These two songs were released ten years (or so) apart and they are also mirror images of each other. The first, “One Less Bell” from 1970 (or 1967, if you count the less-heard Keely Smith version) is about a woman’s initial defiance over a breakup giving way to despair and heartache. It is a torch song. “I Will Survive” from 1978 is about a woman learning to be defiant over a breakup that once left her desperate and heartbroken. It is an anthem. Both songs are considered iconic, often parodied and very popular in karaoke bars.
“One Less Bell” is a spooky song. It is said to have been inspired by a remark made by Angie Dickinson (who was then married to Burt Bacharach) at a dinner party she was hosting. She asked one of the guests who’d arrived early to answer the door for the remaining guests so there’d be “one less bell to answer.” The line inspired Bacharach to write the song to a six-note bell-like motif. Our female protagonist is trying to convince herself of the positive outcome of her breakup. She has, for instance, one less bell to answer. She also doesn’t have to make him breakfast or pick up after him. (“One less egg to fry/One less man to pick up after…”) What was the nature of this couple’s relationship? Clearly he lived with her or spent evenings at her apartment (since she used to make him breakfast and pick up after him). So why doesn’t he have a key to her apartment? Why does he have to ring her doorbell every time he comes over? It’s possible that the relationship simply hadn’t gotten to that domestic level yet. But if the couple weren’t that committed to each other, why was he coming over to see her, as opposed to coming inside with her after a date? And why was she making him breakfast? Shouldn’t he have been taking her out for meals? Was he married to someone else and simply dropping by occasionally to have sex with her and spending the night? There isn’t any suggestion in the song that the couple had a life outside of the woman’s apartment. And it seems that the woman (a sixties “career gal”?) owned or rented the apartment herself because at no point in the song does she contemplate having to move now that the affair is over. However, her initial defiance gives way to her depression as she admits that “All I do is cry.”
At first “I Will Survive” seems like the seventies sequel to the sixties “One Less Bell…” “At first I was afraid, I was petrified,” admits Gloria in the prelude, almost picking up the story where Marilyn McCoo left off. But now that the man is gone, Gloria has “spent so many nights” contemplating what a jerk this man has been to her and “grew strong.”
What makes this song distinctly a statement of the seventies, is that it is about a happy ending to a breakup…but there is no second man picking up the pieces. Gloria hasn’t found “somebody new”, she is “somebody new.” She is the woman that post-breakup Marilyn McCoo could have been if she’d had access to Ms. Magazine, consciousness raising, therapy and disco. (And maybe she’s the “woman” Marilyn McCoo could have been if she’d been a post-Stonewall gay man!)
The man is different too. Unlike Marilyn’s beau, Gloria’s man had a key to her apartment. (“I should have changed that stupid lock; I should have made you leave your key…”) Unlike Marilyn, who waits for the doorbell to ring, Gloria has come home to find him there “with that sad look upon [his] face.” It doesn’t really sound like he’s a lover who has returned to a woman he misses. He sounds like he’s back because he needs a roof over his head. He’s been castrated and now Gloria is the one with the power.