This is the 26th post in a weekly, yearlong series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song will be posted each Monday throughout 2016. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.
Written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was released in 1978 as a B-side to Gaynor’s cover of The Righteous Brothers’ “Substitute.” Radio DJs began playing “I Will Survive” instead of “Substitute.” “I Will Survive” became not only her signature song, but disco’s signature song, hitting Number One in five countries and the top 10 in more than a dozen other countries.
The song combined a great dance beat with a story of perseverance:
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
I’ve got all my love to give
And I’ll survive
I will survive
The narrator in the song has experienced the trauma of a break-up, but in an interview with CBS News, Gaynor said, “That song taps into the inherent survival instinct, and it taps into the tenacity of the human spirit.” That spirit comes in large part from the passion with which Gaynor recorded it. Gaynor herself was a survivor, having been sexually abused as a child and having grown up in poverty. While recording the song, she wore a back brace, the result of an accident six months earlier left her temporarily paralyzed. “That is why I was able to sing that song with such conviction,” she said.
As such, “I Will Survive” has become a theme song for anyone overcoming adversity. “I Will Survive” has been lauded as an anthem for both women and gay men. And by “lauded,” I mean rigorously researched and dissected by academics. Nadine Hubbs’ “‘I Will Survive’: musical mappings of queer social space in a disco anthem,” published in “Popular Music” in 2007, explored what about the song made it different than other disco songs. In “‘We’re Not Just Lip-synching Up Here’: Music and Collective Identity in Drag Performances,” Elizabeth Kaminski and Verta Taylor analyzed research about Key West drag queens, many of whom cited “I Will Survive” as a gay anthem and staple of their performances.
Many of the subsequent cover versions continued in that spirit of triumphing over tragedy, though some felt merely like dance songs with modern keyboards. And then there was the ubiquitous “I Will Survive” cover that sounded like a spoken word parody.
Country singer Billy Jo Spears, probably best known for 1975’s “Blanket on the Ground”, recorded one of the first “I Will Survive” covers. Her 1979 version kept the dance beat of the original, but took out most of the other disco elements. But otherwise, the instrumentation felt like a muted version of the backing track on the original, and the main standout on this track was Spears herself, whose unabashed drawl and twang made this a country song.
Gladys Knight & The Pips covered “I Will Survive” for the band’s 1981 album, “Touch.” The song, performed as a slower ballad, highlighted Knight’s skills and range as a singer. The strings and piano, which accounted for most of the instrumentation until the horns at the end, were emotionally affecting enough to set a mood but restrained enough to let the lyrics breathe in Knight’s tender but strong hands.
Streetlife’s 1989 version of “I Will Survive” encapsulated how dance music had evolved in the previous 11 years. Like many of the hip-hop and freestyle hits that preceded it, Streetlife’s cover was grittier than Gaynor’s polished version. Listening to this cover in 2016 and all the 20/20 hindsight that comes from this vantage point, it’s easy to hear many of the elements that would define the early ’90s styles of CeCe Peniston and Crystal Waters.
Diana Ross’ 1995 album “Take Me Higher” featured a version of “I Will Survive” that had a modernized backing track in the style of early ’90s dance music. In that regard, it was similar to Gaynor’s cover of “I Say A Little Prayer” that same year. Both covers relied on the production more than the singers, which is why both songs, particularly Ross’ “I Will Survive” sounded too two-dimensional. Any conviction in Ross’ vocals, if it were there, was drowned out by the over-polished dance track. It could have benefited from more soul and less dance. But that music video with RuPaul isn’t bad.
R&B singer Chantay Savage turned “I Will Survive” into a gospel-tinged ballad for her 1996 album, “I Will Survive (Doin’ It My Way).” The original “I Will Survive” was not overtly cheesy in the way that the original version of “It’s Raining Men” was, but any disco song starts of at a base of 2 on the 0-to-10 cheese scale. When Savage stripped “I Will Survive” of the danceable, disco elements of the original, what remained was a slow burn that played up the earnest sentiments of the lyrics. The focus, front and center, was on the resilience of Savage’s voice. She had been through some strife and agony, you could tell, but you believed her when she said she would survive.
In contrast to Savage’s version was Cake’s take on the song, which came out the same year as Savage’s. Cake’s “I Will Survive” sounded almost flippant in singer John McCrea’s monotone, not-quite-spoken-word cadence. Savage and Gaynor each sang the song as grand proclamations, but McCrea sounded like he was leaving a voicemail or rattling off some thoughts while taking a smoke break. It’s not as if he phoned it in, but he just sounded less sure of himself, in part because changing “stupid lock” to “fucking lock” made him sound bitter and still hurt. And it’s because of that lyrical change that Gaynor has said she didn’t like it, “because they used profanity.”
Folk singer Melanie Safka, who performed at Woodstock in 1969, released a version in 1996 on her album “Old Bitch Warrior.” The five-minute version had a extra minute at the beginning of new lyrics. The iconic opening words — “At first I was afraid, I was petrified” — didn’t appear until the second minute. The vocals on this cover were fine, but the over-produced background track did not fit with Safka’s style.
