My daughter is 4 years old. This morning she was singing “YMCA” complete with the arm actions. You know the song – made famous by the Village People and a standard pretty much every time there is a mixed-age crowd and the DJ is playing songs to get people up on the dance floor.
Got me wondering how many people have actually considered that this peppy piece is about homelessness and people experiencing economic poverty, especially young gay men who had to leave the town they were living and wind up in a new city.
The song came out in 1978 on the album Cruisin’. It never hit #1 on US Billboard (that would be Rod Stewart’s Do You Think I’m Sexy? at the same time, featuring perhaps the tightest pants ever seen on a man in a music video.) Yet the song YMCA remains popular and even inter-generational. My parent’s generation knows it. My generation knows it. My kids know it.
Here is the underlying narrative to the song: a young man is new in town and is short on money so it is recommended that he go to the YMCA to stay, get clean and have a meal.
There are also many homosexual undertones in the song (Hello! It comes from the Village People! “They have everything for young men to enjoy – you can hang out with all the boys”), which probably also goes undetected by the average dancer trying to figure out how to form their arms into the Y, the M, the C, and the A…but we’ll park that theme for now. (I should also note that Willis of the Village People who wrote the lyrics suggests that the song is more about the Y being a place for urban youth to participate in sports, though later acknowledged the double entendres in the song and the fact that the Y was a popular cruising spot for young gay men, and that there was a reputation of the Y as a good place to stay.)
I refute the central point made in the song: that it is fun to stay at a homeless shelter. (As a nerdy side note, the McBurney Branch of the YMCA depicted in the music video does not function as a homeless shelter, but there are many YMCA’s that do). Depending on the quality of the shelter building, staff and programming it may be better than staying outdoors. But I don’t think shelters are fun.
But there are some very positive messages in the song too. Consider this stanza:
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.
‘m sure they can help you today
I agree that letting people know that others are there to help is a very good message. I also like the outreach perspective in the song and the empathy that is created:
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
Lastly, I like the positive message about a person who even seems to be down and depressed still being capable of having dreams.
This is a fun song. A silly song. A popular song. A song that doesn’t require too deep of an analysis. You can catalogue this blog under “Music Trivia” or “Iain’s Been Too Heavy for Too Long” or “No One Has Suggested a Blog Idea to Iain for Some Time”. But next time it comes on at a social event, consider asking others around you what they think the song is about. Don’t be a downer about it; but consider the opportunity to raise awareness about homelessness, or why in the 21st Century young gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, queer, questioning, inter-sexed and two-spirited youth still leave home and become homeless – not unlike the premise of this snazzy ditty from 35 years ago. It doesn’t diminish the fun of the song. It simply expands the song beyond four minutes of uncoordinated aerobic activity.