Straight men seem to have an issue with sexy: They don’t mind calling women sexy, but they’re uncomfortable with men describing themselves as such. Several years ago when Justin Timberlake had a hit called “Sexyback,” I noticed many guys mocking him. Apparently, Timberlake had violated an unspoken rule of masculinity by declaring that he was bringing sexy back — “sexy,” you see, is something women embody. It’s unmanly for a dude to aspire to be sexy, and JT should have known better.
Rod Stewart can certainly sympathize with Timberlake’s plight. In the late 1970s, he angered a lot of his audience by releasing “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?.” It wasn’t just the title that offended — why in god’s name was it “Da Ya” instead of “Do You”? — it was that, at the height of the Great Disco Wars, this uptempo dance track rubbed guys the wrong way.
“You never really have a clue about how a song is going to be received or the journey it’s going to take,” the singer recalled in his 2012 memoir Rod. “But what was quickly clear when ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ came out was that an awful lot of people liked it. … And yet, in the same moment, I appeared to have alienated a portion of the people who up until then had felt close to me.”
Whether Stewart ever recovered from the backlash is a debate no one needs to have — he’s remained a superstar, with his latest album, The Tears of Hercules, out now. Turning 77 in January, he’s richer than we’ll ever be — and, by all accounts, happier, too. “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” remains one of his most beloved songs, and whether you love it ironically or sincerely hardly matters. But even now, it emits this little anxious charge in the listener: Dude, don’t ask a woman if you’re sexy.
Born in England in 1945, Stewart was the youngest of five and an avid soccer fan and player, figuring as a boy that he’d become a professional footballer. “It’s a bloody addiction, football is,” Stewart said in 2013, “I don’t know what will happen when I have to give it up.” (A few years later, he’d find out after an ankle injury.) But music eventually became his livelihood. “The first rock ‘n’ roll record I listened to was ‘The Girl Can’t Help It,’ by Little Richard,” he once said. “Then my brother Don took me to see Bill Haley and the Comets when I was 10. I was in the balcony, which was bouncing up and down. I was scared. But what a band! Tartan jackets, and the sax player laying on his back. We had rock ‘n’ roll riots in those days in England. We’d tear out chairs. After that show, the seed was sown.”
Early in his career, he was part of bands — the Jeff Beck Group, and also Faces — but in the late 1960s, he put out his first solo record, An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down (aka The Rod Stewart Album), enjoying even more radio play with his 1970 follow-up Gasoline Alley. Quickly, he proved himself to be a master interpreter, tackling songs by Elton John and the Rolling Stones, giving their tunes an earthy, weary quality thanks to his raspy voice. He sounded far older than he actually was, and that sense of hard-earned wisdom came through even stronger in Every Picture Tells a Story, his 1971 landmark. Full of rootsy, bluesy rock and folk, the album was tender, funny and, on the remarkable ballad “Maggie May,” almost impossibly beautiful.
But as much as he was both critically and commercially successful at the time, Stewart had to contend with his heartthrob image. He was a good-looking chap, certainly, but in a 1973 interview with Rolling Stone, he lamented that concert audiences didn’t always appreciate the heart and soul underneath the good looks.
“[T]here does seem to be a lot more ‘take your trousers off,’ like the guy you saw yelling last night,” he said. “Which is a mystery to me. It makes me feel like a stripteaser. I suppose someday somebody will just do it. Take off their bloody clothes. It’s not going to be me. I’m a singer. … If they just want to see me dance my ass around on the stage, Christ, I’d really be upset. That’s just a way of projecting [my] music to a large number of people. I mean I’ll admit I’m really wrapped up in being on that stage. That 90 minutes, I really live for that. Phew. What a buzz. Yeah, it is a sexual outlet for me. I mean it’s that strong.”
