In 1978, Village People, a disco band of six men deliberately stylized as sexy macho gay characters, released its album Cruisin’. The album featured “YMCA,” an upbeat disco track praising the Young Men’s Christian Association’s (YMCA) community centers as a great place for physical recreation and temporary lodging. But what is the meaning of the song “YMCA”?
The catchy song quickly became a hit — arguably ranking it among the 100 greatest dance songs of all time. The gay community also quickly adopted it as an anthem, especially since the song proclaims that a “young man” can find “everything for you men to enjoy” and “many ways to have a good time” as they “hang out with all the boys.” Some gay men interpreted the lyrics as an allusion to cruising for sex at the YMCA’s facilities.
But Village People’s straight Black lead singer Victor Willis — who dressed as the group’s policeman and co-wrote the song with the band’s straight producer Henri Belolo and its gay producer Jacques Morali — told News Corp Australia in 2017 that the song was actually inspired by Willis’ youth spent watching his friends playing basketball at a New York City YMCA.
“‘YMCA’ was not written to be a gay song because of the simple fact I’m not gay,” Willis said. “I wanted to write a song that could fit anyone’s lifestyle.”
In a September 2020 Facebook post, Willis wrote, “I will sue the next media organization, or anyone else, that falsely suggests Y.M.C.A. is somehow about illicit gay sex… Get your mind out of the gutter, please!” His post was likely an exaggeration as there’s no record of him actually suing anyone over it.
Despite his crankiness, he has also said, “I’m happy the gay community adopted it as their anthem. I have no qualms with that.”
But while Willis claims the song isn’t gay, some of his gay bandmates remember things differently.
Why some Village People & others consider “YMCA” a gay song
Randy Jones, who performed as Village People’s cowboy, told Spin magazine in 2008 that he helped inspire Morali to create the song by taking the producer to a New York City YMCA gym in the late 1970s and having him meet gay porn models who worked out there.
Jones brought Morali to the McBurney YMCA on Manhattan’s West 23rd Street about four times in 1977. The building appears in the background of Village People’s music video for the song.
“[Morali] was fascinated by a place where a person could work out with weights, play basketball, swim, take classes, and get a room,” Jones said. “Plus, with Jacques being gay, I had a lot of friends I worked out with who were in the adult film industry, and he was impressed by meeting people he had seen in the videos and magazines. Those visits with me planted a seed in him, and that’s how he got the idea for ‘YMCA.'”
David Hodo, who performed as the band’s construction worker, told Spin, “‘YMCA’ certainly has a gay origin.”
“I mean, look at us. We were a gay group,” he said, noting that his band’s music was often played in Black, Latin, and gay underground clubs. “Was the song written to celebrate gay men at the YMCA? Yes. Absolutely. And gay people love it.”
Hodo noted that Morali wanted to write a song as “filler” to make the album Cruisin’ a bit longer. Morali reportedly wrote an outline of the song’s melody and chorus in about 20 minutes. Upon hearing it, Hodo said he felt “YMCA” would be “something special because it sounded like a commercial, and everyone likes commercials.”
The song’s popularity is not only due to its catchy beat, horns, and strings nor to the YMCA organization’s numerous community centers throughout the nation. Its reputation as one of the 100 greatest dance songs of all time is also undoubtedly due to the YMCA dance that typically accompanies the song.
The YMCA dance: You’re probably doing it wrong
The YMCA dance reportedly originated during Village People’s January 6, 1979 appearance on the TV music program American Bandstand. While the band performed the song, the program’s host Dick Clark noticed audience members doing the YMCA dance by forming the letters — Y, M, C, and A — with their arms raised over their heads during the song’s chorus.
Clark reportedly replayed the song’s audio to show Willis the audience performing the YMCA dance. “You think you can work that into your routine?” Clark asked him. Willis replied, “I think we’re going to have to.”
The band began teaching audience members how to do the YMCA dance correctly — the “M” is made by touching the tops of the fingernails in front of the chest and the “C” should point left so that onlookers can read it correctly. The YMCA dance is still performed at parties, sporting events, rallies, political protests, and anywhere the song is played.
What does the actual YMCA think about the “YMCA” song?
Soon after the song came out, it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and peaked at number 2 on the chart 13 weeks later. The YMCA also sued Village People but quickly dropped the lawsuit.
Kevin Dietz, a spokesperson for YMCA of the USA, initially said the organization was aware of the song’s popularity but noted, “We never have authorized the Village People to use the YMCA trademark to sell goods or services, and would object to any use that could cause the public to conclude otherwise.”
When asked in 2018 how the YMCA organization feels about the song and its gay association, YMCA media relations manager Leah Pouw said (a bit more enthusiastically than Dietz), “We at the YMCA celebrate the song. It’s a positive statement about the YMCA and what we offer to people all around the world.”
Gay cultural critic Michael Musto believes that the song has been “straight-washed.”
“All these years later, the gay subtext is gone, and it’s a rah-rah crowd-pleaser for the baseball stadium crowd,” Musto said, noting the song’s popularity at sporting events. “It happens. A rallying song for the oppressed turns into a middle-of-the-road spirit-lifter, mainly because the straights like to steal things from the gays, take away all the scary edge, and make it their own.”
But even though “YMCA” can be interpreted as a subtle gay cruising bop or an upbeat memory of friends playing basketball at “the Y” (as the community centers are now called), an alternate possible meaning emerges late in the song.
Near the end of the song, Willis sings, “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 tight. / That’s when someone came up to me, and said, / ‘Young man, take a walk up the street. / There’s a place there called the YMCA. / They can start you back on your way.'”
That is, “YMCA” can also be understood as an anthem that encourages the community to support young people in need.
After all, even though the song was released in 1978, the current day Y still offers affordable and subsidized youth programs and camps for poorer kids as well as accessible fitness and educational programs for people of all ages. Even better, it provides these without any overt Christian moralizing.
The organization has defended the right of transgender people to use its facilities, making it a great place to have a good time, even after all these years.
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