A Pride Month Special Look at “I Will Survive” and Some of its Many Covers
with particular ruminations on what we will survive, or not
The Original – Gloria Gaynor
If one were to choose one song to stand as the anthem for the modern LGBTQ movement – and for the purposes of this post I’ll sidestep the question whether any one song can really fairly take that mantle – Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” would surely be the obvious choice. The 1970’s divalicious disco anthem of defiance and self-worth may literally be about telling a feckless ex-lover to “walk out the door”, but with lines like “I have all my life to live, and I have all my love to give”, “I Will Survive” has always also stood for a maligned minority standing up for themselves, to live, to love, and to survive, sentiments that have only deepened with time, from Gay Liberation to the AIDS crisis to Marriage Equality and on.
The above recording is the original, or at least as close to the original as I’ve recently found. Back in 1993, before Itunes, I couldn’t find the original in Tower Records, only an “updated” version I purchased on a disco compilation cd in order to include this essential number for Ed and my wedding music cassette (remember mix tapes, that tangible limited edition forerunner of playlists?). This remix, posted below, was very much influenced by the recent success of Madonna’s “Vogue” (you can hear it in those piano riffs):
The “Vogue” – inflected 1990’s Remix – Gloria Gaynor
We will survive … Bishop Torbin, Pride Flag burners, the Administration’s assault on transgender healthcare and right to serve, and all the verbal, physical, social and political gay bashing that is still out there even after all the exponential progress for the LGBTQ community in recent years. They are still trying to turn the clock back, and the fight is still very much on, but we will survive… we will thrive.
The original Gloria Gaynor record reigns supreme. But my personal favorite cover is also the version that is the most different from the original. Recorded by the Danish trio Funky Nashville, it is very, well, funky and Nashville, replete with a spaghetti western electric guitar taking on the original’s famous string obligatos. It especially earns its Gay Pride of Place through its prominent inclusion in the German Gay soccer comedy “Männer Wie Wir” (“Guys and Balls”).
The Out West Version for Men – Funky Nashville
Another personal favorite is The Puppini Sisters doing what the Andrews Sisters would have done to “I Will Survive” if they had recorded 1970s disco standards, and had a wicked, winking sense of humor. I especially love their classical vocal take on those famous disco string obligatos.
The Andrews Sisters Revival – The Puppini Sisters
And while we’re listening to jazzy stylings, we better include Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox take, with Sara Niemitz slaying the vocals and the brass section hot-jazzing those obligatos. Their studio recording is slick, but the live version is smokin’:
Jazz Hot Cover – Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox featuring Sara Niemitz
We will survive … Trump. If we rid ourselves of him and his minions in/by 2020. Otherwise, well, we’ll probably still survive him, but American Democracy may not survive. Along with the toll of immigrant children dead in detention centers, citizens murdered by emboldened white supremacist terrorism, unregulated guns, diminished health care access, the inevitable escalating outrages of Trumpian fascism.
As Pete Buttigieg, one of so many excellent choices running for president on the Democratic side, said, this next round is not merely about winning an election, it is about winning an era. Will we in the U.S. – and in the world – usher in a new era where we turn away from division and deviousness and destruction? Or will we succumb to the antidemocratic, kleptocratic, fearful, hateful, truth rotting disease Trump exemplifies?
You probably will have surmised by now that I particularly appreciate a cover version that takes the original to unforeseen musical places. That’s certainly true, especially with “I Will Survive”, of which there are dozens, maybe hundreds of cover versions to be found on Itunes and elsewhere, most of which adhere very closely to the disco stylings of the original. And frankly, for disco we have the Gloria Gayner’s version, unlikely to be surpassed in that arena. So why pile on one cover version after another that doesn’t do much all that different musically from the original, when, let’s face it, the original already does it perfectly?
Nonetheless, when four legendary pop diva goddesses like Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Shirley Bassey take “I Will Survive” out for a personal spin, it is well worth taking notice, even if they don’t go to the musical extremes of Funky Nashville or the Puppini Sisters.
Of these four, Diana Ross’ cover on The Motown Anthology album leans closest to the original’s template and disco ethos. The arrangement, like the Boss’ voice, though has more of a sateen sheen to it. So, for example, a synthesizer shine replaces the real violins in the obligato. And the gospel-lite back-up singers offer extra incentives for hands-in-the-air dance floor gyrations.
The Boss Version – Diana Ross
“Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics” is the aptly named album that gives us the Queen of Soul’s take on “I Will Survive”. Her arrangement, like Diana’s, doesn’t stray too far from the original’s disco prerogatives. But like Diana she still infuses the song with her distinct personality.
And then surprise! A quick detour into Destiny Child’s “I’m a Survivor”! Just for a minute, before returning back to the original; but now with extra sass, thank you very much.
Sister Does It For Herself – Aretha Franklin
We will survive … Climate Change. Probably. I want to believe that the new era will be won by the better angels within us and that we will stop and control climate change for a better world where we finally learn to live in careful harmony with nature.
