Young man! Did you ever imagine that “Y.M.C.A.,” that beloved cheesy endorsement of cruising bathing boy beauties at a health spa full of “everything for a young man to enjoy,” would be the chosen soundtrack to the insidious creep of fascism in the United States? Did you ever believe that the Village People, that iconic multiracial collective of “macho men,” appearing as if they jumped straight from the fantasies of a patron at The Mineshaft (well, they kind of did), would be the favored band of a white supremacist cult of chuckleheads that would rather visit a Cracker Barrel than Crisco Disco? Did you ever think that these unmasked, red hat-sporting, walking McMuffins would boogie to disco at their super-spreader White Nights?
If you hadn’t noticed, dearest Filthy Dreams readers, or you care more about your mental wellbeing than to sit bug-eyed and transfixed watching Trump’s increasingly nonsensical rallies like me, the Trump campaign has taken the Village People on as their own. If the Manson Family drew inspiration from The Beatles’ White Album, it seems as if the Trump cult has fixated on Cruisin’. In particular, Trump has shown a peculiar adoration for “Y.M.C.A.,” using that deliciously tacky track to end each and every campaign rally in recent weeks. Some of you faithful Filthy Dreams readers may recall that Trump employed the power of “Y.M.C.A.” to finish one of his initial speeches at the RNC, waving, shaking hands, and exchanging viral loads with his VP Pence, who would have you know is not at all interested in hanging out “with all the boys” or at least not without Mother. Well, that seems to have inspired some determined and deranged devotion out of Trump who now has placed “Y.M.C.A.” in the coveted spot as his closer, replacing The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Here are some cursed examples:
And boy, is it a memorable grand finale! Held mainly in airplane hangers (with exception of last night’s Nevada germ-fest) in order to presumably avoid the spread of COVID-19 in interior spaces by…squeezing together and breathing in each others faces as much as possible, Trump’s rallies are exercises in endurance as he rivals Jim Jones in hours-long, speed-fueled, dementia-riddled rantings, slurring his words, promising time travel and missions to Mars, and stoking the flames of panic and fear to a bunch of Boomers that exist primarily on flat Earth conspiracy Facebook groups. After finishing his spittle-soaked screeds, with Adderall occasionally flying from his nose like shrapnel, Trump exits to cheers and his trademark clap and point at no one, all scored by the, as Rolling Stone critic Stephen Holden described, “the goose-stepping pastiche” of “Y.M.C.A.”’s driving beat.
To call it surreal would be an understatement. To call it ridiculous would be an underestimation. And to label it a farce would be a horrible misuse of the term. In fact, I’m not even sure language can properly describe the dual horror and hilarity of witnessing the transcendent absurdity of Trump “dancing” to “Y.M.C.A.,” balling his tiny hands into fists and shuffling them back and forth. Is this how he danced at Le Club? Beyond just Trump himself, it’s a little jarring to watch the MAGA goobers, after soaking in Trump’s xenophobic cesspool for hours, swaying to the upbeat lyrics of “It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.!”
“Y.M.C.A.” is not the only Village People song coopted by Trump. In fact, the first time I became obsessed with his use of the Village People was earlier this year during a trip to India in which he arrived in a stadium to another of the group’s masterpieces, “Macho Man”:
Since then, “Macho Man” has remained a Trump staple, including during the launch preparation of Space X’s first manned space flight:
And more recently, the song emerged as a bizarre soundtrack to a red wave, a maskless marathon of bodies that are definitely not in demand:
Gives another meaning to bug-chasing, doesn’t it?
I’ll admit there is something incredible–sublime even–about making entire swaths of phobes shuffle their cankles to songs that are so excessively gay that even gay audiences during the disco heyday were hesitant to play them. It has a subversive charm–one that I’m not immune to. I only wish that Trump would show the Village People’s performance of “Y.M.C.A.” from their cinematic stinker Can’t Stop The Music on a jumbotron during these dance breakdowns:
But, even more than being seduced by these yet again masterful displays of conservative camp, I’m haunted by one question and one question alone: WHY? What is with Trump’s unwavering fixation with the Village People? While Trump tweeted recently that we’re woefully out of the loop:
Even he should admit it doesn’t exactly make sense. Disco doesn’t exactly seem like the chosen music for mouth-breathing authoritarianism–it’s too Black, too femme, too swish–for that. In Alice Echols’ critical disco analysis Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, she explains, “The 1970s are associated with identity politics, but they were also a time when numbers of gay men, African Americans, and women ditched predictable social scripts. Disco played a central role in this process, which broadened the contours of Blackness, femininity, and male homosexuality.” Echols even goes on to assert that disco “succeeded in integrating American nightlife to an extent unthinkable just a decade earlier.”
