Patton Oswalt used to have a bit in the mid-2000s in which he talked about taking his and his late wife’s families to Las Vegas to surprise them after they got engaged. The only question was what their parents would want to do while they were there. Without hesitation, they excitedly replied, “Cirque du Soleil!” Having never seen one of the group’s shows, Oswalt discovered, as he memorably put it, that Cirque du Soleil “is what a gay French dude sees in his head when he’s tired and horny.” Ordinarily, you’d assume that conservative older people would find a performance like Cirque objectionable because of its outré artistry and sexually provocative content, including the sight of men kissing. But to Oswalt’s amazement, “The crowd I saw it with were nothing but red-state, pro-Bush solid American citizens giving standing ovations to the gayest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
This was back before same-sex marriage was the law of the land — and yet, here Oswalt was, surrounded by the very same people who almost certainly viewed homosexuality as an immoral sin absolutely loving Cirque du Soleil. (Or, as it was cheekily referred to in the Advocate in 2003, “Cirque du so gay.”) The lesson: Sometimes, subversive popular entertainment gets through to a mass audience who, if they thought about it for a second, would normally abhor it.
This election has been awful in all sorts of ways, so it’s hard to find anything amusing about the presidential campaign. But I did really enjoy Anderson Cooper’s recent response to hearing, at a Trump rally, the rocking disco strains of “Macho Man.” His utter silent bewilderment expressed more than words ever could.
The fact that Trump events feature this Village People hit isn’t new — in fact, the group has been trying to make him stop playing it since early this year — but what never gets old is the fascinating disconnect that exists between his and his admirers’ beliefs and their fondness for “Macho Man.” It’s a song with deep ties to the LGBTQ+ community, but it’s also fitting that the MAGA crowd loves “Macho Man” so much. For more than 40 years, that ebullient disco smash has worked on two levels — one for oblivious (usually straight) listeners and then one for the rest of us. I’m delighted at the prospect that, maybe just maybe, Trump voters will burst into flame if they ever realized what the song (and the Village People) is actually about.
Most iconic bands come together because a group of like-minded musicians meet, create an artistic connection and then change the world. But sometimes, there are bands like the Village People, who were the brainchild of some producers who were intrigued by a visually-appealing concept that they thought would be successful in the marketplace.
In the mid-1970s, Henri Belolo, a straight French music producer and songwriter, and his gay business partner Jacques Morali were plotting out their next musical triumph. They’d had some success with the disco group the Ritchie Family, but now Belolo and Morali wanted more. “I was talking to the gay community about what they liked, what they wanted to listen to musically and what was their dream, their fantasy,” Belolo explained years later. “One day [Morali and I] were walking in the streets of New York. I remember clearly it was down in the Village, and we saw [a guy dressed up as a Native American] walking down the street and heard the bells on his feet. We followed him into a bar.”
The guy was a bartender who would dance during his shifts. Intrigued, Belolo and Morali then noticed there was a separate man at the bar dressed as a cowboy. “Jacques and I suddenly had the same idea,” said Belolo. “We said, ‘My God, look at those characters.’ So we started to fantasize about what were the characters of America. The mix, you know, of the American man.”
The Village People’s 1977 self-titled EP consisted of four songs that were co-written by (among others) Belolo and Morali and sung by Victor Willis, a Broadway performer they’d recruited who had been part of the initial Broadway run of the smash musical The Wiz. “There was no group but me, anyway,” Willis bragged last year. “It was Jacques Morali and myself who put the group together. We’re the ones who did the actual auditioning of the characters that became the look of the Village People.”
Initially, Willis and the producers hired guys to “play” the different characters. (The configuration would sometimes change over the years, but there was a cop, Willis, as well as a cowboy, construction worker, military man, leatherman and Native American.) But then a more formal audition process took place to find permanent members. David Hodo, an aspiring singer who was part of the chorus on several Broadway shows, was one of many who responded to a casting notice. “I see this ad, ‘Macho Types Wanted,’” he recalled in 2014. “They wanted a construction worker, a leatherman and a cowboy for this world famous disco act.”
Hodo went out for the cowboy, but after his audition — which he said “was held in a sleazy studio that I’d never been to” — he found out he was going to be the band’s construction worker instead. Initially, he wasn’t too enthused. “Construction workers weren’t that visible as a sex thing. … I came to New York for the sequins and the tap numbers and the glitter,” Hodo said. “I can remember going into my roommates saying, ‘Remember that awful job I auditioned for today? I think I got it.’ The next week we recorded Macho Man.”
Village People had been a solid success, with the singles “San Francisco (You’ve Got Me)” and “In Hollywood (Everybody Is a Star)” charting overseas. Those songs established the template for what a Village People track would sound and feel like — a glittery disco beat punctuated by Willis’ emphatic singing and a robust male chorus behind it. Also, the lyrics were a nudge-nudge-wink-wink acknowledgement of the gay lifestyle. “San Francisco” was a gospel-ish paean to the “city known for its freedom,” while “In Hollywood” advised listeners to “Take a bus, a train or a plane to Hollywood / Go there and then change your name.” Village People celebrated reinvention and self-acceptance — it championed following one’s own drummer and ignoring the status quo.
