The Meaning of Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”
Village People’s 1978 disco classic “Y.M.C.A.” has long been appreciated as one of the earliest gay anthems to shake the American music landscape.
The group as a whole encompassed the gay culture, with their flamboyant outfits representing popular masculine stereotypes, with a twist, and their often-suggestive lyrics during a time when homosexuality was still very much seen as taboo in the United States.
In fact, even the band name Village People was a reference to gay culture, with it being inspired by the predominantly gay New York City neighborhood of Greenwich Village where the group formed. The majority of the group’s founding members were themselves gay, with the exception of the biker Glenn Hughes and the cop, Victor Willis (more on that later).
“Y.M.C.A.” was released as the only single from the Village People’s third album, Cruisin’. While the group did have hits in “Macho Man” and “In The Navy” prior to this, “Y.M.C.A.” quickly became their most popular song, reaching number 2 in the U.S.A. by early 1979, and has proven itself to be the most enduring of all their songs in the decades that followed.
As for why the “Y.M.C.A.” is considered a gay anthem, the answer lies in the history of the Young Men’s Christian Association. The charitable organization has been around since the 1850s, offering a clean and safe housing for young men, including showers and gyms to help them better their mind, body, and spirit.
Since homosexuality was far from accepted at the time, the organization provided the perfect guise for men who wanted to experiment with other men, as they could simply tell people they were hanging out at the Y.M.C.A. and people would just think they were going to work out. The reality was that they were getting a different kind of workout…
From the 1940s to the 1960s, the Y.M.C.A. was in its prime as a gay cruising spot, and had been able to fly relatively under the radar until then. However when the gay rights movement of the 1960s started and became much more volatile, the organization began to move its focus away from young men and towards the more family friendly atmosphere that it has today.
By the time that “Y.M.C.A.” was released in 1978, the organization had already begun its transition away from being a gay hotspot. The AIDs epidemic of the early 80s further affected the gay culture as health concerns made less men willing to take the risks associated with hooking up with strangers.
Even if the Y.M.C.A. was no longer quite as gay by the time the song was released, the lyrics still align closely with homosexual empowerment and finding a place where free expression is allowed. Let’s dive in, starting with the first verse:
Young man, there’s no need to feel down, I saidFirst verse to “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People.
Young man, pick yourself off the ground, I said
Young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy
Young man, there’s a place you can go, I said
Young man, when you’re short on your dough you can
Stay there and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time
The opening lyrics serve as encouragement to a young man who has found himself in a foreign and unfamiliar place. He’s low on funds and feeling down, with nowhere to go. The Village People have an answer for him, though, and begin to describe a place where this young man can find sanctuary. Since it’s a charitable organization, he doesn’t even need to have a lot of money to go there.
In case you didn’t already know what was coming next, the chorus joyously exclaims that this special place is called the “Y.M.C.A.”:
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.Chorus to “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People.
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
They have everything for young men to enjoy
You can hang out with all the boys
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal
You can do whatever you feel
It’s the chorus where the homosexual context really comes into play, although this is never explicitly stated. Reading between the lines here, however, and knowing the history of the Y.M.C.A. is enough to give it away.
Enjoying yourself with all the boys, doing whatever you feel. If you want to, you can also simply take a shower and have a good meal. The point is that there is no judgement here, and the underlying sentiment is that this is a place where gay men are free to be gay.
Next up, the second verse addresses a young man who may be on the fence about exploring his sexuality with other men:
Young man, are you listening to me? I saidSecond verse to “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People.
Young man, what do you want to be? I said
Young man, you can make real your dreams
But you’ve got to know this one thing
No man does it all by himself, I said
Young man, put your pride on the shelf
And just go there, to the Y.M.C.A.
I’m sure they can help you today
Of course, this can also be interpreted to be about a young man who is down on his luck, and is too prideful to accept the charitable help offered by the organization.
The subtext, and the commonly-accepted meaning is that this is directed at a gay man who is feeling isolated because he doesn’t feel that he can embrace his sexuality. The lyrics reassure him that if he goes to the “Y.M.C.A.” he will find the answers, and the like-minded people that he seeks.
From there the song rolls into another chorus before we reach the third and final verse:
Young man, I was once in your shoes, I saidThird verse to “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People.
I was down and out with the blues, I felt
No man cared if I were alive
I felt the whole world was so jive
That’s when someone came up to me and said
“Young man, take a walk up the street
It’s a place there called the Y.M.C.A.
They can start you back on your way”
With this verse, Village People continue to offer comfort to this young man, saying that they, too, once felt the same way that he does. Calling the world “jive” is slang to say that the world is messed up, filled with false ideas and dishonesty, and the lyrics say that since he feels this way, he simply needs to walk up the street to the “Y.M.C.A.”.
To close things out, the song becomes a jubilant disco celebration that has been known to fill up the dance floor on more than one occasion, repeating these positive messages about the “Y.M.C.A.” and grooving it out with the signature dance moves that have developed over the years.
Watch the music video for “Y.M.C.A.” by Village People below.
Victor Willis Says “Y.M.C.A.” is NOT Gay
Surprisingly, in the decades since the rise to fame of the Village People, the heterosexual (yes, you read that correctly) frontman and founding member Victor Willis has spoken out about the perceived homosexuality of “Y.M.C.A.”, claiming that the song is not about gay sex at all.
Willis has discussed this several times over the years, though nobody ever seems to take him seriously. As a result, he made a virulent Facebook post in 2020 addressing this:
NOTICE ABOUT Y.M.C.A: News and Twitter trending of Y.M.C.A. is off the chart right now with false accusations about the song. But as I’ve said numerous times before (and this was proven in federal court), I wrote 100% of the lyrics to Y.M.C.A., so I ought to know what my song is about. Y.M.C.A. is one of the most iconic songs in the world. I will not stand idle and allow it to be defamed. Therefore, 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 minds out of the gutter please! It is not about that!Victor Willis on Facebook about the meaning of “Y.M.C.A.”.
As I mentioned earlier, looking at the lyrics there truly is no explicit mention of gay sex, but it is easy to assume that is what was being implied given the context of the group as very pro-gay. He addresses this in the comments:
There is no Gay subtext to Y.M.C.A. Did Village People record songs with a Gay subtext? YES we did! But YMCA is not one of them. In fact, the Gay songs all appeared on the first album. But by the second album when I started writing lyrics, Jacques Morali and I moved our music away from that, and into the mainstream. This is why the second, third, fourth, and fifth albums were far more successful than the first album because the music was moved away from that narrow focus. But some assumed we continued. We did not. This will all be flushed out in the upcoming Village People motion picture.Victor Willis on “Y.M.C.A.” via Facebook.
So while the Village People may have written several songs that intentionally had a gay subject, according to the songwriter of “Y.M.C.A.”, the song was certainly not meant to be gay. I guess it’s just accidentally gay, then.