Doesn’t exactly gel with the pasty straight masses at Trump rallies. In fact, I always assumed the alt-right Trumper position would be closer to those goofballs at Chicago’s doofy Disco Demolition Night in July 1979, a backlash against disco by bro rock fanatics led by a tubby loud-mouthed agitator. Ring any bells?
So what is it? And I know, I know some of you may be saying Trump probably doesn’t choose his own music. But after scouring the details of numerous Trump-related tell-alls, I have no doubt that Trump is a known micromanager. In his recently published trashy page-turner Disloyal, disgraced Trump lawyer and Saul Goodman wannabe Michael Cohen (yes, you’ll be getting a review soon enough, dearest readers) asserts that every decision goes through Trump. And I’m going to assume that also involves his closing song. I mean, everyone knows the walk-off song is deeply important to the campaign’s aesthetics. It brings the drama! The action! The awkward points and claps! Trump, as a reality showman, con artist master, and ringleader of the spectacle, knows that moment is the last chance to make an impression, and really imprint on your cult members’ psyches.
Which brings us back to the original nagging question: Why?! Unfortunately supposedly respected journalist Bob Woodward seems more interested in gotcha COVID-19 tapes to hide until his book release promotional tour while people died and fell ill rather than asking the President important questions like “Who is your favorite Village People member?”. Other journalists too have failed to address Americans’ real concerns like “Do you think ‘In The Navy’ was written for suckers?” or “Does ‘Going West’ have another meaning to you now that the West Coast is a ranging inferno? A disco inferno!” And since Filthy Dreams never acquired our coveted White House press pass (I’m never giving up that dream), it looks like, well, we may just have to try to figure this out together, dearest disco dreamers!
Let’s start small: the lyrics. Is there something in “Y.M.C.A.” that speaks to Trump? Or does he see it as addressing to his poor Budweiser-breathed masses? In some ways, the lyrics hold promises of good times to men that are short on their dough just as Trump does. Note these promises are just to the men. Sorry ladies! Now, the good times found in the glory holes and the steamy showers hinted at in “Y.M.C.A.” are probably not the ones imagined by the drive-thru, blue-plate special set. Yet, this vague promise of unlimited opportunities does fit in with Trump’s flop sweat-drenched snake oil salesman version of the American dream.
What doesn’t work, however, is a later verse in which the Village People tell the listener that they too were once in the same position: “Young man, I was once in your shoes. I said, I was down and out with the blues. I felt no man cared if I were alive. I felt the whole world was so tight.” We all know Trump was never “down and out with the blues,” unless you consider Daddy Fred Trump purchasing millions of dollars in casino chips at Trump Castle in Atlantic City as “down and out.” Yet, the myth of the self-made man heading to the Y.M.C.A. does feel like a particular Trumpian tale to tell. Placed in Trump’s hands, “Y.M.C.A.” becomes less about a collectivity of gay men and more about picking yourself up by your bootstraps. Who needs another stimulus Trump check–head to the Y.M.C.A.! What? It’s still closed?!
Let’s be honest, though, do we think Trump reads lyrics or even more unlikely, listens? Not a chance. This is probably a fool’s errand attempting to analyze the meaning of the lyrics to Mr. Person Woman Man Camera TV. But, what Trump does unquestionably understand on a deep level, deeper than the Democrats, is aesthetics. Maybe he just likes the look of the Village People! A band with a “hot cop” as a member sounds perfect for the chest-thumping, tear gas-spouting Blue Lives Matter crowd. Maybe the construction worker reminds Trump of all those contractors he never paid. We know he wouldn’t be too into the soldier. What a sucker!
All guesses aside about Trump’s favorite band member (we know it’s definitely not Felipe Rose, the Native American, if Trump’s willful ignoring of the devastating spread of COVID-19 in the Navajo Nation is any indication), Trump is undeniably obsessed with a certain kind of masculinity. He came by it honestly courtesy of his sociopathic daddy who taught Trump to be a “killer.” And the Village People do perform a range of idealized tropes of rugged American masculinity–the construction worker, the soldier, the cowboy, the cop…the leatherman. This was, as Richard Dryer quipped, “a phallic form of disco,” which would tickle the synapses of your average Republican, let alone one consumed by conservative camp.
This masculine performance was integral to the founding of the Village People. The group was created by producers Jacques Morali, Henri Belolo, and the hottest cop on the disco scene, Victor Willis, inspired by both Rose’s dancing in Village gay clubs and the performances of “very strong, positive male American stereotypes” within these spaces. In Hot Stuff, Alice Echols quotes the leatherman Glenn Hughes theorizing that Morali’s fascination was related to “the whole mysticism attached to an ‘American’ and here he’s seeing it in bigger-than-life stereotypes.” The masculine tropes performed by the Village People transform American masculinity into a sort of drag king act, exposing masculinity as an over-the-top excessive performance through camp by a group of mostly but not all gay men.