“[W]e didn’t start as a gay group, and not everyone in the group was gay — that’s an incorrect notion,” said Randy Jones, who played the Village People’s cowboy. “So much of our music was played in Black, Latin and gay underground clubs; that’s where the first Village People album found its initial audience.”
For the follow-up, Macho Man, Willis got involved in the songwriting, and the creative team came up with its first big U.S. hit with the title track. Like many Village People classics, “Macho Man” could easily be read multiple ways. On its face, the song is just about a guy who wants to look good: “Every man wants to be a macho, macho man / To have the kind of body, always in demand.” But Willis, who’s heterosexual (he was married to Phylicia Rashad at the time), gave “Macho Man” a flamboyance that seemed to be sending up the image of the super-buff straight dude. And just the idea of a bunch of guys exuberantly singing “Macho, macho man / I’ve got to be a macho man” felt like a parody of straight insecurity about their virility. But because “Macho Man” was so joyous, and its hook was so infectious, it didn’t feel mean-spirited. Maybe it was actually… sweet and innocent?
Belolo would later say that “Macho Man” catered to “the ego of all the people … going to the health club building muscles,” while Morali recalled, “When ‘Macho Man’ came out, I did it believing that the gay audiences were going to like it very much. But the straight audiences liked the song much more, because straight guys in America want to get the macho look.”
There’s another thing to consider here, which is how the very notion of machismo ran counter to modern attitudes of the late 1970s. According to Hodo, “At the time ‘macho’ had been banned from the English language by the feminist movement. So, when the producers pulled us together to do this, they wanted this whole thing to be very serious. It was gonna be very dark and very serious. During rehearsals we just said, ‘There’s no way we can do this seriously. We just can’t pull this off.’ So, we were the ones that swaggered around and grabbed our dicks and pinched our tits. So, we were the ones that created whatever the joke was.”
Whether it was satire or sincere, “Macho Man” came out in the summer of 1978, peaking at No. 25 and breaking the band on U.S. radio. Released about six months after Saturday Night Fever and its soundtrack, “Macho Man” was primed to capitalize on disco’s soaring popularity. And the band made the most of its moment: Their third album, Cruisin’, hit stores that September, propelled by “Y.M.C.A.,” still the Village People’s best-known song. In March 1979, they released Go West, which included “In the Navy,” their second Top Five smash.
Suddenly, the Village People were a very big novelty act — a bunch of guys dressed in funny outfits belting out boisterous choruses that targeted some of the most hallowed ground of macho culture, including the gym and the military. And because the Village People really didn’t talk much about their sexuality — remember, it as a huge deal when Elton John told the world he was bisexual in 1976 — they were able to present as “quirky” or “fun-loving” when they appeared on wholesome programs like American Bandstand. Still, you got the sense that there was something about these guys that made straights self-conscious.
For me, a classic example of this was during the 1979 MDA Telethon, where the band played “Macho Man,” flaunting their tight uniforms and gyrating provocatively. Using the rigid definition of the word, there was nothing particularly “macho” about their performance — it’s all very camp — and Ed McMahon’s remark afterward is worth sticking around for. “I don’t look good in leather,” he cracks, a reference to Glenn Hughes’ leatherman character and an awkward realization that even Johnny Carson’s sidekick knew about the gay leather scene.
A meteoric rise is usually followed by an ignominious fall, and the Village People had an especially spectacular collapse. Everything fell apart around the filming of a would-be biopic of the group, called Can’t Stop the Music, which came out in June 1980, well after disco’s heyday. Tensions in the group were so bad that Willis quit the Village People during pre-production, being replaced by Ray Simpson. “Victor Willis didn’t want people to perceive him as being gay,” Bruce Vilanch, who worked on the initial draft, later said, “so he insisted we write the role of a girlfriend, to be played by his wife, Phylicia Rashad.”
“It was a business decision,” Willis told the Chicago Tribune in 2019 when asked about departing the Village People. “I don’t want to get into that.” But the truth is, it seems that the frontman (who rejoined the group a few years ago) has always been displeased that audiences thought there was gay subtext to his songs. Just last month, Willis took to Facebook to declare, “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!” And last year, he emphasized that, while he had no problem with gay listeners embracing the Village People’s songs, he didn’t want those hits to be defined that way. “My situation with Jacques was that we would write music and I would make my lyrics, which they call ‘double entendre,’ which means that you can take it any way you want it,” he told the BBC. “Gay people? If you liked it, fine! Straight people? If you liked it, fine! It doesn’t matter. There were certain songs, which cannot be denied, that were generated toward that particular lifestyle, because that was Jacques’ lifestyle. But that’s not what Village People represents.”
