Sat 31st May 2014This is the first of an occasional* series where I examine the lyrics of some of the world's greatest songs and uncover the deeper meanings that lie beneath.
*I may do another one or two but I'm not promising anything.
SPEKKI'S LYRICAL MASTERCLASS - 1 The Bee Gees - Stayin' Alive
Derided by many as ‘a disco tune’, the lyrical power of this song is often missed. But in this brief study I’ll help to untangle some of its dense layers of meaning. ‘Stayin’ Alive’, with its unabashed missing ‘g’ placing us firmly on the mean streets of New York, deals with the issues. From child abuse, substance addiction and sexuality, to mental illness, societal breakdown and religion – nothing escapes the wrath of the Bee Gees’ finest and angriest protest song.
"Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk,
I'm a woman's man: no time to talk."
Picture the scene. A young man with a white suit and a gold medallion struts down a city street. Who is he? Is it Travolta, the actor who played Tony Manero in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever, or is it Barry Gibb, shiny-toothed disco icon and the song’s main writer? We cannot be sure. And it’s this tension of identity at the heart of the song that gives it so much of its narrative power.
Let’s unpack some meaning from these first two lines. Already, we know that the protagonist (Gibb? Travolta?) is a dancer. Why? Well for a start, he can ‘use his walk’, rather than just stumbling about. And how does he use it? To show that he’s ‘a woman’s man’, of course. Here already, are the beginnings of a manifesto. Although he may strut effeminately, and sing in a strange, unearthly falsetto, our protagonist is unashamedly heterosexual.
"Music loud and women warm,
I've been kicked around since I was born."
And suddenly the reason behind this macho bluster becomes a little clearer. Our hero has suffered traumatic childhood abuse – he’s ‘been kicked around since [he] was born’. Presumably it’s this history of abuse that has led him to seek solace in ‘music loud and women warm’.
"And now it's all right, it's ok.
And you may look the other way.
We can try to understand
The New York Times’ effect on man."
As if embarrassed by the raw emotional outburst of the previous stanza, now the song is steered towards safer ground: we’re invited to ‘look the other way’ and then to ‘try to understand the New York Times’ effect on man’.
Here we have one of the most obscure parts of the lyric. What exactly is ‘the New York Times’ effect on man’? It’s never made clear, but perhaps we can take a clue from the next section of lyrics:
"Whether you're a brother or whether you're a mother"
Immediately a twin meaning of this key line becomes clear: first, we’re focusing on the pull of family and the need to provide for you and yours. But of course we must also bear in mind the secondary meanings of ‘brothers’ and ‘mothers’ in the argot of the time (wherein ‘brother’ refers to a black gentleman and ‘mother’ refers to a ‘motherflipper’).
All of these are things we might read about in the New York Times – the economy, racial tension, crime and more – and all are things you might need to consider when:
"You're stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’.
And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive.
Ah, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive."
See how the desperate cry – simply staying alive, in the midst of urban collapse becomes a triumphant call to arms; a battle cry if you will: ‘Ah, ha ha ha! Stayin’ alive!’
Now let’s use our walk to take us to the second verse:
"Well now, I get low and I get high,
And if I can't get either, I really try."
Here our protagonist’s substance abuse issues come back to the fore. He needs downers and uppers, and clearly relies on them to give him ‘wings’ when he’s dancing:
"Got the wings of heaven on my shoes.
I'm a dancin’ man and I just can't lose."
But are these really the wings of heaven? What is the final destination for Tony’s/John’s/Barry’s immortal soul? As the song begins to fade – and the drugs begin to wear off – we take a bleaker and more existential tone:
"Life going nowhere, somebody help me.
Somebody help me, yeah.
Life going nowhere, somebody help me.
Somebody help me, yeah.
And with that last despairing cry, our song is done. But from whose throat does the cry come? From Travolta’s? From Gibb’s? Or from all of us?