Village People
Photo: Courtesy of RCA Records

40 Years Ago, Village People Tried to Survive the Death of Disco by Changing Sound and Look on ‘Renaissance’

Today, Renaissance feels like both a momentary blip in Village People’s career and an unnecessary reply to the “death” of disco (that never really happened).

Village People
1 June 1981

On 12 June 1979, some 50,000 people descended on Comiskey Park (in Chicago, Illinois) to collectively and symbolically kill disco. Spurred on by enterprising radio disc jockey Steve Dahl, the event was a disturbing repudiation of the mainstream ascension of the dominant dance music genre (which was originated and popularized within the Black, Latino, and gay communities, among other marginalized groups). Thus, Disco Demolition Night was sort of the culminating act of countless music fans who saw the omnipotence of disco in pop culture as a cheapening of music in general.

The debate regarding the authenticity of disco (a largely producer-driven genre) versus the authenticity of rock still rages today. Beyond that, though, many who witnessed the event saw it as a display of anxiety and angst amongst white young men responding to a major cultural shift (in which the cultural product of marginalized groups became the dominant cultural force of the decade). Mainstream artists like the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, and Barbra Streisand jumped on the disco “bandwagon” to broaden their commercial appeal; the result was an ugly and stupid riot that 1980s Chicago house music legend Vince Lawrence likened to a “racist, homophobic book burning”.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Dahl’s stunt killed disco music, as there were already signs that the genre’s popularity was starting to wane. Yet, honestly, disco never “died”; it just evolved and mutated into other forms of dance music, like house, dance-pop, or post-disco pop. However, Disco Demolition Night was a noxious and heightened encapsulation of the inherent snobbery of much of the anti-disco backlash. (This reality was exacerbated by very gaudy artifacts of the disco era, such as Rick Dees’ satirical “Disco Duck”, 1979’s The Ethel Merman Disco Album, and disco-fied variety TV shows like The Brady Bunch Hour.)

So, within this increasingly hostile environment, how does an act like Village People survive? What does it mean for a group that personified the queer and camp sensibilities of the genre to watch it get shoved into an early grave? As with many disco acts, Village People would have to adapt and evolve if they wanted to stay in the game.

That’s where 1981’s Renaissance comes in. The group’s seventh studio LP, it was a concerted—and ultimately unsuccessful—effort to distance themselves from their disco images by embracing the nascent new wave and New Romantic aesthetic. Village People (which was the brainchild of Jacques Morali, Henri Belolo, and Victor Willis) was a joyful celebration of gay and queer hedonism within 1970s queer male culture.

Hence why the members were costumed as cartoonish and silly hypermasculine templates. Each singer was presented as macho but in such a stylized and ridiculous way that their purported masculinity came off as goofy and jokey (almost like a novelty act, which they would’ve been had they not maintained a solid consistency of hits throughout their career). The archetypes that Village People personified had shades of Tom of Finland—particularly with the cop and the leather daddy—and looked like campy versions of the kinds of Muscle Marys that would frequent gay bars during the ’70s. After all, we have the cop, the GI, a biker, a construction worker, the cowboy, the Native American, and the leather guy.

Starting in 1977, Village People scored several chart hits, including “Macho Man”, “In the Navy”, “Go West”, and their most defining tune, “Y.M.C.A.” Songs like “San Francisco” and “I Am What I Am” explored gay culture and spoke to the kind of life that 1970s San Francisco afforded gay men, especially those who fled their conservative home towns. (In fact, “Go West” was a lyrical tribute to the queer migration West.) The tracks were cheeky fun, and the guys who sang them were good-natured beefcakes; despite the inherent silliness of the whole affair, there was a subversive aspect to their act that was quite manifestly queer.

The mainstream success of Village People meant that straight audiences were also exposed to this happy queerness (because their image was so cartoony, however, their camp sexuality was neutered, and they became largely asexual to mainstream audiences; really, they came across like proto-Spice Girls or a group of guys who raided a Halloween store). Of course, “Y.M.C.A.” operated as an anthem to the cruisiness of YMCAs, with lyrics that overtly promise promiscuity (“[YMCAs] have everything for you men to enjoy / You can hang out with all the boys”) yet also are oblique enough to validate former lead singer Victor Willis’ assertion that he was inspired by his time as a youth playing with other Black kids at the local Y. Mainstream America’s embrace of the song sapped away its gay content and doomed the tune to cheesy weddings for eternity.

So, the Disco Demolition Night was a loud and dreadful “FU!” to disco’s influence on pop culture, and in particular, its threat to “traditional” heterosexual masculinity. In response, Village People looked to new wave in the hopes of stretching out their success.

One need only to look at Renaissance’s album art to see that it was an ambitious way to reset their career. Whereas the sleeves on previous records looked like covers of vintage gay pornography (with the guys posing in comically seductive poses while wearing their characters’ costumes), Renaissance finds them looking remarkably different. Gone are the funny costumes; in their place, there’s sleek black leather and, even more notably, makeup. Specifically, there’s a closeup of two Village People, their hair slicked over with gel and their faces in full beat. The move is very jarring and abrupt (kind of like when KISS showed up without their trademark face paint). Instead of smiling handlebar mustachioed faces looking back at us, we see pensive model-pouts; clearly, the upbeat goofiness of disco was replaced by the moody insolence of new wave.

Expectedly, the music of Renaissance was a departure for the band as well. Much of the album is dance, but there are some bewildering choices, too (namely, the bizarre “Food Fight”, a new wave/power-pop number that sounds like Village People trying to bite off the New York Dolls). Every element—the wannabe punk guitar, the pogoing beat, the screeching vocals, etc.—feels wrong; yet, paradoxically, it manages to transcend its badness by emerging as required listening (be it as the band’s woefully misguided musical makeover or as their smart, canny, and ironic play for satire); another stab at new wave is the ridiculous “Big Mac”, a joyful paean to the titular McDonald’s burger that, again, is so silly and stupid that it’s compelling.

Not all of Renaissance is comprised of miscalculated attempts at new wave, though. When the record leads its listeners to the dancefloor, it actually captures some of the brazen charms of “Macho Man” or “Y.M.C.A.” For instance, the opener “Do You Want to Spend the Night” is a breezily fun mid-tempo number with very catchy melodies. Also, “Fireman” is a sexy, frisky, and funky ditty with merrily naughty lyrics with enough echoes of classic disco to work as a solid transition from the 1970s to the 1980s. For their follow-up, 1982’s Fox on the Box, the band returned (with restraint) to their popular hunky guy character costumes. As a result, Renaissance now feels like a momentary—and probably unnecessary—blip in their career, not to mention a reply to the “death” of disco that never really happened.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.