From a commercially pragmatic standpoint, ed the Village People represented a workaround for a pair of persistent problems which plagued the surging disco craze — a lack of identifiable performers and the difficulty in translating club play to mass market airplay.
The former was a product of the producer/composer-driven nature of the music, more about which sold plenty of records but reduced the opportunities for making bank on the mega-profitable stadium concert circuit. It became even more of an issue when Saturday Night Fever broke big and unleashed a flood of disco music releases in its wake. The crowded field made the act of distinguishing a specific release as difficult as it was crucial for gaining recognition from the make-or-break DJ set. Outside of the Bee Gees and a roster of divas, medstore however, there really wasn’t much in terms of identity beyond the individual tracks.
It was a fandom of material rather than of the acts themselves, which left a lot on the table when it came to maintaining longevity and merchandising potential in an industry fixated on both.
Similarly, disco’s roots in the dance club scene presented problems when it came to its establishment as a sustainable radio format back when broadcast radio was a crucial link in the marketing chain. Even the most reliable big city markets experienced extreme volatility, much less the smaller regional ones where disco format stations died quickly or proved to be a non-starter to begin with. While the idea of trying to sell the residents of Tulsa on the virtues of boogie fever might seem absurd in hindsight, it was no joke to industry execs who lived by the code of “dominate or die.”
And then came the Village People — the highly videogenic (before MTV made that an essential quality) brainchild of a French composer who assembled a costumed troupe of dudes to perform tunes that fit equally well on Top 40 radio and Studio 54’s soundsystem. And everything about the group — the “butch” archetype costumes, the songs, the band name, the marketing materials — involved high-camp references to the gay club scene and subculture. It’s obvious as heck to modern eyes, but was coy and subtextual for goodly portion of the Village People’s mass market audience.
(A detailed analysis of the pre-1990 “gay blindness” phenomena would be outside my wheelhouse, but was a real — and really weird — systemic process of overlooking the obvious because “nah, it couldn’t be.” Nor was it a universal thing, as attested by the many parents who said “The guy in leather? He’s…um…a biker! Yeah!” to their “Macho Man” humming six year olds.)
Despite a string of platinum hits (and one terrible movie), the combination of campiness and queerness meant the Village People had an even more difficult time during the collapse of the disco economy. Few things are as viciously dismissed as the previous cycle’s camp artifacts, which would have been a deathblow even without a concurrent cultural chill that sought to wipe all traces of queerness from the public eye. On one hand, you had reactionary rockists writing off disco music as “faggot shit,” and on the other you had one of the most visible, popular acts embracing that very aspect of the scene.
Here’s the thing, though. Disco “died” but dance music didn’t, and its successors all stylistically picked up right where it left off. “New wave” dance music, in particular, may have been marketed in opposition to disco, but its new (and whiter) performers took most of their cues from the synth-and-sequenced Eurodisco model with a touch of glam rock’s fashion-conscious genderfluidity. Duran Duran were tagged a “Chic meets the Sex Pistols,” and there wasn’t a whole lot of daylight between “Ring My Bell” and “Heart of Glass” — or “Cars” and “Super Freak” — when it came to evoking the electronic body modulation of the Space Invaders Era.
In that light, it probably seemed like a smart move to try and retool the Village People’s look and sound for the New Romantic/Mutant Disco era. The funky costumes, the sexual ambiguity, the (overstated) emphasis of style over substance — components of the old winning formula updated for a Bold New Decade.
They might even have been able to pull it off, if they weren’t still toiling under the shadow of being the previous year’s punchline…and didn’t try to hedge their new synth sound with load of tedious soft rock flourishes.