I only have one song by Gloria Gaynor in my music collection, but what a 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 written by the songwriting team of Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris in 1975. The song received heavy airplay, reaching Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 2016, the Library Of Congress named Gaynor’s original recording: “Culturally, historically, or artistically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Recording Registry.
It was originally the B-side for the single Substitute, but it became a worldwide hit when disco DJs played that side of the record instead. Substitute peaked at Number 107 in October 1978, but I Will Survive went to top of the charts and stayed for months.
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 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 a disco, with some guy shoving a little brown bottle under my nose, while this tune was playing? How many times in the past four 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 hits. There was the danceable Never Can Say Goodbye, plus her version of Jerry Herman‘s hymn to Gayness: I Am What I Am from the musical La Cage Aux Folles. But, Gaynor’s signature song will always be I Will Survive, ironically recorded while she was recovering from major surgery and just after her mother had died.
Here is how I hold I Will Survive in my heart: The Disco Era brought a new style of music, fashion, hair, platform shoes, mirror balls; but for many, it was a sin against God and good-taste. Yet, I Will Survive remains 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 a special power to heal the loss of all the friends and colleagues I lost to the plague. “Transcendent Melodrama”, is that a musical genre? The song works in our own era; as we contemplate the possibility of losing the republic to the new American fascists. Even when I am hearing I Will Survive for the thousandth time, I hear it as if for the first time in my life.