Sep 08

GLORIA GAYNOR – “I Will Survive”

FT + Popular33 comments • 5,786 views

#435, 17th March 1979

It’s not unusual for songs to become cultural fixtures, but it’s a little rarer for their emotional use to be so generally prescribed: “I Will Survive” is so ensconced as the go-to cry of defiance for the jilted girl that it feels more ubiquitous than it actually is. I can’t remember the last time I heard “I Will Survive” on the radio, or at karaoke, and it’s almost impossible to imagine it ever being used seriously on TV or in a film now. But none of that lessens its familiarity.

Its status as a culture cliche is unfair on the song – after all, it got that way for a reason, and the reason is that Gaynor gives a monster performance, full of guts but with plenty of nuance too: the hard-won sneer in her voice on “I used to cry”, the perfectly marshalled anger on “Go! Walk out the door!”. But she’s never so bravura as to be inimitable – she owns the song, but she’s happy to lend it out.

The beat does its job, jogging along while Gloria warms to her theme, but the instrumental star here is those giddy strings on the coda, twirling off to a liberated future. Ultimately, what makes “I Will Survive” a keeper is its complete lack of ambiguity – there’s never a hint that she’ll reconsider, no attempt to show a different side. Go, in this case, means go.



  1. 1
    rosie on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Yay! How many people have this as a personal anthem, I wonder? It felt empowering – maybe even life-changing – for me in 1979 as a physics/maths teacher struggling with an education system that was the last bastion in this country of the feudal system. If it wasn’t throughout the country it was in Humberside where the Education Committee was headed by wine merchant, neanderthal Tory and future MP for Bridlington, John Townend. (Townend it was who, when all county schools were closed by an ancillary workers strike, made sure that all teachers turned out to cross the picket lines on pain of sacking. Who, it was rumoured, planned to issue all classroom teachers with a Silver Jubilee picture of the Queen and to sack any teachers refusing to hang it in their room.) Six months from this hitting the top, I won’t be a teacher any more but there were other reasons for this too. It’s empowered me in more personally sensitive matters since.

    And because it’s the stuff of legend now, it’s almost impossible to assess it as a pop single. It has the power to electrify any room I’ve been in. How much of that is the funkiness of the beat and how much is reputation is impossible to say.

  2. 2
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    (cf for provocative expansion on “survival” as a bogus socio-cultural concept g.marcus’s essay “rock death in the 1970s: a sweepstake”, which begins with a hatefest anti-paean to the word “survivor”, which he calls the “cant word of the age”, or similar) (it’s collected in “in the fascist bathroom”)

  3. 3
    pink champale on 10 Sep 2008 #

    they play this a lot on capital gold.
    this is a song i always like a lot more when i’m listening to it than i think i do when imagining it – while i don’t think i’ve ever actually witnessed a bellicose divorcee blasting this out in a provincial nite spot, i certainly feel as if i have and can’t quite shake the association. there’s something a bit clodhopping about this in comparison with the heavenly glide of the best disco (see heart of glass, or indeed **** ** ****) but the fact that gloria is just so relentless means there’s a power you can’t ignore – there’s almost something of ‘like a rolling stone’ about it.

  4. 4
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    (oops, that post wasn’t aimed at you rosie: and actually i think this particular song, which he slides past with a phrase, “gloria gaynor’s cheesy song”, is a more direct challenge to marcus’s thesis than he thinks it is — what’s really in his sights is a kind of smug placidity in the mid-70s rock world, that “we’re still going strong after all that’s been flung at us”)

  5. 5
    Michael Daddino on 10 Sep 2008 #

    It’s ubiquitous, all right. It has a knack for playing during some of the most dire moments of my life, including during the phone call that denied my biological mother the possibility of contacting me, and leaving a doctor’s office after an emergency HIV test. At those moments, I hated the song for mocking my feelings, my inability to feel defiant and strong. I just wanted to say: Fuck you, song. FUCK YOU.