On those first albums, Stewart was a perfect intersection of the Stones’ raw sex appeal and Bob Dylan’s wistful poetry. (Although Stewart wrote plenty of his own songs, he was especially good at covering Dylan’s lesser-known tracks, making them his own in the process.) Even if he was attractive, Stewart had a gritty authenticity and artistic integrity. Talking about the differences between him and another cock-of-the-walk frontman, Mick Jagger, Stewart once said, “Mick’s a bit more of a showman, and I think I’m a bit better as a singer.”
That’s why it was hard for some of those initial fans to accept the musical shift Stewart soon underwent. His material got a little hokier — like his gender-flip redo of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” — and he started to embrace his lover-man side, especially on the easy-listening seduction “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright).” Perhaps just as shocking for some, Stewart around this time also wrote “The Killing of Georgie,” a melancholy song about the hate-crime murder of a gay man, bringing attention to homophobia in a more prominent way than most straight rock ‘n’ rollers were attempting in the mid-1970s.
But the final straw was “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” On the heels of 1977’s Foot Loose & Fancy Free — which had the ballad “You’re in My Heart (The Final Acclaim)” and the come-on rocker “Hot Legs” — Stewart was wanting to stay relevant, and he noticed that disco was making waves not just on the radio but also with some of his peers. “We were in the studio and ‘Miss You’ by the Rolling Stones was a big hit,” drummer Carmine Appice said. “Rod was always a guy that used to listen to what was going on around him. He was always looking at the charts and listening. He was a big fan of the Rolling Stones, so when they came out with ‘Miss You,’ disco was really big at the time, so he wanted to do some kind of disco-y song, but nothing like Gloria Gaynor.”
“Miss You” was disco-ish, with the Stones drawing on the glitter-ball euphoria of Saturday Night Fever to come up with something tough but danceable. “[Stewart] would always tell us, ‘I want a song like this’ or ‘I want a song like that,’” Appice recalled. “So I went home and I came up with a bunch of chords and a melody. I presented it to him via a friend of mine, Duane Hitchings, who is a songwriter who had a little studio. We went in his studio with his drum machines and his keyboards, and he made my chords sound better. We gave Rod a demo of the verses and the bridge, and Rod came up with the chorus.”
“We rock ‘n’ roll guys thought we were dead meat when that movie and the Bee Gees came out,” Hitchings would say in 2007. “The Bee Gees were brilliant musicians and really nice people. No big egos. Rod, in his brilliance, decided to do a spoof on disco.”
Whether or not that’s true, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was very much a Rod Stewart song in that it told a story — just like “Maggie May” and “Tonight’s the Night” and “The Killing of Georgie.” In it, a man and a woman, strangers to one another, are in a club or a bar. Neither of them is brave enough to make a move, but there’s mutual attraction between them.
She sits alone waiting for suggestions
He’s so nervous avoiding all the questions
His lips are dry, her heart is gently pounding
Don’t you just know exactly what they’re thinking
If you want my body and you think I’m sexy
Come on, sugar, let me know
If you really need me, just reach out and touch me
Come on, honey, tell me so
Tell me so, baby
Years later in Rod, Stewart complained that nobody ever got what “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was about. “I got tired of pointing out that the lyric was written in the third person … and that when it opens up into the first person in the chorus, you’re meant to be hearing the unspoken thoughts of the bloke and the girl in the song, who are aching to get each other’s clothes off but don’t quite know how to broach the topic,” he wrote, later lamenting, “It wasn’t me asking every Tom, Dick and Harriet in the world if they thought I was sexy.”
Alas, Stewart’s confident delivery of that chorus made it hard for listeners to suss out. And, besides, Stewart was such a cocky ladies’ man — he’d just ended a relationship with former Bond girl Britt Ekland — that it didn’t take much of a stretch to assume he was singing from his own perspective. Riding a tight beat that was reminiscent of “Miss You,” except with more glittering keyboards, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” was a perfect cocktail of sexual charisma and shiny pop hooks. What it sure as hell wasn’t was the sad-eyed observations of the younger Stewart, who’d merged folk, country, rock and R&B to craft indelible, soulful tunes. The horns were jumping, the bass was groovy: Is this what a sellout sounded like?
The same critics who once embraced him turned their back. Writing in 1979, Rolling Stone’s Greil Marcus declared, “Rarely has a singer had as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely. Once the most compassionate presence in music, he has become a bilious self-parody — and sells more records than ever.” That applied to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” as well: Released almost exactly 43 years ago, the Blondes Have More Fun single went to No. 1, just ahead of Chic’s “Le Freak” and Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” But his reputation took a hit, with both the rock press and rock fans angry at this glitzy, featherweight disco anthem.
“I didn’t get much help from my management and the marketing people, whose campaign for this single had me stretched out in full spandex-clad glory beneath the slogan ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’” Stewart wrote in his memoir. “Heaven knows how a lot of my male fans must have been feeling at this point. Possibly like putting my old albums out of sight at the back of their wardrobes for a while.”
In a few years, Stewart tried to distance himself from the smash, saying in 1982, “I can’t stand to listen to ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’ anymore; that knocking I got did me a lot of good. I realized I’d let a bit of credibility go right down the toilet, and I think I’ve finally returned to what I do best, to shoutin’ rock ‘n’ roll.” But despite Stewart’s declarations that he was embracing his rock roots, the 1980s weren’t an especially good time for him. Dabbling in new wave, hanging out with Power Station, recording “Love Touch,” a totally forgettable soundtrack song from the totally forgettable rom-com Legal Eagles, Stewart seemed adrift, chasing after hits in styles that didn’t play to his strengths. Instead of being a troubadour, he settled for being an over-the-hill pop star.
Tellingly, in 1990 when he put out Storyteller, a decades-spanning box set, critics took the opportunity to measure his creative dropoff. “With the release of this extensive career anthology, Rod Stewart opens himself up to a barrage of unflattering comparisons between his fondly recalled past and his critically pooh-poohed present,” Rolling Stone journalist David Wild wrote in his review. “For years naysayers have written the Tartaned One off as one of rock’s more blatant cases of arrested creative development. Despite an ongoing love affair with the record-buying masses … Stewart has long been the rock ‘n’ roll equivalent of another Rodney Dangerfield.”
Wild’s conclusion was little more than a backhanded compliment: “So forget for a moment all the great expectations he’s failed to live up to, forgive ‘Love Touch’ and give the guy credit where credit is overdue. After all, Rod Stewart is rock ‘n’ roll royalty, and even if he hasn’t always deserved the crown, at his best, he has worn it dashingly well.”
“Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” brought other indignities with it. Brazilian artist Jorge Ben didn’t take too kindly to Stewart swiping the chorus melody from his song “Taj Mahal.” The theft was unintentional, but it happened when Stewart went to Rio in 1978, becoming unconsciously exposed to Ben’s music during his sojourn. “[T]he melody had lodged itself in my memory,” he admitted, “and then resurfaced when I was trying to find a line to fit the chords … I handed over the royalties.”
If anything, the accidental plagiarism only made the song more embarrassing. Straight male fans, who’d envied Stewart’s good looks and ability to bed scores of beautiful women, somehow felt weird about thinking of the singer as sexy. “Sexy” is a funny word for straight dudes: They don’t like it in song titles sung by men, unless it’s wrapped in a joke. Think of Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” The former group are led by singer Richard Fairbrass, who’s bisexual, while the latter band’s hit was meant to be an over-the-top spoof of men trying to make themselves super-fit.
In other words, both tracks mocked the idea of straight-male sexiness — you, the straight dude listening in your car, didn’t have to feel uncomfortable about what you were hearing because you knew it was meant to be funny. (Even Kenny Chesney’s “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” got around the problem by suggesting that the singer’s girlfriend is more turned on by his machine than by him. After all, guys aren’t sexy, right?)