Granted, the sheer gayness of these masculine tropes scrambles the easy understanding of Trump’s adoration as just some simplistic he-man hero-worship. And there is NO denying the queerness of the Village People. As Tim Lawrence writes in Love Saves the Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979, “Jacques Morali’s collection of mustachioed musclemen was as gay as any disco lineup could get, and, just in case anyone couldn’t read the visual signs, the group’s name, song titles and lyrics referenced institutions and areas long associated with homosexual opportunity: the Y.M.C.A., in case you didn’t know, was a place where ‘you can hang out with all the boys.’”
So how in the world did the Village People and their masculine drag become the fuel for the Trump train, particularly with pearl clutching, same-sex wedding cake-hating zealots like Mike Pence on board? Through the past four years, the Trump White House has set its sights on numerous pieces of anti-LGBTQ legislation, in particular targeting trans and gender-nonconforming people. This seems like it would be at odds with the Village People as theme music. And yet, the Trump cult isn’t exactly devoid of gay members, embraced by a certain subset of mostly white cis gay alt-righters who seem to see supporting Trump as the ultimate transgressive contrarian act, a trolling rebellion against finger-wagging liberal P.C. cancel culture. Milo. Lucian Wintrich. Peter Thiel. All those twinks for Trump. Even Ricky Rebel has come out with his own antagonistic version of “Y.M.C.A.,” screeching MAGA at Black Lives Matter protesters in Beverly Hills:
And for those Trumpers that are drooling homophobes, well, they may just not know the Village People are gay. Seriously? Seriously. Since the pinnacle of the Village People’s success in the late 1970s, straight audiences have misread, ignored, or willfully misunderstood the queer content in their songs. Often referred to as the first “gay-to-straight ‘crossover’ group,” the Village People found success with these unlikely audiences. As Village People member Felipe Rose observed, “The people who live in the rest of the U.S., Middle America, these people still don’t know.” Alice Echols echoes, “… initially, many heterosexuals, accustomed to thinking of homosexuals as limp-wristed, lisping girly men, took the disco group’s hyper-masculine presentation at face value. Looking back at the thirty-year-old footage of the Village people, one wonders how anyone could have mistaken their fastidiously masculine uniforms, girl-free lyrics, and hip-swiveling swishiness for heterosexual masculinity, but some did.”
Of course, the Village People, once they found mainstream straight success, didn’t do much in order to correct these presumptions, often enduring accusations from gay audiences of hiding their sexuality in order to please the breeders. Tim Lawrence recalls in Love Saves the Day: “Of course, the Village people were blatantly gay, but Casablanca calculated that straight consumers didn’t want to know and were fully capable of kidding themselves that they didn’t know–a nimble-footed version of what D.A. Miller calls an ‘open secret,’ which is ‘reminiscent of Freudian disavowal’ inasmuch as ‘we know perfectly well that the secret is known, but nonetheless we must persist, however ineptly, in guarding it.’ The consequence was a disco group hovering on the edge of the in-out divide, a potentially subversive force that had ultimately organized its own containment.”
But even decades later, the neuters still stan the Village People. Trust me–I’ve witnessed it firsthand. When I was in a suburban Pittsburgh middle school in the mid to late 1990s (not exactly the picture of open-mindedness and acceptance), my health teacher was the unfortunate DJ of our school dances. Though I mostly skulked along the wall, surly in my Korn T-shirt and JNCO jeans, I have a distinct memory of looking on aghast as “Y.M.C.A.” and “Macho Man,” the two tracks that would become Trump theme songs decades later, blared through our school gymnasium. And you know what, they fucking loved it.
“The funny thing is that straights don’t really believe the group is gay. They love ‘em in Vegas and in tacky suburban dinner theaters in Midwestern shopping centers. Did straights ever catch on with Paul Lynde? With Liberace?,” said Ken Friedman from Casablanca Records about the Village People’s appeal. And he’s right. Did they catch on about Lady G? Or closet monster Roy Cohn for that matter?
Which brings me to my strongest theory about Trump’s Village People reverence. It has to be some sort of subliminal holdover from Trump’s Roy Cohn-adoring, Studio 54 days, right? Some disco beat lodged within his addled lizard brain? A horrid combination of both elitist glitz and glamour and wanton admiration for a closeted unscrupulous fixer lawyer? Was “Y.M.C.A.” Roy Cohn’s favorite song? I’ve searched and searched and searched for a direct link between Trump, the Village People, and Cohn–or at least Cohn and the Village People. A picture. An invite. Something! SOMETHING! While I can’t find any proof of this intersection during the cocaine-dusted nights of the late 1970s, there are too many connections that collide at Studio 54 for it not to be a possibility.
