The surprising history of a classic break-up song

By the time the beat kicks in, we’re fully invested. “I think the reason it’s such a beloved record is that the disco grooves are just so driving and metronomic that it absolutely launches itself after that initial wafty beginning,” says Oliver Keens, a disco DJ and columnist for The Independent. Bestley, a DJ and artist with a deep-rooted knowledge of disco, house and soul music, points out that I Will Survive’s midtempo pace of 117 beats per minute (bpm) is a “great speed for extended periods of dancing” because it elevates your heart rate in a similar way to light exercise.

The song’s influence

I Will Survive isn’t just a beloved disco record, but also a landmark one. In 2016, it was listed in the National Recording Registry, a catalogue of sound recordings “deemed culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress. Despite being 45 years old, the song itself retains a generation-spanning appeal. Gen Z icon Harry Styles covered it during his 2022 Coachella headline set, while Madonna, one of pop’s great survivors, is singing it on her career-spanning Celebration Tour. Miley Cyrus’s shimmering 2023 hit Flowers, which was recently named record of the year at the Grammys, doesn’t formally sample I Will Survive, but does contain echoes of its dance floor defiance. When Flowers was released last year, Gaynor said approvingly that it “carries the torch of empowerment”. Bestley says that because the two songs “mix very well together”, they have been pairing Flowers and I Will Survive in their DJ sets for “a peak moment”.

Though Gaynor scored other hits during the disco era, most notably with her driving 1974 cover of the Jackson 5’s Never Can Say Goodbye, I Will Survive has become her undeniable signature song. The new documentary film about her life and career, Gloria Gaynor: I Will Survive, which played in US cinemas for one day only on 13 February and will hopefully get a wider release at some stage soon, proves she has definitely earned that epithet.

The film tracks the singer’s dogged attempts to make her first ever gospel album in her mid-70s – despite being told by her manager that “no one wants” it from her – and looks back at the many personal obstacles she has overcome. These include a challenging 26-year marriage to her former manager, Lynwood Johnson, whom she divorced in 2005 and describes in the film as a “woman magnet”, and the murder of her sister in 1995. Gaynor also speaks about being sexually molested on several occasions while growing up in Newark, New Jersey: by her mother’s partner when she was 12, and again at 17 by her boyfriend’s cousin.

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