But after Can’t Stop the Music bombed, the Village People only seemed to represent a bygone fad. Their subsequent albums barely made a ripple, and as for Willis, he went on to battle drug addiction and barely escaped jail time. And yet, all the while, their hits, especially “Y.M.C.A.,” kept popping up everywhere. The New York Yankees started making “Y.M.C.A.” a staple of every home game. It became ubiquitous at weddings. In a Spin oral history of that song, former Village Voice columnist Michael Musto said, “‘Y.M.C.A.’ is one of many cultural phenomena that started as a gay in-joke and eventually became stripped of its winkiness and subsumed by the mainstream. Back in the 1970s, the masses did those crazy hand gestures along with the song, truly thinking it was an upbeat number about how nice the Y is, but at least the sophisticated crowd was plugged into the real meaning.”
(The Village People also infiltrated pop culture in another, albeit indirect way. The beloved wrestler Randy Poffo nicknamed himself “Macho Man” Randy Savage, although he swore the song had nothing to do with his moniker. In a 2004 interview, Savage said, “The truth behind that is my mom was reading Reader’s Digest one day, long before the ‘Macho Man song’ came out, and they said in this article that ‘Macho Man’ was going to be the next hot term.”)
So why does Trump love “Y.M.C.A.” and “Macho Man” so much? (Both appear at his rallies a lot.) Does he know the gay subtext? And if so, wouldn’t his homophobic agenda be at odds with stanning for the Village People? Well, the answer may be that, like a lot of red-blooded straight Americans, he’s never fully put together what the Village People were about. Also, he may have a nostalgic fondness for the group that goes beyond simply being alive when their hits were huge.
In his book David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music, Darryl W. Bullock writes about the height of Village People mania. “If you wanted to meet a member of the Village People then the best place to go — if you were glamorous or famous enough to get past the uppity door staff — was Studio 54,” he observes. “Co-founded in 1977 by gay entrepreneuer Steve Rubell, Studio 54 was the place to be seen for every hip New Yorker. … [O]n any given night you could see … the Village People, Klaus Nomi or any one of dozens of other LGBT favorites on stage while you rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, Liza Minnelli, Mick and Bianca (or Mick and Jerry), Elton John, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie, Salvador Dali, Donald Trump and just about everyone who was anyone.”
For Trump, like a lot of straights, the Village People were fun, not subversive. Their songs had a nice beat you could dance to. And when the mainstream decides something is “acceptable,” then that potentially outré thing no longer worries about carrying the stain of being abhorrent. Look no further than The Muppet Show for proof of this phenomenon: Their parody of “Macho Man” is cleansed of any homosexual innuendo, although having the vain Link Hogthrob dress in leather is a bit of a tell.
Because “Y.M.C.A.” is so pervasive in the culture, it no longer has much shock value. (Everybody knows that everybody knows its lyrics have been embraced for their potential double meaning, although Willis actually had his publicist send out a statement in 2007 that asserted, “Victor Willis wrote about the Y.M.C.A. and having fun there, but the type of fun he was talking about was straight fun.”) But “Macho Man,” probably because it’s not as ubiquitous, still has a little kick to it. After all these years, “Macho Man” still articulates the homoerotic charge that comes from wanting to make your body look sexy to other people. Gay and straight men might not think they have a lot in common beyond anatomy, but “Macho Man” unites them: We all want to be fit, right?
Interestingly, that’s why some scholars find the Village People’s crossover success so troubling. Musicologist Judith Peraino, in her book Listening to the Sirens: Musical Technologies of Queer Identity from Homer to Hedwig, suggests that the band’s ability to connect with a straight audience “can be read in retrospect as a supreme joke on conservative Middle America — a great gay hijacking of suburbia — if we neglect the processes that attend that success, namely the public relations program that vigorously straightens out the ample gay codes in their songs, and the inherent misogyny that allies gay and straight macho men.” We’ve made our peace with “Y.M.C.A.,” but “Macho Man,” as goofy and catchy as it is, remains unresolved.
That, among all the other reasons, was why it was so funny to see Anderson Cooper’s reaction the other night. Donald Trump has always tried to carry himself as a tough guy — so virile, so manly — and he certainly appeals to a sort of Cro-Magnon masculine type. A song entitled “Macho Man” would seem to be his perfect soundtrack… unless you listened to more than 20 seconds of it. The Village People are skewering that mindset while also cynically catering to a crowd that buys into its blinkered ethos.
In June, Willis (who in 2012 regained the copyrights to some Village People songs), publically pleaded with Trump to stop playing “Macho Man” and “Y.M.C.A.,” writing on Facebook, “Like millions of Village People fans worldwide, the president and his supporters have shown a genuine like for our music. Our music is all-inclusive and certainly everyone is entitled to do the Y.M.C.A. dance, regardless of their political affiliation. Having said that, we certainly don’t endorse his use as we’d prefer our music be kept out of politics.”
If Willis got his wish, then politics would be the only area of American life that the Village People haven’t completely penetrated. And, yes, that’s another double entendre — something this band did better than just about anyone else.