Who knew a single line in the Bee Gees’ iconic disco hit could be so profound in its depiction?!

(January 2, 2024). As John Travolta’s walking music from the film Saturday Night Fever, “Stayin’ Alive” has long been a disco classic.  It is arguably the song that catapulted Travolta, The Bee Gees, and disco — all already formidable forces in ‘70s pop culture — to iconic status within months of its December 1977 release.

It is certainly the tune for which the term “walking music” was even created.  

So iconic is “Stayin’ Alive” that — 46 years later — the disco thumper recently experienced a renaissance through its tie-in (along with Travolta) to the holiday-themed ad for Capital One where the actor humorously reprises his SNF character in the form of a disco-dancing Santa.

But “Stayin’ Alive” is known for much more than the impeccable harmonies and driving beat that paced Travolta’s strut as he walked the streets of Brooklyn in the film’s opening scene, or more than the song that continued a phenomenal Bee Gees’ chart-topping streak that included six-straight No. 1 singles from 1977-79.

It’s certainly more than just the anthem that helped make its parent soundtrack the one-time biggest selling album in history (pre-Thriller) and shot disco music into a stratosphere and subsequent burnout from which the genre — under many different dance-music incarnations— took years to recover.

“Stayin’ Alive” is also remembered for its unusually complex (for a disco ditty) but thoughtful lyrics about a man’s vanity, virility, victimhood, and survival, specifically against the backdrop of the Big Apple.

The song was custom-written for Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, by the Bee Gees (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb).  Manero, as depicted in the film, was a walking contradiction.  He was at once handsome and arrogant — a ladies man who had his pick of women — while simultaneously deemed a mess who still lived with his parents, one whose life was going nowhere.  

He was a young man crying for help in a big town where his only true comfort was found on the dance floor of the local disco.   

“Stayin’ Alive” captured Manero perfectly.  The arrogance was the first thing we learn about in the song’s opening line: “well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I’m a woman’s man, no time to talk.”

His vulnerability immediately follows: “I’ve been kicked around since I was born,” but not before we hear about the weekend solace he finds in the preceding line: “the music’s loud and the women warm.”

The Bee Gees in an apocalyptic setting for the “Stayin’ Alive” video (1977)

But it’s the next line — the first of the song’s three pre-choruses — that adds heft to “Stayin’ Alive.”

“And now it’s alright, it’s okay, and you make look the other way.  And we can try to understand the New York Times’ effect on man.”

Wait, what?!  [needle scratches as record comes to a grinding halt]

We were just talking about our Tony getting his not-so-lonely but troubled man pimp on and now we’re contemplating the New York Times impact on society?

What kind of surreal disco pivot was this?

The New York TimesThe Times for short — has been around since 1851

Well, it all kinda made sense when you place it in the context of the lines that came immediately before and after the Times’ reference.

What the Bee Gees are simply saying is, try as you might to ignore the specimen that is Mr. Tony Manero, such attempts would be as futile as trying to understand the cultural and global impact of one of the world’s largest newspapers, one that just happens to originate right there in NYC.

In the chorus that immediately follows the NYT line (“whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother, you’re Stayin’ Alive, Stayin’ Alive.  Feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’ and we’re Stayin’ Alive, Stayin’ Alive”), Tony Manero is likened to your average New Yorker struggling to make ends meet in the country’s most notorious rat race, much like a Black man or a single mother in 1970s Brooklyn might be.

Except, Manero was neither of those.

Instead, he was a troubled white man whose life was seemingly going nowhere.  Even he realized that a career of working at a hardware store and then blowing his nights (and money) showing off his considerable dance skills was a dead-end, as the bridge (and later the outro) in “Stayin’ Alive” attests: “Life going nowhere, somebody help me… somebody help me, yeah.”

John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever (1977)

But as complex a character as Manero was, we did understand him.  Many of us likely have been him at some point in our lives (replace the women and discos with some other vice).  He really needed very little examination.

Instead, it’s the New York Times reference that deserves further illumination here.  Its mere mention in what became one of the biggest pop songs of the 20th century belies the otherwise shallow reputation of ‘70s disco.

Whether it’s chronicling the daily events that impact the metropolitan New Yorker or taking on the world’s stage with global headlines, The Times’ profound “effect on man” can’t be overstated.

With 172 years of history behind it, The Times is easily the most rewarded daily publication in journalism history, having won the industry’s top prize – the Pulitzer – more times (132) than any other newspaper.

Its print circulation — 296,330 in November 2023 (although The Times itself recently cited a 670,000 figure) — is currently second in the U.S. (behind the Wall Street Journal) and its total circulation (combining print and paid digital subscribers) is the highest in the nation at 9 million-plus (bumped up to more than 10 million in the recent NYT figure). 

With those kinds of credentials, it’s no wonder people have been debating not only its “effect on man,” but its role in society as a whole.

The Times has indeed been sliced, diced, smothered and covered with praise and criticism throughout its history.  It has at once been lauded for its fairness and criticized for its biases.

Governed by a Jewish family — the Sulzbergers — since 1896, the publicly traded Times has even been accused of self-hating and anti-Zionism, particularly for its coverage of the Holocaust during the 20th century and of Middle East conflicts past and present.

Just this past October, following an explosion at a Gaza hospital during the current Israeli-Palestinian war, The Times published an article with the following headline: “Israeli Strike Kills Hundreds in Hospital, Palestinians Say,” although the attack was denied by Israel and later attributed to a misfired Hamas rocket, according to U.S. officials.

The Times had to issue a correction, of sorts, in its October 23 edition stating that its initial headline coverage of the blast “relied to heavily on claims by Hamas, and did not make clear those claims could not immediately be verified.”

