American Anthem: ‘I Will Survive’ Saves Marginalized People A Spot On The Dance Floor
This story is part of American Anthem, a yearlong series on songs that rouse, unite, celebrate and call to action. Find more at NPR.org/Anthem.
BY KAREN GRIGSBY BATES
Gloria Gaynor has said she’s pretty sure her signature song, the 1978 disco smash “I Will Survive,” was created just for her. But the singer had to go through a lot before she and the song found each other.
Her mother had died a couple years earlier, and Gaynor was still coping with that loss. Then her record label, Polydor, told her they were declining to renew her contract: She’d had a hit in 1975 with her cover of The Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye,” but nothing huge since then, and they’d decided she was no longer a good investment. Gaynor soldiered on, but was slogging through a fog of grief and anxiety.
Shortly after Polydor told her she was being dropped, Gaynor slipped onstage during a performance at New York’s Beacon Theatre. She finished the performance, then went out to breakfast, and finally, home to bed. “I woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down,” she said in a 2013 interview with Audible, adding: “I’ve always believed that God allowed that to happen so he could get my attention.”
Attention secured, Gaynor focused on her recovery. She endured spinal surgery and a three-month hospital stay. When she was released, she left the hospital in an unwieldy back brace that she wore for many more months.
Finally, after a few rough years, her luck began to turn. Polydor changed presidents, and the new guy was a fan. In fact, he was pretty sure he had a comeback hit for Gaynor: a song that a South African girl group had recently done well with, called “Substitute.”
As it turned out, Polydor’s new president was unique in his enthusiasm for the record. In his eagerness to get it out, he cut a deal: Producer-songwriters Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris agreed to record “Substitute” if they could put one of their own songs on the B-side of the single. They invited Gaynor in for a meeting to hear what kinds of lyrics felt most comfortable with performing. In the interview with Audible, she described what happened next.
“They said, ‘We think you’re the one that we’ve been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple of years ago,’ ” Gaynor explained. “When I read the lyrics, I realized the reason they’d been waiting for me to record that song was that God had given that song to them for them to set aside, waiting for him to get everything in order for me to meet up with them. And that song was ‘I Will Survive.’ ”
Drummer James Gadson, who in his career has backed up Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers and been featured on hundreds of hit records, was part of the studio band put together for the session. He tells NPR they spent hours laying down tracks for “Substitute,” and were about ready to wrap things up when Freddie Perren asked them to stay a little longer and do one more song.
“He said, ‘Well, man, I know everybody’s tired, but let’s just do this one song. In fact, I’ll do the intro.’ He was a great producer, played keyboards,” Gadson says, describing the arpeggio Perren played that became the song’s unmistakable opening sting.
“We just cut it and that was it, went home,” he says. “Three weeks later: bam.”
Gaynor took advance copies of the single to Studio 54, the mecca of US discotheques — she’d often sung there, and knew the DJ. “He played it while we were standing there,” she said in an interview with World Cafe on NPR member station WXPN. “The audience immediately loved it, which told me this is a hit song. New Yorkers don’t immediately love anything — they are so jaded.” The DJ liked it too — enough that he agreed to take copies and pass them along to other DJs.
Released in October 1978, “I Will Survive” was a near-instant hit, eclipsing the planned comeback song on the other side of the record. Within weeks it was playing everywhere, including Europe, where Gaynor was a longtime favorite. The song also coincided with the very beginning of the AIDS crisis, and found a particular resonance within the LGBT community.
Karen Tongson, a professor at the University of Southern California who often lectures on pop culture, says she remembers first hearing the song in the 1990s through its cover versions, then learning the history behind Gaynor’s original.
“It was especially significant for me, because I’d just come out,” she recalls. “The song had long associations with the LGBT community as an anthem … but in my newfound activism, in my new awareness around the different struggles the community faced — particularly around the AIDS crisis — I heard the song with new ears.”
She wasn’t the only one. Beyond gay communities, “I Will Survive” has become a global anthem for those who have felt politically oppressed, physically challenged or otherwise pushed to society’s margins.
That includes survivors of domestic abuse, for whom Gloria Gaynor herself has become a spokesperson. Cindy Southworth heads the National Network to End Domestic Violence, where Gaynor is an advocate; she remembers when the singer appeared at the organization’s global conference in 2012.
“She sang her song,” Southworth says, “and singing along with her were 1,500 advocates from across the globe — many of them survivors themselves, singing in beautiful accents.”
Today, it’s hard to go through life without hearing some version of “I Will Survive.” Its operatic sweep makes it perfect for divas; Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin and Miss Piggy have all had a go. But it’s also been covered by Johnny Mathis and Cake, performed by marching bands and symphony orchestras.
Karen Tongson says it’s the progression of the lyrics from despair to empowerment that make “I Will Survive” a deeply personal song for a lot of people: “That chorus is like coming out of the dark and into the light.” Set to a driving beat, its message is one that anyone who hears it can claim as their own. It is an anthem for people who have survived whatever life has thrown at them.
Gloria Gaynor interview audio provided courtesy of Audible and WXPN’s World Café.