Yea… I want to believe that. But it’s not easy to believe that. Especially nowadays. Yet even if the worst comes…
Gladys Knight gives us an epic, nearly seven minute long, Las Vegas torch song version of “I Will Survive”, with a novelistic prolog and emphatic “I’m Free Again!” coda. At least that’s different from the other divas’ dance rhythms. Yet for all that cabaret room drama, she still feels duty bound to give us at least a boogie woogie’s worth of traditional disco in the sixth minute, including that most cheesy of ’70’s sounds, the sci-fi flic laser boop.
Las Vegas Torch – Gladys Knight and the Pips
It’s not Shirley Bassey singing on her album of diva anthem covers “Get the Party Started”, it’s Dame Shirley Bassey! DAME Shirley! So curtsy, bitch!
Every one of the tracks, whether it be “Big Spender” or the P!NK banger that gives the album its title, sounds like a James Bond theme song tweaking techno at a rave, Goldfingers in the air like they don’t care! Most especially her take on “I Will Survive”. Of course she concludes it with reach-the-high note “I will survI-I-Ive” declamations in the vein of her immortal “he loves gO-O-Old!”:
Survive the Rave – Dame Shirley Bassey (NorthxNWest Remix)
We will survive … Climate Change. One way or another. We’re resourceful that way. Like cockroaches. We’ll adapt as a species. Oh, our numbers may be greatly reduced and 98% of us will perish quickly or dwindle down over time in horrid states of depravation and misery, but some diminished number of our species will find a way to continue on in the blighted Earth to come. Either technologically protected or mutatingly adapted. We may not now recognize or like what we will become but we will prevail somehow.
But most life on earth will die, and what survives of our species will probably not be very good at protecting what little of nature survives, so…
Speaking of James Bond theme songs, the act J2 appears to make it their mission to create cover versions of any song in a style best suited for apocalyptic action movie previews. They even call these arrangements “Epic Trailer Version”. Well, here is their Epic Trailer Version of “I Will Survive”. You can just imagine Lara Croft facing down all sorts of grand scale level 10 doomsday scenarios, in glorious explosive slow motion:
Epic Trailer Version – J2 featuring Blu Holliday
So far, except for the Funky Nashville Danes, we have heard only women take on this pinnacle of Pride Anthems, always in total diva mode (another indication of the song’s stature in Gay Culture). But I did find a couple more male voiced takes, both as far from disco as one can probably go and remain in the pop realm.
Here first is Cake’s determinedly grungy, rough edged (and not always on pitch) rumination on relationship meltdown survival. I particularly enjoy the solo trumpet, gamely if not exactly expertly played, essaying those string obligatos.
Garage Band Survival Kit – Cake
Life will survive Climate Change … but maybe we shouldn’t … if we don’t learn to arrest man made Climate Change’s likely to be cascading effects. Life on Earth survived 5 or 6 extinction events that wiped out up to 95% of all life: mega-volcanos, asteroids, Snowball Earth – only to bounce back after a couple million years with even greater diversity and complexity of life. A couple million years is not so long to wait if you’re the Earth. She’s done it before, many times. She will survive.
Humanity’s short term so far on the planet is not that much longer geologically speaking than most of the other mass extinction causes required to eliminate all that diversity and splendor of Life. But those extinction causes went away again before Earth rebounded. So … we may need to go away, walk out that door, permanently, for Life on Earth to have a chance to rebound again…
And finally, the male pickers and harmonizers of Mother of the Bride do their blue grass best with what they call a Wedding Band Cast Version of “I Will Survive”. It’s probably the down home straightest sounding version of the song out there, even if the band calls itself “Mother of the Bride”:
Wedding Band Cast Version – Mother of the Bride
Happy Pride Month, everybody!
And let’s not just survive, let’s thrive again!
Or … Nothing will survive, regardless … we don’t arrest the effects of man-made Climate Change, and it causes a feed-back loop of warming so cataclysmic Earth becomes another Venus, our sister planet, where runaway Global Warming bakes the planet at an average 864 degrees Fahrenheit (462 degrees Celsius). Venus once had water, had oceans, possibly even life. Life that didn’t survive its own very final extinction event. Yes that too could be Earth’s fate.
And anyway, in a couple billion years the planet will be burnt to a crisp and likely swallowed up by our sun’s giant red star death throes. So much for Life on Earth then, eh?
But we as a species may still survive, if we in the interim get over our self-destructive ways well enough to get technologically advanced enough to learn how to live off planet, and then keep it together for many millions of generations more than we’ve been around as a species so far. We may survive to witness the death of our solar system, safely from afar, elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy now merging with Andromeda…
I just hope that if that happens we deserve to continue on out there in space, as upholders of peaceful ideals like the Prime Directive, not as devouring interstellar locusts, which two different popular science fiction sagas posit as likely fates for space colonizing species. So far in our history we have sadly shown a greater predilection towards the latter (even as we fantasize ourselves in the role of the former)…
Go on now, go, walk out the door…
Just turn around now…
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore…