There are few bands more closely associated with gayness than the Village People. Nevertheless, the iconic group's relationship to the gay community has sometimes been as complicated as queer culture itself.
Sure, there have always been parts of mainstream straight culture that seem oddly unaware of the innuendo and double entendres, but "oblivious straight guy" jokes are also the entire premise of most of the group's many appearances playing themselves in films and TV.
So it was with some bewilderment that the world greeted reports in January, 2014 that Victor Willis (the original cop character and co-songwriter) seemed opposed to "YMCA" being used in the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics as a cheeky form of protest against Russia's anti-gay laws. It later emerged that the current active members of the Village People were quite willing to perform the song in support of gay rights, and that Willis had not performed with the band for over 35 years.
When I ask founding member Felipe Rose about the incident before the Village People's June 25 show in Toronto as part of WorldPride, he gives the impression that there's still some confusion on the topic.
"He's a one third owner of the song, so he put that statement out, and I thought that was nice. I thought he was saying that if they're going to discriminate, then you're not going to play our song and he'd block it."
Rose goes on to say that Willis also spoke out against the Los Angeles Clippers using YMCA after owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks were made public, and that he approved of Willis using his newly won copyright ownership to block use of Village People songs.
After explaining to Rose that the controversy was actually about whether Willis was against it being used as a gay rights anthem, and not about whether he was against Russia using it, I ask him how the current members feel about "YMCA" being seen as a gay anthem.
"To the band? Well first of all, the song was never written about anything to do with gay."
When an openly gay member of the Village People tries to tell you that there is nothing gay about the song "YMCA," it's hard to suppress a look of shock.
"It was just a filler song, based on the ex-producer seeing the YMCA sign during lunch and asking us what it meant. Sure, there was ambiguity and they were using a double entendre, but it was really just supposed to be one more song to fill out the album."
But doesn't the deliberate ambiguity and the double entendres reinforce the fact that the perceived gayness of the song is real?
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"In fact, I don't even know if there really were any double entendres in 'YMCA.' Not on 'In The Navy,' either. I think you need to read the lyrics again. I think people read things into it. They looked at the masculinity of what we were doing, and then they read between the lines. Victor is straight: he wasn't writing like that."
Willis' heterosexuality could explain why his former bandmates seem to want to resist admitting to what seems obvious to most of us. But when even the producers who assembled the project and came up with the concept have no problem owning up to the not-so-hidden queer subtext, it feels like an unnecessary amount of energy to put into denying it. That coyness seems more a relic of the past than the actual music, but maybe it's just also part of the joke?
"Sure, it's a joke. We knew right at the beginning that we had to laugh at ourselves first. We had to have some kind of cheeky sense of humour about it. I think if none of that had happened, we probably would have only had five minutes on stage. It was because of the ambiguity and because of the guessing about who is and who isn't, and that our group is as sexually diverse as we are ethnically diverse. I think that's kept people intrigued.”
As much as Rose would like to keep the story of the Village People focused on the fun, he keeps finding himself drawn into more serious conversations. While his father is Lakota Sioux, there have been some who saw his costume as inappropriate, which is a topic he seems to be at least partially conflicted about.
"Two months ago the Fox News people called me after a woman in Fargo, North Dakota had stopped a first grade class from performing 'YMCA' because she felt if she dressed her child as a Native American it would be racism. Well, that's one thing to think that, but to stop a bunch of first graders? Why take all the fun out? Maybe there could have been some little ember that could light up in one of those kids, who might find that passion for performing. She squashed that and killed it. Fox wanted me to appear on the show and get dressed up, but I said no. I'm not going to be some curio Kachina doll."
He had similarly mixed feelings about Pharrell Williams being called out for wearing a Native headdress on the cover of Elle magazine.
"At the end of the day, while it was nice that he was wearing that forest ranger hat, whoever the stylist was should have inquired if it was politically correct to put the headdress on. I think there is too much political correctness, though. You have to be very careful of what you say to not offend."
It's perhaps not surprising that someone like Rose would long for the days when being an entertainer was a bit simpler. After all, the Village People came from an era when just having a good time could be in itself a subtle type of political act.
"I think what happened in the '70s was that disco was a melting pot for gays, blacks and Latinos. You had your token whites in the clubs, too, but in the early days before people like Donna Summer it was this group of people that were pretty much underground. I think people were dancing to forget their problems and the injustices on the outside."