The Number Ones: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”
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.
Gloria Gaynor – “I Will Survive”
HIT #1: March 10, 1979
STAYED AT #1: 3 weeks
It’s a cliche. It’s been a cliche, maybe for decades. Anytime a soundtrack coordinator for a sitcom or a mid-budget Hollywood comedy needs a super-recognizable music cue, “I Will Survive” is right there. Everyone knows it. It’s baked into the cultural fabric. As soon as that opening piano flourish hits, people know what’s coming. It’s one of the cheapest, easiest recognition-jolts that pop music has ever given the world.
“I Will Survive” has worked on all sorts of cinematic scenarios: A misfit-scab football team coming together in The Replacements, an ironic death soundtrack in Six Feet Under. In The Martian, the song plays over the end credits — the ultimate delayed punchline to the running joke about Matt Damon’s character hating disco. Kids’ movies have been especially enthusiastic abusers. Jermaine Clement’s villainous cockatoo in Rio 2, Steve Zahn’s alien-fighting pig in Chicken Little, the various angry birds in The Angry Birds Movie — they’ve all used “I Will Survive” for their own purposes. Thanks to all those needledrops, it’s tough to wash the irony out of “I Will Survive.” It’s tough to hear it as a song, rather than as a cultural signifier.
And yet “I Will Survive” is one hell of a song — a sweeping disco thump with a righteous vocal performance, a superchaged and stripped-down arrangement, and a sense of stakes and pathos and drama. It’s a wordy song about a specific situation, and yet it’s also one of those forceful, anthemic belters that anyone can adapt to fit their own lives, whether human or angry bird. Heard on its own merits, “I Will Survive” is an absolute wonder.
Gloria Gaynor, the woman who sang “I Will Survive,” became a fervent and vocal Christian a few years after the song hit. Whenever she does interviews these days, she says that “I Will Survive” is “the core of my purpose.” For Gaynor, the song is a matter of divine provenance. And given the circumstances of its recording, it’s hard to argue with her. “I Will Survive” was a truly unlikely success. A whole lot of things had to go right for it to find its audience.
Gaynor was 29 by the time she sang “I Will Survive,” and she’d spent most of her career toiling in obscurity. Gaynor grew up in housing projects in Newark, New Jersey. She always wanted to sing, but she didn’t get a chance as a kid. Four of her older brothers had a gospel singing group, but they wouldn’t let her perform with them. In the ’60s and early ’70s, Gaynor sang for a couple of different groups in New York — the Soul Satisfiers, City Life — but they were really just nightclub groups. The one single that Gaynor released in 1965, for Johnny Nash’s Jocinda label, went nowhere. Years later, Clive Davis signed Gaynor to Columbia, but 1974’s “Honey Bee,” her one single for the label, didn’t chart, though it did get club play.
Gaynor bounced around from label to label for the next few years. Disco turned out to be her salvation. In 1975, she recorded a disco cover of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” a song that had been a hit for the Jackson 5 a few years earlier. (One of the producers of Gaynor’s version was Meco, the future “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band” chart-topper.) Gaynor’s take on “Never Can Say Goodbye” was her first hit, and it peaked at #9. (Gaynor’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” is a 7. The Jackson 5’s original 1971 version peaked at #2, and it’s an 8.) More importantly, Gaynor also released the 1975 album Never Can Say Goodbye. On that album’s first side, the first three songs play continuously as a single mixed-together suite; Tom Moulton, the man who invented the disco remix, put it together. This was a big hit among disco DJs — a chance to step away from the turntables for a minute.
But disco didn’t launch too many long-lasting careers. Over the next few years, Gaynor released another 18 singles after “Never Can Say Goodbye.” A few of them scraped the lower reaches of the Hot 100. Most of them didn’t chart at all. While playing a show in Europe, Gaynor suffered a bad fall, and she had to have spinal surgery soon after. Then she finally caught a break. The head of Polydor thought he had a song that would be Gaynor’s comeback hit. It was “Substitute,” a song that the Righteous Brothers had originally recorded in 1975. In 1978, a South African girl group called Clout had covered the song. In the US, the Clout version had only made it to #67, but it had been a massive hit around the world. It’s kind of a jam.
Polydor brought in a couple of big guns to record Gaynor’s version of “Substitute”: The producers Dino Fekaris and Freddie Perren, two former Motown guys. At Motown, Fekaris had co-written Rare Earth’s 1971 stomper “I Just Want To Celebrate,” a hit that had peaked at #7. (It’s an 8.) Perren, meanwhile, had been part of the Corporation, the writer/producer team behind the Jackson 5’s early hits. After he left Motown, Perren had produced some disco smashes, like the Sylvers’ “Boogie Fever” and Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You.” Along with a band that included session-musician aces like guitarist Melvin Ragin and drummer James Gadson, Fekaris and Perren put in serious work recording Gaynor’s take on “Substitute,” spending most of the day in the studio on that one song. Gaynor, still recovering from her fall, was wearing a back brace when she recorded the vocal.
At least according to legend, Fekaris and Perren only had a little bit of time left in the session when they sprung “I Will Survive” on the band. Fekaris and Perren had written the song together, and they’d given a demo to Gaynor. Fekaris had the idea for it when he’d been fired by Motown; for him, as much as for many of the people who adapted the song over the years, “I Will Survive” was a resilience anthem that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with romantic travails. Perren played piano on the recording; that great fluttery intro is all him.
