“I Will Survive” was written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris. It was first performed by American singer Gloria Gaynor in 1978, and became a sensation ever since.
But what has caused this song’s continuing popularity?
Join me in the search for answers.
Let’s start with some background:
The song is about moving on after a bad relationship, and is known as a female-empowerment anthem.
However, Dino Fekaris (who provided the majority of the lyrics) revealed it was about getting fired by Motown Records, where he was a staff writer.
“They let me go after almost seven years. I was an unemployed songwriter contemplating my fate. I turned the TV on, and there it was: a song I had written for a movie theme titled ‘Generation’ was playing right then ,I took that as an omen that things were going to work out for me. I remember jumping up and down on the bed saying, ‘I’m going to make it. I’m going to be a songwriter. I will survive!’“
Part of the song’s lyrics:
At first I was afraid, I was petrified
Kept thinkin’ I could never live without you by my side
But then I spent so many nights thinkin’ how you did me wrong
And I grew strong, and I learned how to get along
And so you’re back, from outer space
I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face
I should have changed that stupid lock
I should have made you leave your key
If I’d have known for just one second you’d be back to bother me
Go on now go, walk out the door
Just turn around now, ’cause you’re not welcome anymore
Weren’t you the one who tried to hurt me with goodbye?
Did you think I’d crumble?
Did you think I’d lay down and die?
Oh, no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live, and I’ve got all my love to give
And I’ll survive, I will survive, hey, hey!
Only the Lord could give me strength not to fall apart
Though I tried hard to mend the pieces of my broken heart
And I spent oh so many nights just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry, but now I hold my head up high
And you see me, somebody new
I’m not that chained up little person still in love with you
And so you felt like droppin’ in and just expect me to be free
Well now I’m saving all my lovin’ for someone who’s lovin’ me
The song was originally released as the second single from Gloria Gaynor’s sixth album, “Love Tracks”:
It started out as the b-side to the album’s first single, “Substitute”.
“Substitute” peaked at No. 78 on Billboard in ‘78 but radio DJs all over the country were giving “I Will Survive” plenty of run. Eventually, the record company flipped the sides and “I Will Survive” hit number 1 in ’79.
The moment Gaynor was living in when she recorded “I Will Survive”, no doubt contributed to the song’s energetic message of survival.
After being dropped by record label Polydor, she fell off the stage during a performance and was left paralyzed from the waist down.
She went through spinal surgery and a three-month hospital stay.
After being picked up again by Polydor, while recording “I Will Survive” She was still wearing a back brace.
“She was singing her own life story” (start- 01:11)
This might explain the reason the song was performed with such powerful emotions and attitude:
Gloria must have had personal connection with the song, and it was expressed in her performance.
This helped to deliver the message behind the song and made it easier to pay more attention to the lyrics.
(And therefore contributed to its popularity).
The official video
another reason for this song’s popularity is how people interpreted the song:
-Almost immediately the song became empowering to women.
-It 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.
-People trying to come back from a tough break-up also found themselves singing their own comeback song.
“I Will Survive” had a particularly large influence within the LGBTQ community:
The song is featured in the 1994 Australian film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, as a lip sync song performed by:
drag queens Mitzi Del Bra, Bernadette Bassinger, and Felicia Jollygoodfellow at an Australian Aboriginal corroboree.
This is mostly attributed to the lack of acceptance of LGBT individuals:
Before the mainstreaming of disco music, the genre emerged as an urban counterculture that protested the dominance of rock music and heteronormativity.
Disco music was a place of resistance for those considered too gay, too Black, or too Latino to join the mainstream hippie rock and roll scene.
In those safe spaces the disco scene provided, as Gaynor’s singing becomes more dramatic and her transformation is complete, the listener can briefly believe this is true for themselves.
The song was also popular outside of the US thanks to the remixes and the covers:
In 1993 the song was remixed and released in the UK and reached number five on the UK Singles Chart and number three on the UK Dance Singles Chart. It also peaked at number six in Ireland and number nine in Portugal.
In 1999, a remix of the song charted in France, peaking at number 23. And in 2000, another remix reached number six in Spain.
Dutch group Hermes House Band covered the song in 1994, retitled “I Will Survive (La La La)”, topping both the Dutch Top 40 and Single Top 100 charts.
In 1998, their version reached number one on the French hitlist after the win from FIFA World Cup French Team.
Hermes House Band- I Will Survive (La La La)
It was also featured in many movies and tv shows:
In 1999, Gaynor herself, performed the song at the school prom on That ’70s Show episode 19 “Prom Night” to cheer up a disheartened, lovelorn Fez:
In the second episode of season 2 of the television drama Medium, the song plays repeatedly in Alison’s head:
In Rio 2 (2014), it was sung by Nigel the cockatoo, played by Jemaine Clement:
I think that the combination of all of the reasons mentioned in this book, has certainly boosted the song’s popularity.
This song has a very simple, yet strong, message.
And perhaps that’s even the reason why people love this song,
it expresses an essential human goal: survival, which everyone can relate to.
No matter the reasons, the results speak for themselves:
It became a top-selling song after its release as it sold 14 million copies worldwide.
The song climbed to #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart not only once – but twice in the spring of 1979 and reached #1 on charts in almost every country and continent around the world that same year.
The song received the Grammy Award for Best Disco Recording in 1980, the only year the award was given.
In 2016, the Library of Congress deemed Gaynor’s original recording to be “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Recording Registry.