Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Stayin' Alive by The Bee Gees

Look at the photo of the Bee Gees above. Go ahead and laugh, it’s ok. I’m right there with you, there is something that is inexplicably comical about that photograph. Maybe it’s the gold leisure suits with the pants that don’t leave much to the imagination, or maybe it’s the unbuttoned jackets that reveal gold medallions, hairy chest and abdominals that aren’t exactly six-packs (or any other kind of pack for that matter). Even though we look at these photos of the Bee Gees in their disco attire and chuckle at Barry’s intense glare, disco music in an undeniable part of our culture, which continues to influence the American musical landscape.

Disco music is one of the great melting pots of musical genres. It developed in dances clubs pulling together influences from jazz, classical, Latin, soul and funk music. From jazz music came horn sections, from classical music came full orchestras, Latin music influenced the way the percussion was organized while soul and funk music added syncopated bass lines and characteristic singing styles. Disco flourished in the early 1970s but it was the film Saturday Night Fever in 1977 that cemented disco into American culture and reintroduced the world to the Bee Gees.

Saturday Night Fever is a film about Brooklyn youth who during the day struggles with his job, family and relationships during the night is the king of the Disco dance floor. John Travolta played the youth, Tony and the film cemented Travolta as part of the American cultural consciousness.

The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever features music by the Bees Gees as well as other disco groups including Kool & The Gang and KC & The Sunshine Band. The Bee Gees had hits on this album including “How Deep Is Your Love,” “More Than A Woman” and “Jive Talkin’” but it is the opening track “Stayin’ Alive” that most people identify with this soundtrack and the film.

The Bee Gees consisted of three brothers, Robin, Barry and Maurice (left to right in the photo) from Great Britain. The brothers had some moderate hits in the 1960s and developed their musical style in the 1970s while maintaining the great sense of melody and interesting lyrics that endear them as one of the great song-writing groups in popular music.

Saturday Night Fever opens with “Stayin’ Alive” accompanying Tony as he struts down the street. We see Tony looking around like a king surveying his kingdom. He grabs a some pizza, puts down some cash for a shirt he wants to buy later and tries to pick up a girl on the street. Here is a man that is out on the town and in control, but then we realize why he is holding a paint can as he is walking down the street: he is picking up paint for his job at the hardware store. In this opening, we see the dream that are in his strut, the beat that is in his head and the reality of his life. “Stayin’ Alive” greatness comes from its ability to capture the glory of escapism against the reality of life.

The opening instantly creates a dance club feeling with the opening guitar that creates a rhythmic groove accenting offbeats against the strong downbeats in the drum part. Strings enter in the introduction while the brass, bass line, and other instruments enter later in the song. This song creates a rich and deep texture due to the variety of instruments, which featured live musicians as opposed to synthesized sounds. There is no denying that there is great dance music that uses exclusively synthesized sounds but they lack a certain warmth that can be heard in “Stayin’ Alive.”

The first line, “Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk” is a overconfident statement of masculinity. In addition, many people think the rest of the song is an extension of this, however the song goes a very different direction

Music loud and women warm,
I’ve been kicked around since I was born.
And now its all right. its ok,
and you may look the other way.
We can try to understand the New York Times effect on man.

The narrator comments on the fact that he feel he has had it tough since he’s been born, but it’s ok he can shrug it off. He brings up an oddly intelligent statement about the New York Times, which reflects an attempt to relate to the person he is talking to and understand his own life.

If you change the words “Stayin’ Alive” to the “surviving,” the meaning of this song becomes much more clear. The chorus comments on how everyone is trying to survive while feeling the city and the other people working to keep up. The second verse reflects extends these ideas.

Well now, I get low and I get high,
And if I can’t get either, I really try.
Got the wings of heaven on my shoes.
I’m a dancin’ man and I just cant lose.

Even though dancing saves the narrator from his struggles it isn’t enough and in the bridge he calls for help, “Life going nowhere. Somebody help me.” During this part of the song, Barry drops from his high falsetto (head voice) into a lower voice. This voice is more honest and real while the falsetto comes across as someone showing off. The song ends with this call for help, which is a haunting reminder of the struggles that we all sometimes feel.

This song may sound typically disco but it has layers of meaning that reflect not only Tony but also people of the time who struggled as people do know to escape the monotony of life. It’s remarkable that a song that talks about escapism through dancing can provide the soundtrack for people to do just that.

Disco had a rough death in America. Many artist like The Grateful Dead, Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand and other artists who had no business doing dance music made disco records and American got sick of it. The over-saturation of Disco culture created a backlash that came to a head in Cominsky Park on July 12, 1979. That night organizers held Disco Demolition night in which people exploded and demolished disco records and memorabilia ending in a riot.

Disco did not die at Cominsky Park that night. The soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever continues to sell as the best selling soundtrack of all time and was the best selling album of all time until the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Film directors have used “Stayin’ Alive” in the soundtrack of over twenty films and has been sampled and covered numerous times.

Yes, there are some ridiculous things about disco, but I think it stays with us because of it helps us escape as it did for the people in the 1970s. We all seek places that they can be somebody, feel like we mean something, whether its through dancing, online communities or something as simple as playing a board game.

Sometimes for me it’s talking to friends and other times its listening to the Bee Gees and imagining I’m the king of the dance floor, minus the gold leisure suits but not without medallions.

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