The Triumphant Queer Legacy of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’
While she didn’t intend for the song to be an LGBTQ anthem, its lyrics were an inspiration amid the AIDS crisis and homophobia
A piano chord forcefully kickstarts the song, followed by quick scales, low to high, high to low. Gloria Gaynor’s voice starts timidly: “First I was afraid/I was petrified.” As she grows certain in her story of survival and strength, her voice starts to boom, claiming space. The guitar riff starts as Gaynor is forced to confront her terrible ex — “And so you’re back/From outer space” — as if it’s giving her momentum to send him away and live a better life without him.
In late 1978, Gloria Gaynor released “I Will Survive” as a B-side disco track, not knowing the song would soon become the definitive single of her career. The track was a hit in the disco scene and quickly became an anthem of survival in the LGBTQ community that would endure until at least the mid-1990s.
The song, a B-side to a song called “Substitute,” was written and produced by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, who wrote “I Will Survive” as an inspiration to overcome their own obstacles. By his account, Fekaris wrote the lyrics after he was fired from Motown Records as an inspiration for himself and his ability to survive and become a full-time songwriter.
Gaynor was facing her own challenges at the time: 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. She was still wearing a back brace when she recorded “I Will Survive” after being picked up again by Polydor.
The moment Gaynor was living in when she recorded “I Will Survive” no doubt contributed to the song’s energetic message of survival.
“[Fekaris and Perren] said, ‘We think you’re the one that we’ve been waiting for to record this song that we wrote a couple of years ago,’” Gaynor explained in a 2013 interview with Audible. “When I read the lyrics, I realized the reason they’d been waiting…