Everyone knows the “Y.M.C.A.,” and everyone knows how to do the “Y.M.C.A.” The song was the staple of office parties, wedding receptions, middle-school dances, and bat mitzvahs. But the past tense is key, there. Today, you hardly hear the song in those contexts. New crowd-pleasers have gradually peeled the horn-blasting Buddha from its glitter throne. And while you may chance to catch the “Y.M.C.A.” at Citi Field this week — should you be so lucky as to score a World Series ticket to cheer on the Mets — beyond that there’s just one place left you can still hear the song in its true, finger-pointing glory: Yankee Stadium.
When Derek Jeter joined the New York Yankees in 1996, so did the Village People. It was the start of a golden age for the Bronx-based team: every game punctuated by a victory dance, regardless of score. The Yankees raked in the championships, and, coincidence or not, their rising star even garnered a Village People–esque nickname: the Captain.
“It was a good time because we were winning,” said Dr. Joseph Molloy, former executive manager to the Yankees, who currently works as a physical education teacher in Tampa, Florida.
During spring training, Molloy happened to catch some fans in the stands dancing to “Y.M.C.A.” Some of the players even joined in, he remembered. When Molloy showed his boss George Steinbrenner the revelry “Y.M.C.A.” provoked, Steinbrenner brought the disco oldie to the Show.
Steinbrenner envisioned Yankee Stadium’s khaki-clad grounds crew filling in for the cowboy, the cop, the construction worker, the leather-dude, and the Native American during the seventh-inning stretch. At the time, a mid-game dance-off was a mark of Steinbrenner’s inventiveness, said Deborah Tymon, senior vice president of marketing for the Yankees.
“Baseball games were not the spectacle they are today,” Tymon said. “There was nothing like the big corporate sponsorships that we have today or the technology we utilize to keep fans engaged. Back then it was just a field.”
The grounds crew and the fans alike are still engaged, according to stadium-conducted focus groups and surveys. “Fans want it to stay,” Tymon said, adding that the “Y.M.C.A.” ‘s sister hit, the “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” doesn’t get the same response and has been periodically removed from programming.
Indeed, even beyond the House That Ruth Built, “Y.M.C.A.” was enjoying enduring popularity at sports stadia the world, or at least the country, over. In 2008 at the Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas, a 44,148-person crowd set a world record for the largest, longest performance of “Y.M.C.A.,” at five minutes and thirty-four seconds. It surpassed the previous “Y.M.C.A.” record, which had 13,588 people dancing for five minutes at a baseball game at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2001.
“Y.M.C.A.,” of course, set the bar for crowd participation impressively low: just those four little letters. Four syllables, four semaphores. And who can resist joining in, when Victor Willis is summoning those directives? When Willis sings, “You can do whatever you feel,” what he really intimates is: You are doing the “Y.M.C.A.” regardless of whatever you feel.
Willis left the Village People in 1978, shortly after recording the group’s biggest songs: “Macho Man,” “In the Navy,” “Go West,” and of course “Y.M.C.A.” Willis said he has never seen “Y.M.C.A.” performed in person at a Yankee game, but that he’s not surprised by where the song wound up: “There’s something about thousands of people doing a song and dance together,” said Willis, crediting his collaborator, the late songwriter Jacques Morali, for devising the song’s infectious melody in 1978.
Morali wrote every song with a plausible-deniability factor that the Village People still use to rebuff allegations of targeting a gay audience. “The good, clean fun at the surface level of the lyrics means that ‘Y.M.C.A.’ has this incredible capacity to circulate in different contexts,” said Johns Hopkins University professor Dr. Drew Daniel. “If people really thought they were singing about gay hook-ups in the steam room, they would not necessarily participate.” Willis and the Village People insist that “Y.M.C.A.” is simply about having a good time.
Brushing off homoerotic overtones didn’t necessarily help the Village People, whose songs resonated in subcultural pockets on Castro Street and in the West Village in the late Seventies. University of Southern California professor Dr. Alice Echols argued it was a fatal misstep.
“In order to get themselves on kids’ lunch boxes, [the Village People] went along with the sexlessness that seems a precondition of gay male representation in pop culture,” Echols wrote in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture.
The whitewashing of identity alienated some fans, said Echols. And it makes it especially hard for listeners today, who are increasingly aware of the intersection of identity politics and popular culture. For that reason (and a few others), you probably won’t hear “Y.M.C.A.” on the jukeboxes of dive bars anytime soon.
The sports world, by contrast, seems uninterested in the historical details or sexual dust-ups behind the song. And maybe that’s all to the good: For whatever else it might connote, “Y.M.C.A.” is a communal exercise on pretty much every front — the band behind it, the sing- and dance-alongs it inspires, the spirit of the song’s words — making it more than fitting for an arena-gauge celebration of team athletics.
In fact, try this on for size: Next year, whenever you make it out to Yankee Stadium, pay attention to the fact that Frank Sinatra’s game-closing “Theme From New York, New York” tells a familiar story of a young man who’s short on his dough. When Sinatra sounds off, the pinstripes are lining up on the field to shake hands. The song’s big rallentando finish, when Sinatra bellows about being “king of the hill” and “A-number-one” is hard to believe. Because whether you’re on the field or in the stands, no man does it all by himself.
The Yankees will play their first game of the 2016 season against the Astros at Yankee Stadium on April 4. In the meantime, LET’S GO METS.