Safka released a different, stripped-down version on her “Beautiful Hits” album. But don’t take the words “folk” or “stripped-down” to mean “soft,” “quiet,” or “timid.” Instrumentally, the guitar and percussion in Melanie’s “I Will Survive” had a Latin flavor. Safka’s unrelenting energy imbued the unnamed narrator of “I Will Survive” with both a tenderness and fighting spirit.
R.E.M.’s “I Will Survive” appeared on the band’s “Only In America” single in 1996. This acoustic version was raw and unpolished, with the choppy guitar and Michael Stipe’s vocals barely resembling the tune of the song.
Swedish funk and jazz musician Nils Landgren covered “I Will Survive” on his 2002 album, “Sentimental Journey.” There was a smooth, almost “easy listening” feel to the slowed-down Jazz track, particularly the piano part. Which is not to say it was simply elevator or airport music, as Landgren’s soulful vocals gave it personality.
Welsh singer Dame Shirley Bassey, best known for recorded the theme songs to three James Bond films, released an album of remixed odds and ends in 2007. “Get the Party Started” featured a cover of the Pink song of the same name, as well as a previously-shelved version of “I Will Survive.” Bassey’s version had a bit of an identity crisis: it started off with flamenco feel, but then added a dance beat that sounded like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” or a Black Eyed Peas song, and then ended with blaring horns.
The 2007 compilation album “On the Road with Hard Rock Live” featured a quirky live acoustic version of “I Will Survive” by Jill Sobule of “I Kissed a Girl” and “Supermodel” fame. She started off with a melodramatic delivery of the opening line, and interrupted herself to tell the audience that “You’re back/From outer space” is her “favorite lyric ever written.” She’s not wrong. It’s pretty stellar.
Inspired by the Andrews Sisters, the Puppini Sisters sing harmony vocal pop in the style popular in the ’30s and ’40s. The group’s nostalgic take on “I Will Survive,” on its 2007 album “Betcha Bottom Dollar,” had the three-part harmonies one might have heard on the radio in WWII. As gimmicky as that premise might seem, the Puppini Sisters’ version surprisingly held up for more than a few listens.
“Aretha Franklin Sings the Great Diva Classics,” Aretha Franklin’s 2014 covers album that included a jazzy “Nothing Compares 2 U,” featured an “I Will Survive” that meandered back and forth between being a jazz song and a Hi-NRG dance track. But if the track was a mess — and the fact that Franklin sang scat should prove that it indeed was a mess — it was a delightful mess. Franklin, unlike her counterpart Ross, took a chance with her version and reinterpreted it beyond just updating it to match modern dance music. (Though she did include a brief sampling of Destiny Child’s “Survivor.”) By the time Franklin sang, “Get to steppin’,” she might as well have sung, “I would show you all the fucks I give, but alas, I have none.”
Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, whom we last discussed when reviewing “Nothing Compares 2 U,” covered “I Will Survive” on its album, “Are We Not Men? We Are Diva!” The band, an ever-changing roster comprising members of other punk bands, has a pretty straight-forward formula: take well-known songs and apply the ’90s pop-punk sound. If you’re familiar with Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, its take on “I Will Survive” will sound pretty much as you would expect. But if you have low expectations for them — as I do — this cover might pleasantly surprise you.
Demi Lovato recorded a modern update for the soundtrack to “The Angry Birds Movie.” Besides having more pointed horns and 2010s-era production, it sounded pretty faithful to Gaynor’s version. But it did not sound like a mere karaoke version, because Lovato sang with such a fierce conviction that she sounded like she could even out-survive Gaynor herself. Her performance was just shy of over-emoting, but for this song, dramatic vocals help sell the premise. No one wants to hear a spineless loser sing “I Will Survive.”
You listened to that, yes? She sounded like she would kick your ass, right?
The most visceral versions of “I Will Survive” sound like that version. And I don’t mean like Lovato’s specific version, but that overall ride-or-die fiery spirit. The versions of the song that have resonated with me have all had a personal element, where I had no doubt that the singer felt a deep connection to the lyrics in the same way that Gaynor felt a connection during her accident-related paralysis.
In the same interview that Gaynor said she didn’t like Cake’s version of the song, she spoke broadly of the “I Will Survive” covers: “They’re all a tribute to me. And I’m very happy they’re not as popular as mine. It’s a great compliment to me (that) people keep going back to that song.”
It might sound a little arrogant of her to say that, but then again, who of us would disagree with her? That interview was more than eight years ago, but the sentiment holds up. There simply is no version as popular as Gaynor’s original.
Which is not to say that there are no covers as enjoyable as the original, or that the covers are a wasted effort. They are not. The aforementioned Puppini Sisters’ version might not be a go-to during a break-up or personal tragedy, but it doesn’t need to be a song I listen to during a time of sadness. The reinterpretations of the song don’t need to have that same soul, because the original version already has that market covered. Which means that the Puppini Sisters, Cake, Me First And The Gimme Gimmes and all the other artists are free to interpret and stylize the song as they wish. After all, isn’t that what we want from cover songs? To reimagine the song and take us someplace the original did not (or could not)? As we said when critiquing Tiffany’s version of Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill,” if we wanted to just repeat the same experience as the original, we would listen to the original.
You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.