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Divine Symmetry I 15 I “Survive” (1999) as an answer to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (1978)

Ridiculous proposition of the day: Bowie’s song, “Survive” is actually an answer to Gloria Gaynor’s better known disco song, “I Will Survive.”

Look at these stanzas, side by side:

First, from “Survive,”

I should have kept you
I should have tried
I should have been a wiser kind of guy
I miss you

Now from, “I Will Survive,”

And 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, I should have made you leave your key
If I’d known for just one second you’d be back to bother me
Go on now, go, walk out the door
Just turn around now
‘Cause you’re not welcome anymore

Now, back to Bowie:

You alone across the floor
You and me and nothing more
You’re the great mistake I never made
I never lied to you, I hated when you lied
But I’ll survive your naked eyes
I’ll survive

And now, back to Gloria Gaynor:

And so you felt like dropping in and just expect me to be free
Well, now I’m saving all my lovin’ for someone who’s loving me

To which, Bowie responds,

Razzle dazzle clubs, every night
Wish I’d sent a Valentine
I love you
I’ll survive
Naked eyes
I’ll survive
I’ll survive

But Gloria concludes with a similar declaration,

Weren’t you the one who tried to break me with goodbye?
You think I’d crumble?
You think I’d lay down and die?
Oh no, not I, I will survive
Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive
I’ve got all my life to live
And I’ve got all my love to give and I’ll survive
I will survive
I will survive

There’s more lyrics to both songs, but they don’t detract from the effect. The two songs sound nothing alike, but they fit almost perfectly. Gloria Gaynor even has that line about outer space, and Bowie throws in the line about “razzle dazzle clubs, every night,” like he’s talking about her going to a disco. (Which almost sounds more like a response to the Alicia Bridges disco song, “I Love the Nightlife,” which includes such lyrics as “please don’t talk about all the plans; We had for fixin’ this broken romance; I want to go where the people dance; I want some action”). Despite very different music, the closing lines of both “Survive” and “I Will Survive” almost could be sung together as a harmony.

I almost feel like there’s nothing more that needs to be said, but just to spell it out a little more— “I Will Survive” is from the perspective of a woman who has begun to get over a failed relationship, which ended with her partner walking out. She feels compelled to make her statement because he’s come back, apparently either looking to pick back up where he’s left off, or perhaps just for a casual sexual encounter.

Bowie is singing from the perspective of regret and sense of loss. He screwed up and feels bad about it. He propositions his former lover but cloaks himself with his own defense mechanisms to guard against her rejection.

Gaynor uses the word, “survive” almost ironically. She’s not saying that she’s merely surviving, but thriving. Bowie, on the other hand, seems to be saying that her scrutiny of his true self won’t quite kill him. Survival is the distinction he makes from death.

Both reference an unfulfilled male sexual appetite. “You’re the great mistake I never made,” sings Bowie, while Gaynor virtually sneers her line of rejection about her ex-lover dropping in and expecting her to be free.

Gloria Gaynor doesn’t hold to copyright to the word, “survive,” but surely her’s is the best-known song with the word in its title. Bowie obviously would have known the song. “I Will Survive” is from a different time, a different stage in life and a different musical genre, but the lyrics of his song work so perfectly as a response that I wouldn’t put it past Bowie for that to have been his intent. But if not, that’s why I borrow Bowie’s phrase form “Quicksand” to call this series “divine symmetry.”

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