A few weeks ago, Columbia Pictures sent movie journalists a stuffed replica of Frank, the scene-stealing pug from Men in Black II. Squeeze the little sucker and it sings:
"So you're back from outer space/I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face/I should have changed that stupid lock . . ."
If you've listened to the radio in the past 25 years or so, you probably recognize those lines from I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor's disco hit from 1979. Actually, you didn't have to listen to the radio. You simply had to reside on this planet.
I Will Survive has shown up in a slew of other movies _ Four Weddings and a Funeral, In & Out, Coyote Ugly and The Replacements, to name a few. It has become a gay rights anthem and a feminist anthem. It has been covered by alternative-rock acts and sampled by rap artists. It has been recorded in 20 languages, and it was once used as the theme song of the French soccer team.
It topped VH1's list of "100 Greatest Dance Songs," and a Swedish poll named it Disco Song of the Century. It won the first _ and only _ Grammy for Best Disco Song.
The strange thing is, it was never meant to be a hit in the first place. It was the B side of a song called Substitute, but Gaynor thought I Will Survive was the more obvious hit.
"When my husband and I first heard the lyrics, we realized right then and there that it was a hit," Gaynor said. "We couldn't imagine why it was a B side. We tried to get them to turn it around, but everybody was so afraid because the song on the other side was brought in as a project by the president of the record company."
Gaynor and her husband-manager, Linwood Smith, promoted I Will Survive, urging New York club DJs to play it. In late 1978, it began receiving radio airplay, and in the spring of 1979, it was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for three weeks.
Written by Freddie Perren and Dino Fekaris _ who together or separately were responsible in the '70s for Peaches & Herb's hit Reunited, Yvonne Elliman's If I Can't Have You and Tavares' Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel _ I Will Survive tells a story of empowerment. The singer has been dumped, moped about it, then discovered she (or he) could make it on her-his own. When the ex-lover comes around to try to make amends, the singer tells the ex-lover: "Go on now go, walk out the door. Just turn around now, 'cause you're not welcome anymore."
But the song grew bigger than that.
"People who first listened to it and didn't relate to it began to hear the title, I think, and used the title more often than the entire lyric," Gaynor says. "Then you got away from what the song itself was about and focused on that phrase, "I will survive.' "
It became a catchall for anyone who had been through a rough time. Gaynor thinks part of the song's appeal is that it's sung in the first person.
"It speaks about conditions that are timeless and affect everybody," Gaynor says. "If you have something in your heart that can be personalized, just the title itself can offer great encouragement."
But the song goes beyond individuals. An Internet search for the song's title revealed it has been adopted as a theme for people with AIDS and hepatitis C, for battered women, and for those who have been sexually abused, among others.
As a woman overcoming struggles with poverty, illness, drugs and alcohol, Gaynor was a perfect candidate to sing the song. Many of the singers who recorded it afterward _ Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, Selena _ fit in at least one of those categories.
But then the song became a movie staple, and its meaning started to become lost.
Besides Men in Black II, the song shows up on the soundtracks of an obscure 1992 Cuba Gooding Jr. movie called Gladiator, about a young boxer; the 1994 drag-queen comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; the 1994 romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral; the 1997 coming-out-of-the-closet comedy In & Out; the 1998 slasher-movie sequel I Still Know What You Did Last Summer; the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon; the 2000 babes-dancing-on-bars flick Coyote Ugly, and the 2000 sports comedy The Replacements, in which Orlando Jones leads a group of strike-breaking football players in a jailhouse sing-along and electric slide.
In almost every instance, the song is used comedically.
"I think the song has an emotional resonance, and that sort of thing _ having a dog sing it, or an alien or whatever _ kind of cheapens it," says Jim DeRogatis, rock critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. "I just think Hollywood goes through these spates. We saw the same thing with ABBA songs a few years ago. There's a tendency in Hollywood, I think, among people who put music in films, eight times out 10 it's fairly dreadful and thoughtless. . . . (When) music is really thoughtfully chosen, like in Cameron Crowe movies or Rushmore, those are really the exceptions."
As if to illustrate that point, Tim Blaney, who does the voice of Frank the Pug in Men in Black II, says he isn't sure why the filmmakers chose the song for Frank to sing. Blaney, a puppeteer-actor, says he showed up to the set one day and was told he would have to sing that song and New York, New York, which caught him off-guard because he's not a singer.
"I was sort of told that Will (Smith) had something to do with it," Blaney says. "But I'm not in on that loop."
Gaynor, 52, who has grown spiritually through the years and now often sings Christian songs in concert and on her albums, says the meaning of the song has never changed for her. Nor has she tired of it; she titled her 1997 autobiography I Will Survive, and she has recorded a live Spanish-and-English version of it for an album due in September.
"From the very beginning, I saw beyond the scenario the song speaks of," she says. "I saw it as . . . "I will survive whatever I'm going through,' not just unrequited love, but whatever I'm going through, I will survive it. I saw it that way, and that's the way I perform it."