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'Y.M.C.A.,' The Sports Anthem About A Gay Cruising Spot: Lyrics And Meaning

Music | October 20, 2020

Photo of DISCO; The audience performs the 'YMCA' dance with The Village People at the "ABC Disco Ball" at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA (Photo by Amanda Edwards/Redferns)

The Village People's "Y.M.C.A." is an unmistakable call to the dance floor -- from the opening brass hits of its intro melody you know what song is playing and you even know the arm motions that accompany the lyrics. Like the accosting fingering of "Stairway To Heaven," or the 1, 2, 3, 4 of "Blitzkrieg Bop," the beginning of "Y.M.C.A." is unmistakable. The song itself is one of the most bizarre cultural phenomena of all time. What began as a gay anthem performed by the Village People has been cleansed of its camp and brought into the mainstream as an upbeat song about how great it is to work out at the Y. It's performed at campaign rallies and the sixth inning of New York Yankees baseball games.

"Y.M.C.A." was immediately adopted as a gay anthem not only because of its subtext and banging disco beat, but the Village People were the most "out" gay musical act of the era (in spite of their very straight lead singer), but did it begin as a song about gay sex? Or was it just a track about having a clean place to sleep and work out? Even today everyone involved can't agree.

What is the Y.M.C.A.?

source: NBC News

"It's fun to stay at the YMCA," or so say the members of the Village People. In 1978 the Young Men's Christian Association, specifically the McBurney Y in Chelsea that inspired the song, was more than just a gay cruising spot. According to former resident Davidson Garrett the Y certainly had a gay element to it, but it was also a place where someone could live and work out for a modest sum. He told Gotahmist:

[The YMCA] did have some overlapping of gay cruising. But it was a serious gym for people who really wanted to go and work out every day, and a nice place to live for working-class people.

At the time, the Y offered single room residencies at a low weekly rate making it the perfect place to stay if you were new to the city or trying to find success in the theater scene, or just didn't have a lot of money in your pocket. Garrett explains that while the Y was definitely used for cruising by men in their 20s and 30s, those most likely to take part were the weekend crowd and not long term lodgers. He explained:

The weekend party people who would stay there really just needed the rooms to crash. They didn’t stay there at all to socialize, but to take in the nightlife.

The Village People were a very gay boy band in an very homophobic era

source: NME

Not every member of the Village People is gay, but the band is certainly a gay entity. Made up of a group of singers and dancers who perform songs that wink and nod to gay culture while dressed in various looks inspired by Americana (most notably a police officer, a Native American, and a construction worker) the group was put together by French producers Jacques Morali and Henri Belolo. Built around Belolo's songs and Victor Willis' syrupy vocals the Village People quickly scored hits with "San Francisco (You Got Me)," and "Macho Man." For the group's third album, "Crusin'" Belolo penned what's gone down as one of the greatest anthems of the 20th century, but no one can really agree what it's about.

Come and stay at the YMCA

source: YMCA

With "Cruisin'" all but finished, Morali and Belolo felt that the album needed one more single to really make it pop. David Hodo, otherwise known as the carpenter, says that Morali wrote the melody and the chorus to the song in about 20 minutes before handing it off to Victor Willis to finish the rest before pressing record on this slice of fried gold. Randy Jones, the cowboy, says that Morali came up with the idea after becoming obsessed with visiting the gym at the Y. He told Spin:

Jacques came up with the idea. But what happened is that when I moved to New York in 1975, I joined the McBurney YMCA on 23rd Street. I took Jacques there three or four times in 1977, and he loved it. He was fascinated by a place where a person could work out with weights, play basketball, swim, take classes, and get a room. Plus, with Jacques being gay, I had a lot of friends I worked out with who were in the adult-film industry, and he was impressed by meeting people he had seen in the videos and magazines. Those visits with me planted a seed in him, and that’s how he got the idea for 'Y.M.C.A.' — by literally going to the YMCA.

