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Gloria Gaynor on Performing at the Library of Congress and the Legacy of “I Will Survive”

The singer is the star of a two-month disco celebration this spring.

Courtesy of Gloria Gaynor.

It was October 1978, and Gloria Gaynor was wearing a back brace, recovering from spinal surgery. But that didn’t stop her from heading to the studio to churn out new music. She was getting ready to record a new song, called “I Will Survive.” Nearly 40 years later, the song itself has more than survived. It has been covered more than 200 times by other artists, including Diana Ross and Gladys Knight. In 2016, the Library of Congress inducted it into the National Recording Registry.

This spring, the Library of Congress is throwing a two-month celebration of disco called Bibliodiscotheque, featuring programs, film screenings, a symposium, and a disco party starring Gaynor and her band. Gaynor spoke with Washingtonian about the celebration, what disco means to American and global culture, and the enduring life of her song “I Will Survive.”

So, you’re performing at the Library of Congress and participating in an all-day disco symposium on May 6. How do you feel about the Library of Congress giving disco its due as a genre?

I feel very, very good about it. I’ve been saying as often as I can, and will say it at the symposium and at the show, that it’s great that disco music is finally getting its due because it is the only music in the history of music ever to bring together people from every nationality, race, creed, color, and age. My audience is from eight to 80. It’s wonderful to see that and I think music that is capable of doing that ought to be recognized for it. I’m honored beyond words to be recognized in this way and have my song memorialized and held as a piece of worthy American history, and to represent disco music.

What does disco music mean to you personally? 

I mean, when they did the German unification party when the Berlin Wall came down, they asked me to come and sing for that. Like the song “I Will Survive,” it’s all about bringing people together and having them recognize our similarities as opposed to our differences. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to me to have this song and disco music become a part of history.

You were in a back brace when you recorded “I Will Survive.” What’s the story behind that?

At one of my shows in 1978, I fell backwards over a monitor doing a skit during one of my songs. I jumped back up and I finished my performance and went out to eat after the show, went back home, and went to bed. I woke up the next morning paralyzed from the waist down. I was able to reach the phone and call my boyfriend, and he had a key so he was able to let himself in and let in the paramedics. I had to have surgery on my spine and was released from the hospital on July 3; I’ll never forget because my boyfriend had an apartment that overlooked Manhattan and I was able to see the fireworks from his terrace. I got out of the hospital in July and recorded the song in October in a back brace.

Did you ever think the song would become what it is today?

It never even crossed my mind that the song might be memorialized. But I did believe from the first time I read the lyrics, that they were timeless and that people would relate to and be able to relate to it for as long as it was played on the radio—we didn’t know about streaming at that time. For as long as it was available to the public, I felt like it would bring hope, encouragement, and empowerment. When I recorded it, my mother had passed a few years prior. I had recent surgery on my spine and was in a back brace. That was how I was relating to the song, even though the lyrics are about unrequited love. The title that is sung over and over again, “I Will Survive,” are words that people can live by. So I really believe that because everyone in their lives goes through situations and circumstances that they feel are insurmountable, they can be uplifted by the lyrics. And time has proven me right.

It’s sometimes looked at as a sort of mental health anthem. Do you think it is?

Yes, because I wrote the book, We Will Survive, 40 stories from family, friends, and fans around the world who have been empowered, uplifted, and inspired by the song. These stories are from all kinds of people from all kinds of situations: parents of deceased children, people who survived breast cancer, people who survived domestic violence, people who have survived every trauma you can think of. And these are people who have been inspired to make it through the traumas in their lives because of the song.

You have other hits, but “I Will Survive” is your most iconic song. How do you feel about that song being the one that people remember you for most? 

I used to be upset about it. I felt like the success was a two-edged sword because I had so many other good songs and I wanted people to recognize that and remember those songs. But not anymore. For many years now, I’ve believed that the song was sort of a divine appointment. Like God chose me to be the vehicle to bring that song to empower people. So now I feel really honored. People come to me not only saying that the song did this or that for them, but that I did this or that for them. It adds meaning and purpose to my life, too. The song has become the core of my purpose.

So it’s safe to assume that when you’re performing, you always have to do that song?

Oh yeah, I have to. I can’t even imagine what the audience would be like if I didn’t do that song. But I love it. I always do the song last because I know they’ll wait for it. They’re at fever pitch by the time I do that song. They’re ready to explode, and they do. I often do a selfie with the audience for Facebook and they’re all lighting up their lighters and jumping up and down and singing. It’s crazy and wonderful.

Former editorial fellow Kayla Randall is City Lights editor at Washington City Paper.