But for Stewart, some listeners’ discomfort and insecurity have only been magnified because of the singer’s attractiveness. Lots of rock stars are handsome, but Stewart possesses an almost feminine beauty that was different — he wooed women with his gentle, kind soft-rock ballads, while “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” flaunted its sexual confidence in a way that was playful, as opposed to aggressively macho. Plus, “The Killing of Georgie” aligned him with gay listeners in a far more overt way than other straight rockers did. “I was surrounded by gay men at the time,” he recalled in 2016 when discussing his inspiration for the song, which was based on someone he knew. “I had a gay manager and a gay PR guy. Long John Baldry, who discovered me, was gay. … I’ve had gay people thank me for the song many, many times. Recently, the boyfriend of a big-time British Olympic champion came up to me and said he heard it when he was 17, and he said it gave him some identity and independence, which is wonderful.”
Stewart’s compassion and lack of aggro tendencies — he’s even spoken out about how some of his old hits now seem inappropriate in the wake of #MeToo — could be used against him, though. For years, a rumor went around that the superstar had needed his stomach pumped one night, with mountains of semen being extracted. Stewart put the rumor to bed in his memoir — he claimed a publicist spread it to get back at him — but the fact that most people have heard this story connected to the “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” singer suggests how insidious this kind of thinking is. There was something profoundly unmacho about that song — so much so that Stewart had run the risk of having his masculinity and sexuality questioned.
The backlash to disco in its heyday — often fueled by homophobia and racism — took aim at Rod Stewart like it did so many other artists. The effects could even be physical: In Rod, Stewart talks about playing loud shows in the 1980s, which threatened to damage his voice. “I think this, too, in a way, was the legacy of ‘Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?’” he writes. “It was like: ‘We’ll show ‘em. We’re no disco pussies. We’re a rock ‘n’ roll band.’”
There have been dance remixes and sarcastic covers of “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” — the most memorable of the latter came from the industrial rock group Revolting Cocks, who gained some notoriety in the early 1990s for their version. In the video, you can see the band toying with the original’s notion of sexiness, juxtaposing attractive strippers with unsettling images of skeletons and ghoulish figures. Stewart’s playful innocence was transformed into a kinky nightmare.
A cover like Revolting Cocks’ was very 1990s, a decade steeped in irony. The band wanted you to know that they knew the original was lame, so they double-underlined their disdain at every moment, signaling that you and they were on the same page. Their take is good for a laugh, but as is often the case with snarky redos, it doesn’t actually cut the original down to size. If anything, their version only amplifies what’s so bulletproof about Stewart’s song. On the one hand, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is a very silly song — maybe he really did intend it as a spoof, although in my heart of hearts I don’t believe it. (From the start of his career, Stewart has always been a pretty faithful interpretive singer, whether it was a Bob Dylan tune or, more recently, his series of Great American Songbook albums.) But on the other, Stewart tackled disco with the gusto he attacked every other genre. The song’s so boisterous because he took its underlying emotions and giddy sense of liberation so seriously.
That’s probably why the song still works on fans. If you go to Spotify right now, “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is Stewart’s most popular track. In 2015, The Quietus’ Chris Roberts mentioned to him how the song is now largely thought of fondly, not like back in the late 1970s when it was widely derided. “That and a few other songs seem to sum up that whole disco era now,” Stewart replied, surely quite pleased. “People love it. I do it every night [on stage]. They absolutely love it, so I had the last laugh. It’s not about me. It’s a character in a story.”
And while that may be true, I think part of the song’s lasting appeal is that we do sorta think it’s about Rod Stewart. It may chronicle the saga of two people hoping to hook up, but it took Stewart’s imagination to synthesize that feeling of lust at first sight. “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” has a happy ending — the strangers wake up the next morning, “neither one’s complaining” — and there’s hope that maybe these two might have a future. You have to wonder how many men, in their most intense moment of insecurity around someone they liked, tried taking a page from Stewart’s playbook.
Fellas, he’s been bringing sexy back for decades.