Is "Y.M.C.A." Y.M.C.Gay?

source: youtube

Despite being written by a gay man about a place that was sometimes used for gay hookups, no one involved with the track can agree on whether it's actually a gay song. Randy Jones, the cowboy in the Village People and an openly gay man says that there's nothing gay about the lyrics. He told Spin:

It was not intended as a gay anthem. Do you have the lyrics in front of you? There’s nothing gay about them.

Horace Ott, the composer who wrote the string arrangements for "In The Navy," "Macho Man," and "Y.M.C.A." has no idea what the song's about, saying:

What I loved about 'Y.M.C.A.' was, to be honest, everything. Great beat, great voice with Victor, great timing in the midst of the disco boom. Now, was it a gay song? I don’t know. It certainly appealed to a lot of people who embraced that lifestyle.

David Hodo, the group's construction worker, is certain that the song was penned as a gay anthem:

'Y.M.C.A.' certainly has a gay origin. That’s what Jacques was thinking when he wrote it, because our first album [1977’s Village People] was possibly the gayest album ever. I mean, look at us. We were a gay group. So was the song written to celebrate gay men at the YMCA? Yes. Absolutely. And gay people love it.

That being said, co-writer and lead singer of the group Victor Willis, has threatened to sue anyone who states that "Y.M.C.A." is about illicit gay sex. If anyone from the Village People has a bead on the meaning behind the song it's Jones, who says that the whole thing is "a big f*cking mystery."

Let the lyrics speak for themselves

source: gothamist

Take a look at the lyrics to "Y.M.C.A" and see if you can decipher any gay subtext in these lyrics:

Young man, there's no need to feel down
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground
I said, young man, cause you're in a new town
There's no need to be unhappy
Young man, there's a place you can go
I said, young man, when you're short on your dough
You can stay there, and I'm sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time


It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

They have everything for young men to enjoy

You can hang out with all the boys

It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal

You can do whatever you feel


Young man, are you listening to me?
I said, young man, what do you want to be?
I said, young man, you can make real your dreams
But you got to know this one thing
No man does it all by himself
I said, young man, put your pride on the shelf
And just go there, to the Y.M.C.A
I'm sure they can help you today


It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

They have everything for young men to enjoy

You can hang out with all the boys

It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

It's fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A

You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal

You can do whatever you feel


Young man, I was once in your shoes
I said, I was down and out with the blues
I felt no man cared if I were alive
I felt the whole world was so jive
That's when someone came up to me
And said, young man, take a walk up the street
There's a place there called the Y.M.C.A
They can start you back on your way

"Y.M.C.A." is for everyone

source: wikiwand

After spending 26 weeks on Billboard’s top 100 "Y.M.C.A." transitioned from a dance hit to a world encompassing song stripped of any particular meaning. Once something gets as big as "Y.M.C.A." it can be anything to anyone, in the same way that "Born in the U.S.A." is played political rallies on every part of the spectrum regardless of The Boss' original intentions.

The thing that transformed "Y.M.C.A." from cheeky pop song to something swallowed by popular culture and never to be spat out is that dance. While performing the song on Dick Clark's American Bandstand in 1979 the group was simply clapping above their heads when performing the chorus, but when they raised their hands the audience mimed the letters along with the vocals. As catchy as the song is (and it's the ear worm of ear worms), it's the dance that connects to people. The dance is so popular that it's performed by the Yankees field crew whenever there's a home game, which is absolutely wild. Former general partner of the New York Yankees, Joseph Malloy, explained the catalyst for this long running tradition:

It was the opening of Legends Field, our spring-training stadium in Tampa, and a couple of the grounds crew guys approached me with the idea of bringing a little excitement to the exhibition games. In the middle of the fifth inning, when they dragged the infield, the guys wanted to do the arm motions to 'Y.M.C.A.' I hadn’t heard the song for a long, long time, but the crowd absolutely loved it. I thought, 'Hmmm, this might work in New York.'

The simple fact that the song can be performed in baseball stadiums, on television, or in gay bars all with equal fervor show that it's not just a gay anthem, it's a genius piece of songwriting that allows this track to be whatever the audience needs it to be.

Tags: Disco | Gay Culture | Song Meanings, Lyrics, And Facts | The Village People | Y.M.C.A.

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.