    Other than THAT, it’s not a bad little song.

  6. 6
    DJ Punctum on 10 Sep 2008 #

    One of the great documentaries in the BBC’s Arena series was the one they did in the early eighties about the song “My Way”; tracing its history and indefinite universal appeal, it closed on footage of a group of miners emerging from a working men’s club, who had either just been made redundant or were about to be made redundant. One miner broke away from the group and wandered off home, or into the infinite darkness, singing the song, a song celebrating self-reliance and self-belief sung by someone who had probably never had a say in anything affecting his life from the moment he was conceived. Yet the spectre the song promised remained, to them, alluring; the Frank Sinatra recording racked up a cumulative total of 122 weeks in the UK singles chart between 1969-72, a total which has yet to be surpassed.

    In recent years “I Will Survive” seems to have taken on a similar mantle; another perennial which will probably be danced to or karaoked into subversion for the rest of time, and once again, croaked or screamed by people, mainly women, living hand-to-mouth, being daily humiliated in multiple infinitesimal ways in call centres in return for food on their table (is the call centre the new workhouse?), or having the shit kicked out of them by their husbands or boyfriends on a nightly basis, or being screeched at by their children…but still they sing this fuck-you song to end all fuck-you songs, not because it changes anything, but because for a few brief minutes they feel outside themselves, liberated; they can play the part of a freed spirit, feel part of a bigger and better community, before submitting once more to the tired and painful rituals of everyday existing.

    It is also the second major gay dance anthem to top the charts in 1979 – though not specifically written with the gay market in mind, it was likewise adopted as an anthem, and maybe even a political one. Gloria Gaynor, of course, was in at the beginning of what we call gay disco; the Tom Moulton-sequenced first half of her 1974 Never Can Say Goodbye album is a template for all which followed, and “I Will Survive” could serve as a sequel to its title cut – not to mention a sequel to “Tragedy.” Where in “Never Can Say Goodbye” Gaynor was aware of her Other’s fallibilities and unfaithfulness but lacked the courage to let go, on “I Will Survive,” with its weird confluence of Liberace piano, Caterina Valente strings and hi-NRG beats, she has pulled herself through the emotional mangle – because of course he’s the one who ended up saying goodbye – and now stands, harder and infinitely more assertive, looking at the returned prodigal waster with undisguised contempt (“I should have changed that stupid lock/I should have made you leave your key”) and takes great pleasure and greater relish in telling him to get lost. In the female-sung number ones we have had so far, there are few, if any, where the fuck-you factor has been so explicit and direct; even Aretha’s “Respect” seems like a first warning in comparison with Gaynor’s near-quivering tears of rage mingled with the ecstasy of her own liberation. “So now GO! WALK OUT THE DOOR!” she roars, in terms not negotiable. “It took all the strength I had not to fall apart,” and she nearly falls apart on that “fall apart,” but she rights herself; the fear is still present (“At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” she sings in the undecided, out-of-tempo intro) but she has now taken total control of her emotions (or so she’d like him/us to believe) and proclaims “I’ve got all my life to live/I’ve got all my love to live/And I’ll survive,” in a way which both goes beyond defiance and not quite up to the point of defiance.

    The internal conflict which powers “I Will Survive” stems from the fact that we are never quite sure whether Gaynor will survive – consider that terrible pause near the end where she stops, considers, trembles that painful “Oh!” and wonder whether this is all a façade, whether she really is crumbling – and the ambiguity remains as she launches herself back into the chorus to fade. But the record’s anthemic status was assured, and I’m confident that “I Will Survive” has indeed survived its 27-year descent into clichéd overuse and stands as a fantastic pinnacle of disco as opera.

  7. 7
    pink champale on 10 Sep 2008 #

    #2: yes, that greil marcus essay is great. i think it includes a nicely brutal league table of 70’s rock deaths ranked according to past contribution, future contribution – having been one of the gto’s doesn’t get you far with the first two – and means of death – russian roulette (a member of chicago?) and suicide pact with mother (rory storm?) score fairly well here.

  8. 8
    Erithian on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Tom, your comment “it got that way (i.e. a cultural cliché) for a reason” is spot on, and can be applied to many a hit on Popular that might be considered cheesy for its overuse and karaoke ubiquity. This is such an impressive song, and such a terrific performance – but oh, she did upset me the day she got to number one.

    It was the school year during which the more mature of us had their first cars, and on Tuesday lunchtimes a group of us developed the habit of cramming into Colin Rodgers’ car to hear the top five followed by the chart rundown. As I recall, “Tragedy” had had a steep drop from number one that week, and as the other contenders came up in the top five, we managed to convince ourselves that the Sex Pistols’ version of “Something Else”, a sixth-form favourite, had to be at number one. As the saying goes, by Christ you should have seen us – when we realised they’d stalled and Gloria had got there instead.

    Like the rest of those in the car, I was too young and inexperienced to have been on the receiving end of a message such as that borne by the song, but you didn’t have to have lived it to be utterly convinced by the performance and won over by the record despite your resistance to disco. An honoured position alongside Freda Payne in the sisterhood.

    As for the video, it was something of a landmark for me, being attracted to the older woman! As you’ll recall, it cuts between a full-face shot of Gloria, then 30, and a young roller-dancer (Sheila Reid-Pender, Wikipedia tells us) who skates around a New York disco floor. Even at 16 I found myself wondering why a girl who looked too young to have a history was illustrating such a lived-in song. No disrespect to Sheila who was pretty and talented, but Gloria was just so strong and truly beautiful.

    Number 2 Watch – Village People not quite repeating the successful formula with “In The Navy”.

  9. 9
    Tom on 10 Sep 2008 #

    I saw the start of #8 on the front page and thought you were saying that “it got that way for a reason” is itself a cliche!

    Which it is.


    *retreats into recursion*

  10. 10
    vinylscot on 10 Sep 2008 #

    A great performance from Gloria Gaynor, probably best appreciated before the song became the caricature it is now. I don’t even believe the term “gay dance anthem” Marcello refers to was given to this at the time – that came later, by association, after Gloria’s “I Am What I Am”.

    Its ubiquity (imagined or otherwise) has detracted from its appeal. It’s not a song I particularly enjoy hearing now, although I did enjoy it at the time, before the issues claimed it.

    It’s a rollercoaster – it just keeps going on and on, at breakneck speed, then when you think it’s all over – Oh! – it starts again. I like the triumphant tone of the song, the determination despite the hurt, the sense of empowerment – I’m in charge now!

    It has been badly covered many times, probably because Gloria got it so right. The Cake cover was OK though…

  11. 11
    Martin Skidmore on 10 Sep 2008 #

    I’d certainly have gone higher than 7, probably as far as 9. I’ve heard it a million times, but I still always enjoy it immensely. I don’t think it puts a foot wrong, and while I’m a little surprised that it hasn’t become wearing through becoming a cliche, it hasn’t at all.

    I also note that Pulp nicked parts of the song – some lyrics in one number, tune in another.

  12. 12
    DJ Punctum on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Also the not supreme “Supreme” by Robbie Williams.

  13. 13
    Tom on 10 Sep 2008 #

    “Supreme” is one of his better numbers I reckon, largely through its borrowing. But we’ll be able to discuss RW’s career at exhausting length later :(

  14. 14
    wichita lineman on 10 Sep 2008 #

    This felt so immediately familiar (Mull Of Kintyre style) as I was trapped in a hospital bed in early ’79, with only a transistor radio and the Guinness book for company, that I was convinced Arrival’s 1970 hit of the same name had to be the original. I only heard the dreary Arrival song years later on Decca’s World Of Hits Vol. 5.

    The thousands of times we’ve all heard “I shoud’ve changed that stupid lock, I should’ve made you leave your key” has probably ensured a few re-unions were nipped in the bud.

  15. 15
    jeff w on 10 Sep 2008 #

    This song has intervened at an inconvenient moment for me too. My example is nothing like as dramatic as Michael D’s, and consequently I’d feel stupid elaborating. All I will say is that a dozen females shouting along to the record in a confined space is not something I want to experience ever again.

    Still, I can’t bring myself to hate the song nor Gloria’s performance.

  16. 16
    Billy Smart on 10 Sep 2008 #

    The music always sounds a bit tinny to me, possibly because I hear it on flimsy vinyl or through transistors, but – my word! – the brilliance of this is in the performance, the absolute fury and defiance of it.

    While I understand peoples reluctance to return to this, I find that this is one of the records where the magnificence of the original always manages to transcend whatever witless appropriation people throw at it.

    Again, as with Dancing Queen, I’m going to shock people by saying that this is a song which many of us of the generation too young to recognise it from the first time round did not know for a while in the late 1980s. The first time that I was aware of it was when the lyrics were incongruously used in a Punt & Dennis haunted house sketch, to the hilarity of everybody older and the bafflement of my peers. A few years later, though, and absolutely everybody would know it.

    There was an interesting article by Tony Parsons in the Telegraph in about 1992 (the height of the last recession, black Wednesday, negative equity, etc) when he noted that ‘I Will Survive’ was the UK’s number one karaoke song, and therefore, he maintained, more indicative of the national mood than the best-selling single.

  17. 17
    Kat but logged out innit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    I think the final death knell for IWS was when they sang it for a karaoke competition on Birds Of A Feather.

    Still, top marks for rollerskating action in the promo!

  18. 18
    mike on 10 Sep 2008 #

    This is the second 1979 chart-topper with a direct link to Studio 54. The video for “Heart Of Glass” was filmed there, and legend has it that a Studio 54 DJ was repsonsible for turning this B-side into one of the club’s biggest anthems.

    (The original A-side being a limp, cheesy, and generally bloody awful disco-fication of Clout’s 1978 hit “Substitute”, which I accidentally stumbled across last week on some MP3 blog or other.)

    I had no patience for this whatsoever while it was a hit; instead, it gradually sneaked up on me a couple of years later, somewhat against my will. Perhaps the turning point came in the summer of 1982, while I was on a month-long study trip in Kiev. Taking the trolleybus back to the hotel from the language insitute, our carriage was suddenly invaded by a bunch of merry-making Ukranian women, As “I Will Survive” blasted from their portable cassette recorder, the women jigged around the carriage with rebellious smiles on their faces, totally bucking the accepted protocol for good Soviet citizenship. Pop music? Dancing? SMILING? And worst of all, chatting up the Westerners on the trolleybus, passing them a phone number and inviting them back to continue the party?

    (Of course, when we rang the number from the hotel, the voice on the other end of the phone denied all knowledge. Some risks just weren’t worth taking. They might have been defiant, but they weren’t stupid.)

    By the late 1980s, I was playing this every week at my mixed gay club night, where its mood seemed to match the similarly defiant spirit of the “Stop Clause 28” era to at tee.

    At some point in the 1990s, I watched the female leads from the sitcom Birds Of A Feather bawling this out on the Royal Variety Show, having introduced it as “The Essex Girls’ Anthem”.

    Last year, I witnessed Diana Ross claiming the song as her own on stage in Nottingham, then cocking her performance up and repeating the first verse in place of the second.

    Its stock will doubtless rise again. For there’s something indestructible at its core, which renders it impervious to all the over-playing and bad karaoke that can be flung at it.

    Must dig out that Greil Marcus essay again, though. It’s been years.

