The Brilliance Of The Village People And What They Teach Us About Conversation

By Wayne Elise

YMCA

♪ ♫ It’s fun to stay at the ♪ ♫ It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.♪ ♫

This morning Erika and I danced around the kitchen listening to Y.M.C.A. by The Village People. She’s good at forming the letters. I guess I’m kinda sloppy.

“You’re bending your arm way too far on the ‘Y’,” she says. “That’s freaky and bad form. Stop it. Yuck.”

 

The Village People were an unlikely success in 1978.

I can imagine the pitch by Jacques Morali to Neil Bogart at Casablanca Records.

“Mr. Bogart, thanks for meeting with me. I’d like you to produce a record performed by six gay men dressed in costumes representing cultural stereotypes.”

“Off the top of my head, I’d say that’s an awful idea. What stereotypes are you talking about?”

“A construction worker, a cop, an Indian, a soldier, a cowboy and a macho man.”

“What’s a macho man?”

“A guy who wears leather.”

“People aren’t ready for flamboyance on television. You can bite the head off a rat, but you can’t be gay on television. And if we can’t get on Merv Giffin, we can’t make money. So I’m thinking you should get out of my office.”

“Mr. Bogart, please hear me out. You’ve enjoyed success because you backed far out ideas. While other producers were trying to recreate Rod Stewart, you single-handedly created bubblegum pop at Buddha Records. You fused a hard rock Jewish band, comic-book characters with Nazi symbolism, and created Kiss. That was brilliant.”

“It wasn’t brilliant. It was a desperate. I spent the dough on Kiss, thinking at least I’d go down in flames.”

“I respect your humble attitude Sir, but you were right about Kiss and you were right about Donna Summer. The Village People aren’t just another gay act. They’re a fusion group. Disco fused with West Village, fused with funk. That’s why I brought this opportunity to you first. You’re the king of fusion. Look at these promotional shots for The Village People.”

“Very gay.”

“And visually interesting. Everyone has a color TV now. The future is here and Merv Giffin is looking for color. The Village People are the group for our modern age. Don’t you think so, or should I pitch this to Roger Hammer over at Island?”

“Okay Morali, move that suitcase full of white powder – which does not belong to me, carefully out of the way and sit down. Now, let’s say I package these Village People. What’s their first track going to be?”

“They got a great song called Y.M.C.A.”

“Horrible title. Sing it.”

“Lalala… Young man, there’s no need to feel down.
I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground.
I said, young man, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.

Young man, there’s a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.

It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It’s fun to stay at the…”

“That’s enough.”

“There’s also a nice bit of choreography, we’re expecting will catch on.”

“Forget about it. Your average record buyer doesn’t care about choreography. What else you got?”

“We got one called In The Navy.”

“About how uncool the Navy is?”

“Just the opposite, actually.”

“I’m detecting a trend here.”

“We got another about being a macho man.”

“About the leather guy?”

♫♫ “Macho, macho man
I gotta be a macho man
Macho macho man
I gotta be a…”

“Stop. Stop. Is that it?”

“Pretty much.”

“I’m going to be honest with you Morali. The YMCA is a place for drug addicts and retards. The Navy, like all the branches of the military, has never been so unpopular. I don’t know anything about macho men, but I’m pretty sure the record buying public has a low opinion of them too. These songs and this group is either the dumbest or the cleverest thing I’ve heard. So I’m giving you a shot. Take that bag of money over there and bring back a record.”

“That’s awesome, Mr. Bogart. You won’t be disappointed. The Village People are going gold.”

“I doubt it. But who knows? Wait. Don’t literally take the bag. It’s full of quaaludes – that don’t belong to me. I was speaking metaphorically. See my secretary and she’ll have you sign a horribly one-sided contract and cut you an insultingly small check. You’ll get more when you nail a spot on Merv Giffin. Now, get out.”

The Village People indeed went on to guest on The Merv Griffin Show and became a hit. They sold 100 million records. The United States Navy decided used their song “In the Navy” in a recruiting campaign. The Y.M.C.A. song along with the YMCA choreography became iconic hits forever played at weddings and karaoke nights.

***

I was recently working with a client who told me something felt missing in his conversations.

“I don’t have any zing. People get bored of my conversations. I can see it in their eyes.”

“How do these conversations go?” I asked.

“I drive to a college town on the weekends, so I can, you know, meet college girls.”

“Of course. Go on.”

“So I’m at this bar and this girl asks me where I’m from. And I tell her I live in Tinyville. It’s an awful place so I try not to talk about it. I tell her I’m moving to Chicago as soon as my contract’s up. Chicago’s amazing. We talk about Chicago for awhile but then I can’t really make the conversation personal.”

“I see.”

“What do you see?”

“What’s wrong with Tinyville?”

“The people are bigoted and backward. There’s nothing to do there. My coworkers are idiots. It’s a depressing place. I can’t wait to leave.”

“I get it. Let me ask you, what’s the first rule of conversation?”

“I don’t know. Be a good listener.”

“That’s a good rule. But no. The first rule of conversation is don’t be boring.”

“Exactly. That’s why I don’t talk about Tinyville.”

“And that’s where you’ve made a logic error. No offense. The world is neither bad nor good, boring nor interesting. Only conversation makes it so.”

“Trust me, no one wants to hear about Tinyville.”

“You know The Village People?”

“No.”

“They sang such hits as YMCA and In The Navy.”

“Oh yeah. I know the YMCA song of course.”

“Good. Then you’ll understand. In my opinion, you’ve got to be more like the Village People. They took under-appreciated topics and made them hits.

You’re not doing that. You’re taking popular topics which have been done to death and trying to squeeze that much more interestingness out of them. A good rule of thumb is never share information people can just Google. What’s the point? You’re not enriching their lives in a unique way. It’s boring. No offense.

I think you should try putting your focus on trying to see the things in your life in fresh ways. That’ll force you to lean on your unique perspective and become a more interesting character. And now be a boring conversationalist. No offense.”

“So you’re saying I’m supposed to like Tinyville?”

“You’re supposed to find things about it to appreciate and be able to articulate. Right now, your saying, your life is not interesting. That people should come back in six months. They don’t want that. They want interesting conversation and characters and narrators right now.”

“So I should just pretend I like everything about my life?”

“It’s not pretending you like everything. It’s selective focusing. That’s what the Village People did and they sold 100 million records.

I bet there’s a diner in Tinyville. Right? Diners are interesting. Where else can you be called ‘honey’ in public by a someone you don’t know?”

“You’re saying I should take girls to diners?”

“I’m saying you should talk about diners. Talk about the details of your town you’re in right now, your present existence, all with an eye for the incongruities, the ironies, the characters.

You’re so lucky. I wish I lived in a small town. Why do so many successful TV series take place in small towns? My wife really likes Veronica Mars. That was a small town. A small town has a chance to be unknown and drawn fresh. It can be a magical place in storytelling and in conversation.”

“But Tinyville is not a magical place.”

“That’s only because you’ve chosen to not articulate it as one. It could be. There’s a lot of value in making regular stuff interesting. Way more than the opposite. It’s all a matter of your focus. What details do you chose to share.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.”

“Sure you can because young man, there’s a place you can go.
I said, young man, when you’re short on your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time. It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.”

“You’re so weird Wayne.”

Come join me at The Conversation Camp this weekend: http://charismaarts.com/events

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