435. ‘I Will Survive’, by Gloria Gaynor

Honestly, I’ve been struggling to start writing my posts on these recent number ones. Not because they’ve been poor – perish the thought! – or boring. More because they’ve been great singalongs, and I’ve been enjoying singing along…

I Will Survive, by Gloria Gaynor (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 11th March – 8th April 1979

How can you focus on the nuts and bolts of a song like ‘I Will Survive’, when all your instincts are telling you to drop a shoulder and channel your inner diva? I will try my best though. First up, that piano intro. That piano flourish. (Personally I’ve always wondered if Axl Rose intentionally winked at it in ‘November Rain’.) It’s not a tune, or a riff, but it’s instantly recognisable. And then an equally recognisable opening line: At first I was afraid, I was petrified…

Gloria Gaynor’s voice comes in quite airy and delicate, like a young girl, wide-eyed and innocent. This lasts for precisely three lines, as the piano and the sleazy guitars click into a disco rhythm, and some hard-edged sass enters her voice: And so you’re back, From outer space… She’s not been waiting all dewy-eyed for her ex. Nope. In fact, she’s pretty pissed off that he’d even think of trying it on again. Go on now go, Walk out the door, Just turn around now, Cause you’re not welcome anymore… The tables have turned, Gloria’s grown up and gotten over him. She will survive!

This is perfect disco, perhaps the pinnacle of the genre, released just as the bubble was about to burst. It feels like the five years since our first disco #1 have been building to moments like this, and not just because ‘I Will Survive’ is possibly the genre’s most famous song. But this record is about the lyrics as much as the music, which is actually quite minimal. The drums and horns keep a tight beat, yet it doesn’t swirl and soar like earlier disco hits have done.

My favourite bit is the pause before the final chorus. Oh… You think she might be doubting herself, wondering if she does actually still love him. But no. Go on now go! She comes back more resolute than ever, sends him on his way, and seals the song’s place as a feminist anthem. ‘I Will Survive’ is perhaps the very definition of a signature hit, a song that despite a near fifty year recording career covering twenty albums, Gloria’s never getting away from. She’s still very much active, and actually won a Grammy just last year for her most recent Gospel album.

It’s no secret that this is also something of a gay anthem. Although about a woman and her relationship with a man, any song called ‘I Will Survive’, serving this much attitude, was always going to be big with the LGBTQs. Can a drag queen even call herself a drag queen if she hasn’t lip-synced to this? Existential questions such as that aside, this feels like a bit of a turning point. The beginning of the end for disco? Certainly the end – for now – of this glittering run of chart-toppers we’ve been on. One half of a very famous duo is coming along pronto to slow things right down…

16 thoughts on “435. ‘I Will Survive’, by Gloria Gaynor

  1. “I Will Survive” is one of those classics that feels so engrained in our culture and used in so many movies and TV shows that it can feel tired out and hard to hear with fresh ears. But despite that, “I Will Survive” is still an absolute classic, a song so undeniable that it was awarded the only Grammy for Best Disco Recording in 1980. Everything about the song is iconic from the opening classical piano flutter to Gloria Gaynor’s defiant delivery to the way the disco beat comes in after the intro. Weirdly, “I Will Survive” spent a while as a B-side to Gaynor’s cover of the Clout and Righteous Brothers song “Substitute” before everyone realized that “I Will Survive” was the better song. The song also applies well to Gloria Gaynor’s life considering she had spent her career before “I Will Survive” trying to make a career after enjoying early success at the beginning of the disco era with 1975’s #9 peaking cover of the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” before spending the next five years releasing singles that didn’t do much on the Hot 100. And Gaynor was recovering from a major fall requiring spinal surgery so it’s easy to hear how a song like this would resonate with her. She never had another big hit after this but still sings “I Will Survive” whenever so she seems to be fine with this legacy.

    • She did do slightly better in the UK than her home country. ‘Never Can Say Goodbye’ that you mention peaked at #2 here in 1974, while she had a #13 hit in 1983 with her version of ‘I Am What I Am’ from La Cage aux Folles – cementing her place as a gay icon in the process!

  2. Catchy as hell…I do like the drums in this. Like other good songs…it would have worked as a regular song also.

  3. Classic record, classic disco, classic anthem all in one. Spoke, and still speaks, to so many people, the message is timeless. It’s very much over-done, but gets away with it through sheer quality. But my fave Gloria record is Never Can Say Goodbye, and the stomping follow-up cover of Reach Out I’ll be There, both examples of the Epic, I was just talking about. Gloria had the first disco HI NRG hit I think, and that was to become the sound of 80’s disco, especially Boystown dance, so it’s only fitting the last proper disco chart-topper should be hers too. Subsequent dance chart-toppers were not really entirely disco records, they were punk-disco rock-disco, retro-disco, caribbean-disco and so on. There were still Epic disco records to come though, they just didn’t go all the way (see Voulez Vous Abba, MJ Don;t Stop Till You Get Enough, Jacksons’ Can You Feel It)….

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