  19. 19
    a logged out p^nk s lord sukråt wötsit on 10 Sep 2008 #

    re tinniness:

    by this moment i was halfway thru first year at college, living in a poky and ugly top-floor room, committed — with no idea how to effect this — to being a rockwriter when i grew up

    to this end i had bought the WORLD’S SMALLEST TRANSISTOR RADIO — i had picked up some nugget of info that spector and/or motown (and possibly imitating them stiff records also) always played finished tracks through a small tinny radio bcz that’s where THE MASSES would hear it; if it didn’t work there it wasn’t going to be a hit

    anyway i listened to radio one all day while i worked, thru just such a radio — songs that definitely leapt out via this method inc. heart of glass, this, and hot chocolate’s mindless boogie

    (i had also by now evolved the theory — via some complex bit of punky casuistry — that a number one was by definition a good record, and to be all i could be as a critic i would have to “teach myself how” its “goodness” manifested, even if i myself detested it) (only applied to #1)

    (said theory survived w/o serious moral conflict for c.4 years — sadly the SB won’t let me say what toppled it)

  20. 20
    Mark G on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Long time ago, I witnessed at Butlins, one of the redcoat girls giving a showcase, central of which was a stunning ballad performance of this, tailed by a break into the ‘disco’ version. No idea if she went on to fame and fortune, possibly not.

    Was there a previous version of this? It felt like a cover version at the time.

  21. 21
    mike on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Fascinating GG Fact that you won’t find on Wikipedia: Prior to recording “IWS”, GG had taken a nasty tumble on stage, falling backwards over a monitor. The accident had left her temporarily paralysed from the waist down, and she was still wearing a back brace during the recording session.

    “The first thing that hit me was that it was so positive,” quoth GG. “That’s what I loved so much about disco music in general. And having a song with those words and that sentiment after having survived this accident – of course I sang it with conviction.” (Source)

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 10 Sep 2008 #

    Cover Version Watch:

    Billie Jo Spears (No. 47, 1979 – quick off the mark)

    Chantay Savage (No. 12, 1996 – don’t remember that)

    Diana Ross (No. 14, 1996)

    Cake (No. 29, 1997)

    Plus, presumably, many more including – I am not enticed to discover – REM.

  23. 23
    Waldo on 11 Sep 2008 #

    Unlike YMCA, this did not begin life as a gay song, but as sure as God made the little green apples, it certainly is one now! Instead, it was a defiant stroppy tart ditty, the antithesis of “Stand By Your Man”. Gloria had indeed been a-blubberin’ and a-sobbin’ when her guy did a Captain Oates but now she “holds her head up high” and gets on with it. Way to go, Gloria!

    This, of course, is a Disco staple and is a symbol of defiance for anyone who fancies it. I am loathe to criticise it too much, since it adapted its “gay status” on the tragic coattails of the AIDS epidemic, but then again in 1979 it carried no such albatross. I can therefore proffer the opinion that whilst it is one thing Gloria declaring loud and proud that being dumped is not providing a problem, the fact that she is wittering on about it probably means that she is in reality devastated and would take the bloke back in a microsecond any time he clicks his fingers. And of course he’s a git.

  24. 24
    Lena on 11 Sep 2008 #

    I didn’t know she was singing this after her accident, that would be why she is so defiant!

    This was a song indeed made popular at Studio 54 – in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life the point is made very hotly, if I remember it well. (I also remember someone saying – the authors? an interviewee? – that disco was fine until those darn Europeans got hold of it, a spectacularly stupid comment if I may say so.) Like Mike I didn’t quite get this at first, but that was because I was all of 12 and didn’t have the life experiences – no traumas, no scorned husband/boyfriend, nothing. So I admired it but could not get with it. Now I admire it and understand it and love GG’s operatic shifts and think of it as the unplanned sequel to “Young Hearts Run Free” – she has summoned up the courage to say “GO” and preserve herself for someone who truly loves her.

    While this was at #1 a song I adore was released that is also played on the disco oldies show, but I’m going to talk about it with the next entry.

  25. 25
    mike on 11 Sep 2008 #

    Re. Studio 54: the point is also made in Peter Shapiro’s Turn The Beat Around, as quoted here (and this link will also lead you to the aforementioned rubbish cover of “Substitute” on the original A-side).

