The political-pop cultural axis had yet another weird moment recently when the Village People put out a statement saying they were OK with President Donald Trump playing their songs at rallies. According to the group, they had been "inundated" with complaints from fans who were urging them to stop Trump's use of the songs, but said "like millions of Village People fans worldwide, the president and his supporters have shown a genuine like for our music."
Many fans were thunderstruck by the use of Village People songs at Trump rallies, in particular "Macho Man," their hit from their 1978 album of the same name. Trump recently entered a rally in India to the song, and NBC reports he’s been using it since at least 2018.
It's hard to know where to even begin with this, but it looks like I'm going to have to do some macho mansplaining to Trump fans: the Village People are the gayest thing ever, and this song is one of their gayest. It's not just a bit gay, it's queer as fuck. The Village People were concocted by Jacques Morali (queer) and Henri Belolo (straight), who both recognized the epic marketing potential in the burgeoning gay demographic of the 70s. The gay scene was busting out all over, and disco was the rage. Finding a bunch of men who could sing while simultaneously looking good in stereotypical macho outfits and then writing them a bunch of slutty songs seemed, in retrospect, an obvious idea.
And they did it. The Village People were everywhere, and were so obviously a joke about gay stereotypes and the excesses of gay culture and desire that only the most clueless person could have missed it. Hell, I was 12 when "Macho Man" was released and I figured it out so quickly it prompted a panic purchase of the vinyl. Loving the Village People was a pretty obvious way of telling if someone was queer.
Thus the disconnect: Trump is the least queer person imaginable, someone with a hostility towards LGBT issues (in particular, the ban on trans people in the military) and has a vice president who argued for government support for conversion therapy.
One could argue songs, like any part of culture, are open to interpretation and it’s Team Trump's business to read whatever they want into them. But you're really going to have to be doing some intense suspension of all reality in order to connect a politician like Trump to these songs. They are a perfect example of "camp," that parody-infused style that is queer shorthand. “Macho Man”? It's a song about sex. Gay sex. (And that means two men—or several—together, not happy sex.) “YMCA”? That's also about gay sex. When I moved to New York City in 1988, one of the first things I did was go to the Y (to "hang out with all the boys," as the lyric goes) to hook up with a guy in the locker room. The workout was secondary. “In the Navy”? Also about gay culture, this time, uniform fetishes. They weren't actually urging people to join the navy, as there was a ban on gays in the military at the time. It was about worshipping guys in sailor suits.
The use of ”Macho Man” for Trump's entrances at rallies seems to be a way of suggesting he's a strong man. One of the many theories of Trump’s popularity with his base is that they’re looking for a manly man, someone who is virile, tough and will win at any cost. That only makes the interpretation gap of this song that much stranger, given that Trump is simultaneously selling himself as the defender of traditional Christian values while carrying a disco stick.
To me, the use of the song is just another indication that Trump just doesn't get it. And I know people were playing “YMCA” at weddings for years (people thought it was hilarious to make the letters with their arms) but that was benign in an aren't-straight-people-cute-sometimes kind of way. This speaks to a cluelessness that is staggering.
To his flock, perhaps that's part of the point. If he does get it, he's appropriating queer culture and repurposing it for his base. If he doesn't get it, it just adds to the sense that part of his appeal is his abject ignorance and anti-intellectualism. Trump's cultural tone deafness is part of his persona.
Either way, it is beyond weird to see Trump grooving to “Macho Man.” After enjoying a few box-office smashes, the Village People got their own movie, Can’t Stop the Music (the cast included a then-pre-transitioned Caitlyn Jenner) but by the time the film came out, the "Disco Sucks" movement had taken root, and it tanked (despite my lining up for tickets on the afternoon it opened). And the “Disco Sucks" backlash, as many have correctly pointed out, was rooted in both homophobia and racism. Original members of the Village People are currently embroiled in a bit of a family feud, but two of the most famous, David Hodo (the construction worker) and Randy Jones (the cowboy) are active on social media and are very critical of Trump (and notably, they are no longer allowed to bill themselves as "Village People").
For a while there, our culture was permeated in irony—Sacha Baron Cohen was faking being a racist, Stephen Colbert was playing a right-wing talk-show host, and The Onion emerged as a major news source. Everything was performed with a self-conscious wink or a nod. This latest twist feels like another attempt to reverse evolution—it's as if we've stepped into the pre-ironic Era.
Try as they might to put the Village People songbook through cultural conversion therapy, there's no way these songs will be anything but queer. The shock and awe of witnessing a Trump rally play out to a blazing queer disco classic is yet another example of how divided America has become—digesting the news, interpreting politics and listening to music have all become entirely different experiences, depending on what your political affiliation is. Ignorance is strength, and queer is macho.