Gaynor, who has a deeper voice, was used to having her voice sped-up and pitch-shifted for her disco songs. But “I Will Survive,” even with its strings and its killer session musicians, was a relatively bare-bones operation. It was only supposed to be a B-side, so nobody put too much work into sweetening the mix. That’s one of the things that’s so great about it. So the song used Gaynor’s voice in its full form rather than interfering with it.
For a while, “I Will Survive” was the B-side, even though Gaynor and plenty of others argued that it was better than the “Substitute” cover. The label head was really into “Substitute,” so “Substitute” was the A-side. As a single, “Substitute” failed, never making the Hot 100. But radio and club DJs eventually figured out that “I Will Survive,” the B-side, was a monster, and they started playing it. Eventually, Polydor pressed up new singles, with “I Will Survive” on the A-side and “Substitute” on the flip. Gaynor had tasted brief success with “Never Can Say Goodbye,” but she’d spent most of her career being ignored, shelved, and hurt. Thanks to random, impossible-to-replicate circumstances, she suddenly had a smash. If she says that was God’s plan, I’m not going to tell her she’s wrong.
But God isn’t the only entity that deserves credit for “I Will Survive.” That studio band is supremely locked-in: The blues guitar shredding over the intro, the shivery strings, the passionate smooth-jazz sax wails on that solo. When the thumping kick-drum kicks in after the intro, it marks one of the all-time great beat-drops in pop music history. Fekaris and Perren’s song is a pretty great piece of writing, too. It’s a bruised and indignant fuck-you from a woman who takes her ex’s sudden reappearance as a personal insult: “I should have changed that stupid lock/ I should have made you leave the key/ If I’d have known for just one second you’d be back to bother me.”
But the real engine of “I Will Survive” is Gloria Gaynor herself. She sells the hell out of that song. A song like “I Will Survive” demands a whole lot of the singer. It’s wordy, but it’s beat-driven, too. So Gaynor has to remain in the pocket, to deliver all those tasty put-down lines in ways that push the beat forward. She has to convey the frustration and anger behind the sentiment. And when it comes time to hit the chorus, she has to sing it. She comes through in every conceivable way. It’s probably the single most iconic disco-diva performance ever put to record.
Disco, at its best, can channel vast levels of high, churning melodrama. No song has ever done that better than “I Will Survive.” The things Gaynor does on “I Will Survive” are simply astonishing. She sings those famous first lines — “At first I was afraid, I was petrified” — in a sort of wounded gasp, the musical equivalent of a silent-movie starlet swooning. But then, when the beat launches in, she switches abruptly into snarl mode: “And so you’re back! From outer space! I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face!”
As “I Will Survive” continues, Gaynor’s voice becomes a snowball rolling downhill. It’s like she’s been waiting for this dumb motherfucker to show up so that she can let him have it, so she can deliver this full soliloquy that she’s been saving up in her head for months. Midway through, when the beat drops out, she swoons again, but it’s a fake-out. She picks it right back up again: “Awww, now go! Walk out the door! Just turn around now! Cuz you’re not welcome anymore!” As the song goes on, you get the feeling that she’s gone beyond anger, that she’s started to enjoy the powerful feeling of letting this chump know that it’s time to skedaddle.
After “I Will Survive,” Gaynor kept cranking out disco singles, and they kept bricking; she never came close to the top 10 again. Gaynor had her religious epiphany a few years later, and she started making gospel. She even recorded a new version of “I Will Survive” in 1982, changing up the lyrics so that they’d be about God. But unlike some other disco stars I could name, Gaynor never turned against her gay fanbase even after embracing Christianity. She still makes gospel records, and she still sings “I Will Survive” all the time.
“I Will Survive” had its own history. The song, like so many other disco smashes, had gotten its start in New York’s gay clubs. When the AIDS crisis arrived a few years later, “I Will Survive” became a defiant LGBTQ anthem. It still works that way today. No cartoon bird will ever be able to fully ruin the song. It will survive.
BONUS BEATS: The single most resonant “I Will Survive” needledrop — the only one I’ve seen that isn’t hopelessly ironic — is probably the one from the 1994 movie Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, where drag queens and Aboriginal people perform the song together in the Australian desert. Here’s that scene:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Method Man’s truly great 1994 single “Release Yo’ Delf,” the singer Blue Raspberry interpolates “I Will Survive.” Here’s the truly great “Release Yo’ Delf” video:
(Method Man’s highest-charting single, the 1994 Mary J. Blige collab “I’ll Be There For You/You’re All I Need To Get By” peaked at #3. It’s a 9.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the halting, haunted acoustic version of “I Will Survive” that R.E.M. released as a B-side in 1996:
(R.E.M.’s highest-charting single, 1991’s “Losing My Religion,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Also in 1996, Cake had a minor alt-rock radio hit with their cover of “I Will Survive.” Gloria Gaynor has said that Cake’s version of the song is her least favorite because there’s cussing on it. Here’s Cake’s video for their cover:
(Cake have never had a top-10 hit. Their sole Hot 100 single, 1998’s “Never There,” peaked at #78.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On tour in 2019, Kacey Musgraves covered “I Will Survive” at every show. Here’s video of her singing it with Gloria Gaynor at Radio City Music Hall in New York:
(Kasey Musgraves does not, as of now, have any top-10 hits, though I wouldn’t bet against her. Right now, her highest-charting single is 2013’s “Follow Your Arrow,” which peaked at #60.)