This anthem’s status as an end-of-night cliché could make it harder to appreciate but it has been said that it is "regarded by the feminist movement as a totemic statement"
Some tracks are such party standards that it’s hard to listen to them without their cultural associations taking over. From bawdy and ironic karaoke renditions of Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin‘ to drunken singalongs to ‘American Pie’, some songs end up becoming countless memories of nights out that blur into one. Sister Sledge‘s 1979 hit ‘We are Family‘ seems to fit into that category. How many of us have cringed the morning after, as we remember having one too many and ending up in an affectionate and sweaty dancefloor huddle with a bunch of equally inebriated strangers, all declaring sudden family bonds during this track?
Produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic fame and with a then relatively unknown Luther Vandross on backing vocals, ‘We are Family’ was the group’s breakthrough hit. Along with ‘Lost in Music‘, ‘Thinking of You‘ and ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer‘, it is also one of their most well-loved and sampled tracks. (Two more of their strongest tracks are less well known: ‘He’s Just a Runaway‘ is a striking song in all its forms that looks like it might have a history worthy of a post of its own and ‘Easier to Love‘ is a groovy downtempo number that featured as the B-side to ‘We are Family’.)
I was first switched onto the possible feminist history attached to ‘We are Family’ when a journalist got in touch with The F-Word a few years ago, asking if we were aware of the hit being an anthem for the feminist movement. We weren’t able to offer more information and the subsequent newspaper feature never surfaced (as far as I know!) but I’ve listened to the song differently ever since. In terms of being able to pin down any such significance, the notion that ‘We Are Family’ is “regarded by the feminist movement as a totemic statement” does indeed come up a lot during searches and seems to stem from an old 2006 biography piece about the group. There are also plenty of references to the song as a feminist anthem and celebration of sisterhood. There doesn’t seem to be anything out there about where this connection started to take shape but there are plenty of personal accounts dotted around:
“One of the first anthems that lead me to the floor was Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” which brought everyone to their feet, eager to wave their arms over their heads and shout together in a show of solidarity, not necessarily for feminism, but for just being there.” (Jill Dolan, during a lecture at a Cornell University conference in April this year, talking about her early experiences in lesbian bars)
This sums up the song’s ability to bring people together. Whether the theme is gay pride, feminism or simply the bonds of family or friendship, ‘We are family’ has become a cliché for good reason. I’d say the memories of it that make us cringe are precisely what make it great too.
YouTube description: Static picture of The Very Best of Sister Sledge 1973-1993. Black sleeve with a head and bare shoulders shot of Joni, Kathy (top), Debbie and Kim (bottom).