Criticisms of that episode echoed past assertions that the publication didn’t do justice to the Holocaust during World War II.  Past generations of Sulzbergers – who notoriously didn’t want The Times to be branded a “Jewish newspaper” — indeed were either found to be ambivalent about the execution of Jews in Nazi Germany or directly opposed to the relocation of Jewish refugees to Israel and other countries.

In a critical 2000 examination of The Times  by writer Laurel Left (A Tragic ‘Fight in the Family’: The New York Times, Reform Judaism and the Holocaust), he described how in November 1942, despite the U.S State Department having already confirmed published accounts of the extermination of one million European Jews, The Times’ then-publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger took sides in a “simmering debate” within the Jewish community over Zionism, which he denounced, and even formed “the first American Jewish group whose primary purpose was to fight against a Jewish homeland.”

Sulzberger’s very public positions reflected a complex political and social world view that even acknowledging that he was a Jewish publisher meant capitulating to the idea of Jewish separateness.  But those views also prompted many in that community to retort that The Times didn’t speak for all Jews, despite its ownership.  

Other controversies have followed The Times since then.

In 1971, The Times won a Supreme Court case (New York Times Co. vs. The United States) after its publication of the Pentagon Papers, a series of articles exposing U.S. efforts to expand the war in Vietnam after President Lyndon B. Johnson had promised not to do so.

The articles cited military documents that had been leaked to The Times, the publication of which diminished the U.S. government’s credibility in America and abroad and undermined the Nixon administration’s efforts to continue fighting the war.

Separately, in 2003 as the U.S. was campaigning to invade Iraq in the wake of 9/11, it was The Times that prominently published a factually inaccurate report (by writer Judith Miller) on Iraq’s involvement with weapons of mass destruction, which was cited by Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell as a justification for the war.

Later, The Times admitted that the earlier reporting was “not rigorous” and was too dependent upon biased information provided by Iraqi expatriates. Miller resigned from the paper after her reporting had been found to be overly favorable to the Bush administration. 

But the New York Times’ impact isn’t always playing out on the global stage where whole countries’ and communities’ survivals are at stake.

Closer to home, the paper has also had a more direct “effect on man” or, more specifically, certain powerful men (and women), with many of its pieces winning awards.

The Pulitzer Prize is the most prestigious in journalism. The NYT – with 132 of them — has the most of any newspaper.

In 2018, The Times won a Pulitzer in “Public Service” for its investigative reporting on powerful sexual predators in Hollywood, namely film producer Harvey Weinstein, which brought him and others to legal justice in the years that followed.  The exposés sparked a reckoning about the sexual abuse of women and men and is largely credited for launching the #MeToo movement during the 2010s.

In 2019, The Times also won a Pulitzer in “Explanatory Reporting” for its investigation of then-president Donald Trump’s finances and how he acquired his wealth (including through alleged tax evasion).  The former president’s company — the Trump Organization — was later charged with running a 15-year tax evasion scheme, where executives working for Trump were accused of underreporting their wealth by accepting secret perks that did not show up on tax documents.

While that case (and the NYT report that exposed the Trump Organization) was focused solely on the tax scandal, some believe it laid the groundwork for the wider investigation into Trump’s personal conduct related to alleged hush-money payments to former mistress Stormy Daniels in violation of campaign finance laws, which last year led to the 45th president becoming the first American leader to be indicted (and arrested) on criminal charges.

Trump’s opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton, was also on the receiving end of The Times’ unrelenting coverage — in her case involving the scandal where she allegedly hid tens of thousands of emails containing classified or sensitive documents.  Clinton has blamed The Times’ prominently featured stories about the emails in the months leading up to the November 2016 election for her loss that year.

Democrats and Republicans alike have been on the wrong end of probing NYT coverage. Pictured (l to r): Hillary Clinton (D), Donald Trump (R), George Santos (R) and Eliot Spitzer (D)

A more complete political collapse was attributed to The Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the sex scandal that engulfed former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who was exposed for paying tens of thousands of dollars to prostitutes while he was NY attorney general and governor.  Spitzer, a Democrat, was forced to retire in 2008 — just over a year after taking office — which led to his lieutenant governor David Paterson becoming the first Black governor of New York (and the first legally blind governor of any state).

But it was The Times’ most recent political conquest — that of former U.S. Representative George Santos — which made the junior congressman part of dubious history after he was exposed (by the NYT) for lying about his education and other credentials while committing fraud with campaign funds in the run up to his 2022 election.  

After less than a year in office, Santos — who was also the first openly gay, non-incumbent to be elected to Congress as a Republican — last month became the first U.S. congressman in modern history to be expelled from office and only the sixth ever.

Of course, the fact that Santos is a member of the GOP feeds into another longstanding belief and criticism that The Times has been historically liberal and biased in its reporting, which it denies.

But with Americans’ growing distrust in the national media and in longstanding institutions in general, it’s no wonder the award-winning paper, which has also been praised over time for its thoroughness, has come under such scrutiny.

While people may never agree on whether or not the country’s most-subscribed-to newspaper is fair and unbiased in its reporting, maybe we just need to reckon with the fact that, in our efforts to understand the New York Times’ true effect on man, we now live in a world where we may say we want the facts from our national publications, but what we really seek is affirmation…of our own beliefs and value systems. 

It’s much like Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero, who sought affirmation on New York’s steamy dance floors, with strobe lights and mirror balls guiding the way, and the backbeat of The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” pulsing the soundtrack to his life.

The Bee Gees (from left): Maurice, Barry and Robin Gibb (1977) from the “Stayin’ Alive” video


DJRob (he/him), dissector of songs, is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

DJRob (@djrobblog) on Threads

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By DJ Rob

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