The baton passes from one manufactured disco band to another, but “Y.M.C.A.” is superior to “Mary’s Boy Child” in absolutely every respect – well, the dancing in the video is just as awful, but in “Y.M.C.A.”‘s case the wisdom of crowds soon provided a better alternative. A big part of this song’s success is Victor Willis, who gives his broad-chested lead vocal absolutely everything, starting stentorian and then going steadily more berserk (“PUT YOUR PRIDE ON THE SHELF!”) – gutbucket shouting put to the service of disco goodwill.
This remarkable year is the triumph of disco at the top of the charts, but more than that it’s the triumph of a particular effect of disco: the way the disco pulsebeat could work as an identity accelerator, its unobtrusive addictiveness pushing the spotlight onto performers and emotions and magnifying them, turning stars into icons, expressions into anthems. With a four-four backbone, cool would become cooler, resolve more resolute, cynicism more curdled. And “Y.M.C.A.” is an example of this, turning Willis into a kind of prophet of inclusiveness, and turning mainstream disco’s achilles heel – anyone could dance to this stuff – into a mission statement: everyone welcome. The gap between “it’s all the same” and “we’re all the same” is a thin one.
As a kid I loved this song – everybody did. It wasn’t just the dance, it was the dressing-up: five of the six VP costumes are standard kids’ birthday party fancy-dress – all that’s missing is a superhero, unless Leatherman qualifies. And this for me was an exotic record – vigorously, powerfully American: I remember my shock and disappointment at discovering a YMCA in Britain, an unglamorous blocky building on Great Russell Street. When it was a hit I was three or four years off even knowing what ‘gay’ meant, by which point “Y.M.C.A.” had become a great survivor of the disco era, entrenched in wedding disco playlists, its campness obvious but somehow hardly noticeable. In other words I feel utterly unqualified to even speculate on how it resonated at the time, within gay culture or in the mainstream. All I do know is that somehow, 30 years on, I’m still not sick of hearing that chorus.