  26. 26
    lonepilgrim on 14 Sep 2008 #

    like a great many anthems born out of loss and hurt the mood of defiance comes across as insecure and strident – undercutting the ‘positive’ message. Survival doesn’t sound much like triumph. It’s a powerful performance but one which I find doesn’t allow much space for interpretation or empathy.

    I much prefer ‘You’re moving out today’ as a kiss off

  27. 27
    Brooksie on 13 Feb 2010 #

    @Lonepilgrim # 26:

    I agree. My issue with this song has less to do with the song itself (catchy, orchestral bits that remind me of the Rocky theme, and a belter of a performance) and everything to do with the – mostly women – who choose to sing it. It has become the musical equivalent of drunk girls screaming and walking arm-in-arm on a Friday night; it’s defiance in the face of no resistance, it’s empowerment in the face of no dis-empowerment, self-righteousness with no justification. It’s people who mask guilt with accusations. Half the women who’ve belted this out at Karaoke have been cheaters more than cheated on, but that wouldn’t stop them from laying claim to a sense of victimhood the song creates; they want to wear the ‘survivor’ crown whether or not they are the cause of emotional pain.

    Whatever this song meant in ’78 to those women living in the later days of the old order I can’t say. I can imagine the song was a breath of relate-able fresh-air. But in the modern world it gives lie to the idea this song perpetuates; men cheat and women suffer. Well, the world’s changed a lot in the last 30 years, and in 2010 you take that idea and stick where the sun don’t shine. Don’t forget to buy the latest Cosmo, it’s got a handy guide on getting away with a sneaky-cheeky ’empowering’ affair. Maybe you’ll meet someone at the Karaoke bar, let’s hope hubby doesn’t find out… then again… he’s probably already cheated too… right?

    Good song. But the emotional baggage that now goes with it has ruined it for me.

  28. 28
    Brendan on 26 Sep 2012 #

    Like YMCA, it’s one of those songs that will live on forever whatever anyone might think of it. While its ubiquity (and a hint of cheese as the lush arrangements of disco began to peter out around this time in favour of more synthesiser-based forms of dance music) may have lessened the impact of the subject matter (and was it autobiographical?) there’s no denying that, listening to it now, Gloria still sells the emotion that was inherent in her performance when she recorded it. Close to an 8 but still a 7 for me.

  29. 29
    hectorthebat on 4 Aug 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 89
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 56
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 489
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 492
    Steve Sullivan (USA) – Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings (2013) 701-800
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    VH1 (USA) – The 100 Greatest Songs from the Past 25 Years (2003) 44
    Women Who Rock (USA) – Top 25 Girl-Power Anthems (2003) 4
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 463
    Neil McCormick, The Telegraph (UK) – The 100 Greatest Songs of All Time (2009) 52
    Q (UK) – 100 Songs That Changed the World (2003) 63
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 35
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 4

  30. 30
    Adam on 22 Mar 2015 #

    A 9… do you folks not go to clubs? Spinning this is a guarantee for an energetic climax of joy amongst the crowd, similar to how Tom describes Pet Shop Boys’ Always On My Mind. Schlock it may be, but it’s also an object of pop genius.

  31. 31
    Brian Martsolf on 8 Mar 2017 #

    The reason that both the theme from Rocky and I will survive both have the same musical break is that hey are both quoting from the same piece of classical music, I heard this tidbit MANY years ago, I think it was mentioned on American top 40 or something along those lines, it was a REALLY LONG time ago.

  32. 32
    Gareth Parker on 30 Apr 2021 #

    An appealing disco anthem and I feel it warrants the mark that Tom gives it.

  33. 33
    jack burton on 24 May 2021 #

    I was a disc jockey for a contemporary station in a small Arkansas town when I Will Survive came out. On the first listen I knew it was going to be a monster of a song. Some songs just elbow up to the bar and knock everyone else out of the way. This was one of them.

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