you did me wrong
And I grew strong
I learned how to get along
And so you’re back from outer space
I just walked in to find you here
With that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I’d have known for just one second
You’d back to bother me
Go on now
Go walk out the door
Just turn around now
You’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye
Did I crumble?
Did you think I’d lie down and die?
I will survive
As long as I know how to love I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
I’ve got all my love to give
And I’ll survive
I will survive
It took all the strength I had not to fall apart
Kept trying hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart
I spent oh so many nights
Just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry
But now I hold my head up high
And you see me, somebody new
I’m not that chained up little person still in love with you
And so you feel like dropping in
And just expect me to be free,
Now I’m saving all my loving
For someone who’s loving me
Go on now…
I Will Survive, as sung by Gaynor, was released in September 1978. It was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris in 1975. The song received heavy airplay in 1979, reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot 100. In 2016, the Library Of Congress named Gaynor’s original recording as “Culturally, historically, or artistically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
It was originally the B-side to a cover version of Substitute by The Righteous Brothers, but it became a worldwide hit for when DJs played that side of the record instead. Substitute peaked at Number 107 in October 1978, but I Will Survive entered the Billboard Hot 100 in December and reached Number One by March 1979.
As a Disco song, Gaynor’s version is unique for not using background singers. Most Disco hits were heavily produced, with multiple voices, overdubs, and adjustments to pitch and speed. For its era, I Will Survive has a much more clean, economical sound.
It won the Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording in 1980, the only year that award was given. It is on Rolling Stone’s list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and Billboard’s All-Time Hot 100.
How many times in the late 1970s did I dance at some disco, with some guy shoving a little brown bottle under my nose, while this tune was playing? How many times in the past three decades have I gone to bed angry at my husband with that tune spinning in my head? It even, eerily, played on shuffle on my iPod while I was hooked up to five IVs at the hospital when I was doing battle with that damn cancer.
In the 1980s, with Disco on the way out, Gaynor did the only thing a smart Diva could do; she traveled around playing in cabarets, consoling herself with bunches of money. She even had more than one hit. There was Never Can Say Goodbye, plus her version of Jerry Herman’s hymn to Gay: I Am What I Am from the musical La Cage Aux Folles. But, her signature song will always be I Will Survive, ironically recorded while she was recovering from major surgery and just after her mother had died.
“I was standing there in that back brace and thinking of those two things while I was singing that song. It enabled me to sing it with conviction.”
In the 1970s, Gaynor played gay clubs, drinking champagne and smoking something or another, but then she found Jesus. Gay people loved her, but did she love the gays? Gaynor:
“I had a backlash from gay fans for a tiny period. They didn’t understand where I was coming from. Now they recognize that my beliefs are my beliefs and that I have no opinions separate from the Bible. There are areas that we agree to disagree on. It’s as simple as that. I don’t have a problem with them having their beliefs, because my feeling is that God gives each and every one of us the right to not even believe in him. So who am I to try to take that away from somebody? I will always try to share my faith with any person who is willing to listen. When I feel a wall go up, we can talk about something else … and I will pray for you.”
Here is how I hold I Will Survive in my heart: The Disco Era, with its new style of music, fashion, hair, platform shoes, mirror balls; and for many, it was a sin against God and good-taste. But, I Will Survive is still a dramatic, dynamic recording, with a great hook, a great beat, and it makes me want to dance. It also has an almost mystical power to bring back a feeling from the past and capture my imagination. As a gay guy of a certain age, it has special power to heal the loss of all the friends and colleagues I lost to the plague. Transcendent Melodrama, is that a genre? Even when I am hearing the song for the thousandth time, I hear it as if for the first time in my life.