We’re at our town’s minor league baseball team’s season opener, and the Jumbotron begins to play YMCA. People around us get up, and my seven year old son is confused. He knows what the Y is; he goes there to swim and play basketball. But, he doesn’t understand this Pavlovian reaction to the song and the way people are twisting themselves into shapes that are similar to, but not quite, dancing.
“Why are they doing this?” he asks.
It’s a question that I’ve had myself.
I was in college before I encountered people who were openly, comfortably, playfully gay. Not coincidentally, that’s when I learned about the concept of camp and I realized the Village People, who I had loved since I was young, were gay and were mocking stereotypical American masculinity. It startled me, and it was one of those realizations where you feel stupid afterwards because it’s so obvious.
What’s odd is how over the years YMCA has gone from being a popular song to being an iconic one. It’s an American folk song. It’s played at ballparks, arenas, weddings, schools, parties. People with strong “family values,” who believe America will crumble into the sea without the Defense of Marriage Act, will stand, shape themselves into enormous letters, and sing about how there’s a place for young men to go and be with other men and have fun and do what they want they feel. Such people might angrily point out that the C stands for Christian, and that claiming the song was originally a gay anthem disparages a wholesome charity social organization. Perhaps they don’t know it appeared on the album, “Cruising,” (along with the other hit, “Hot Cop”). Perhaps like the younger me, they simply haven’t thought about it.
There are plenty of cases of music getting mainstreamed, sanitized, and made acceptable. The popularity of “YMCA” isn’t any odder than ice cream trucks playing Ragtime melodies and tunes that used to be considered the devil’s music. In the 1920s, people feared that hearing ragtime and jazz was going to provoke you to jump into someone’s car, go somewhere, smoke reefer, and get busy. Now it’s a pied piper tune for children. Or what about those cheery kid’s songs like Ring Around the Rosy which is about the plaque or London Bridge Is Falling Down? Or there was the McDonald’s ad campaign years ago -- Mac Tonight -- which reworked Weill and Brecht’s “Mac the Knife” from Three Penny Opera, a song about a serial killer, into a jingle about dinner.
I answer my son’s question. “People are doing this because it’s fun.” He looks around and says, “It looks like when we got here.” I know what he means. We had arrived at the playing of the national anthem, and he had wondered why everyone was standing up together. It occurs to me that the two songs you’re guaranteed to hear at sporting event in the U.S. are The National Anthem and YMCA. And one of these is joyful, inclusive, makes you want to move, and suggests the messy ironic complexity of what it means to be an American.