It’s no secret that, in addition to the long legacy of daddy issues in the Trump family, that Trump in particular looked up to Cohn, a McCarthy-era mob lawyer with no ethics who Trump met at Le Club, as Vanity Fair describes, “a members-only nightspot in Manhattan’s East 50s, where models and fashionistas and Eurotrash went to be seen.” Naturally, Cohn’s blood shot-eyed relentlessness and ruthlessness fit right into Trump’s familial trauma-derived belief that successful men had to be “killers.” And this included representing both Trump and good old Dad when they screwed Black people out of apartments. Assholes.
Who else did Cohn represent? Studio 54 owners Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, allowing Cohn to be an honored and frequent guest to the storied, exclusive club. Cohn even held his birthday party there, which according to the Village Voice’s account sounds like a gag-inducing scene if I’ve ever heard of one: “The cake was a two-foot version of his face. The confectionary eyes were clear of the bloodshot coarseness that normally colors them, but the small, balding head still had the shape of a bullet. His jaw was locked in a smile — the frosting face of a birthday boy. To mark 52 years of infamy, Roy Cohn gave himself a party Friday night at Studio 54, and invited 200 friends and clients.” Yuck. We can guess who was also there–Donald Trump, who was often right at the lawyer’s side at Studio 54.
And I know, I know, nobody likes to imagine being at that mythological club with a young, nubile, fresh-faced go-getter Donald Trump. Ick! Pass! Like it or not, however, he was there. Trump was granted entry into Studio 54 on its opening night on April 26, 1977 and became a familiar face at the club afterward. Unsurprisingly, Trump didn’t see Studio 54 as a decadent party. Instead, he approached the disco like everything else in his life–as a psychotic, narcissistic shark-eyed creep searching for any potential business opportunity or at least, the possibility of social climbing. As BBC reporter Frances Stonor-Saunders reports, “He understood it was an opportunity to be grabbed. He was not there for the drug-fueled disco deliria. He was there to be seen with the famous people to network, to cut the deal; whilst everyone else cut the coke.” Loser. Apparently, according to co-founder Ian Schrager, he didn’t even dance: “I never saw Donald Trump dance, though. He was a serious guy.”
But, perhaps he sat and shuffled his arms back and forth to the Village People. Beyond also being frequent patrons, the Village People’s music had to be in heavy rotation at the time. In particular, “Y.M.C.A.” appears as the third track on A Night at Studio 54, a 1979 compilation album consisting of treasured Studio 54 songs released by Casablanca Records. So we can only assume that Trump’s hairspray-shellacked ears must have heard the song numerous times while attempting to con the rich and famous. And it stuck.
On some level, this makes sense. To Trump, “Y.M.C.A.” represents a nostalgic vision of his youthful disco days, rampant with velvet rope gatekeeping, class snobbery, extravagant displays of wealth, fame whoring, self-fashioned celebrity, and well, rampant tax evasion. Everything Trump stands for. Or at least stands for at his most Art of the Deal idealized because this is the exact opposite of the crowds he attracts. The dregs oozing their way into the rallies in “Lock her up” novelty T-shirts, Confederate flag apparel, and of course, MAGA hats aren’t exactly the doorman’s dream. Unlike Studio 54, Trump rallies have the laxest door policy and dress code imaginable. And yet, looking out to the tune of “Y.M.C.A.,” Trump can pretend he’d want anything to do with his low rent minions.
Or finally, maybe Trump just uses “Y.M.C.A.” because the Village People are the only musicians who haven’t sued the Trump campaign over the use of their songs. Easy peasy. This doesn’t mean they like it. Cop and copyright holder Victor Willis had accepted Trump’s use of the songs previously, explaining: “Like millions of Village People fans worldwide, the President and his supporters have shown a genuine like for our music. Our music is all-inclusive and certainly everyone is entitled to do the Y.M.C.A. dance, regardless of their political affiliation. Having said that, we certainly don’t endorse his use as we’d prefer our music be kept out of politics.”
But more recently, after Trump’s Dark Lord Bible photo shoot in front of St. Johns, Willis had some second thoughts on Facebook: “If Trump orders the U.S. military to fire on his own citizens (on U.S. soil), Americans will rise up in such numbers outside of the White House that he might be forced out of office prior to the election…Don’t do it Mr. President! And I ask that you no longer use any of my music at your rallies especially ‘Y.M.C.A.’ and ‘Macho Man.’ Sorry, but I can no longer look the other way.”
Of course, politely asking is not going to be enough to get Trump to stop doing the “Y.M.C.A.” So better play it while you can now! And no matter what the attraction is to the Village People, Donny better keep his grimy, disco-ruining, bronzer-stained paws off of Donna Summer! I’ll give you the Village People, but you cannot have “Sunset People!”