Stewart was known for his soulful blues and folk ballads, but this song was a disco departure, and it gave him a new look. He attracted many new fans, but alienated many of his old ones, who had no interest in disco and fondly remembered Rod as a member of The Faces, where he earned a reputation as hard-rocking party animal. Reflecting on the song in the May 1995 issue of Mojo magazine, Stewart said: "I think it's one of those songs that everyone can remember what they were doing in that particular year. It was one of the 10 songs that summed up that whole dance/disco period. And that's what music's about surely, to bring back memories."
Speaking in Esquire in 2012, he said: "I used to be embarrassed to sing 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy,' but people love it. So it's in the show."
Most of the music for this song was written by drummer Carmine Appice, who had recently joined Stewart's band. Appice told Songfacts
: "We were in the studio and 'Miss You
' by The Rolling Stones was a big hit. Rod was always a guy that used to listen to what was going on around him. He was always looking at the charts and listening. He was a big fan of The Rolling Stones, so when they came out with "Miss You
," disco was really big at the time, so he wanted to do some kind of disco-y song, something like 'Miss You,' nothing like Gloria Gaynor.
With the band, he would always tell us, 'I want a song like this' or 'I want a song like that,' so I went home and I came up with a bunch or chords and a melody. I presented it to him via a friend of mine, Duane Hitchings, who is a songwriter who had a little studio. We went in his studio with his drum machines and his keyboards, and he made my chords sound better. We gave Rod a demo of the verses and the bridge, and Rod came up with the chorus. We played it with the band many, many ways before we got the correct arrangement with Tom Dowd. Unfortunately, they put so much stuff on it that it dwarfed the sound of the band. It made the band sound smaller because it had strings and two or three keyboard players, congas, and drums. When we were doing it, we thought it was going to be more like The Rolling Stones with just the band playing it. It came out and went to #1 everywhere."
The distinctive riff came from an instrumental song called "Taj Mahal" by a Brazilian musician named Jorge Ben. When Ben filed suit, Stewart agreed to give proceeds from the song to UNICEF. He later recalled in his book, Rod: The Autobiography: "I held my hand up straight away. Not that I'd stood in the studio and said, 'Here, I know: we'll use that tune from Taj Mahal as the chorus. The writer lives in Brazil, so he'll never find out.' Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple."
There is a blues guitarist named Taj Mahal who made his own version of the song using this same riff. The title, and also the only lyrics in the song, is "Jorge Ben."
Co-writer Carmine Appice said in his Songfacts interview: "If you look at the lyrics, it was a story. Rod told stories in his songs: 'The Killing Of Georgie
' was a story, 'Tonight's The Night
' was a story. Any of his songs are like little mini-stories. This was a story of a guy meeting a chick in a club. At that time, that was a cool saying. If you listen to the lyrics - 'She sits alone, waiting for suggestions, he's so nervous...' - it's the feelings of what was going on in a dance club. The guy sees a chick he digs, she's nervous and he's nervous and she's alone and doesn't know what's going on, then they end up at his place having sex, and then she's gone."
Stewart claims this song is not about him, as it is sung in the third person.
Stewart used "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" as the name of his 1978 tour. He would wear tight spandex and gyrate on stage. When he sang the title line, hoards of women would scream back, "Yes!"
This went along with the Hollywood lifestyle Stewart had adopted. He moved from England to Los Angeles in 1975 and quickly fit in with the glamorous crowd. Dating blonde models was his specialty.
This was promoted by an unusual "video-within-a-video" showing people watching Stewart perform the song on a "television screen." The concert footage was taped first - whenever Stewart forgot the lyrics, he'd turn his face away from the camera.
Stewart was ahead of his time from a marketing standpoint. Not only did he make a video for this song before MTV was even a glimmer, but he also released a limited edition 12" version that was guaranteed to be a collector's item because only 300,000 were made. The album was also released as a limited edition picture disc with graphics printed directly on the vinyl as well as a cardboard pull-out of Stewart's face. 100,000 copies were pressed.
A Chicago disc jockey named Steve Dahl released a parody called "Do You Think I'm Disco?" which became a weapon in the war on disco music.Disco Demolition Night
took place at Comiskey Park in Chicago on July 12, 1979. Between games of a doubleheader between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, Dahl blew up a box of disco records in the outfield. Fans were given reduced admission for bringing unwanted disco records to the game, resulting in a huge crowd that was there for the mayhem rather than the baseball. Chaos ensued as the crowd rushed the field, tearing up the grass and making the second game unplayable.
Paris Hilton recorded this in 2006 on her first album.
The string line came from the Bobby Womack song "If You Want My Love, Put Something Down On It." Said Stewart: "I told Bobby and he thought that was real cute - 'cos you can nick string lines without breaching copyright."
Stewart was slagged by critics for the song's provocative lyrics and for a promotional drive featuring him in a skin-tight Spandex outfit. He writes in his book, Rod: The Autobiography, "Music critics... wrote off 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' as the work of a terrible show-off. It was only a pop record, but you'd have thought I'd poisoned the water supply... It didn't help that the marketing campaign for the single had me stretched out in full Spandex-clad glory beneath the slogan 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?'"
Stewart earned Grammy nominations in three different genres, all in the same year - 1979. "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" was nominated for Best Pop Vocal, Male, and for Best Disco Recording (the only year this award was given). Stewart saved face with his rock fans with a nomination for Best Rock Vocal Performance, Male, for "Blondes (Have More Fun)."
The female lead in the video is the Norwegian model Lillian Muller, who was Playboy's Playmate of the Year in 1976. She later appeared as "Miss Chemistry" in Van Halen's "Hot For Teacher
This seems like a song that would become dated quickly, but it remained a crowd favorite throughout Stewart's career. He played it on tours in every decade, fully aware of the camp factor. At concerts in 2015, a quote from his younger days would appear on the video screen when he performed the song: "I don't want to be singing 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' at age 50 and be a parody of myself."
DNCE released a new version of this song in 2017 featuring Stewart. They teamed up to perform it at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards. Stewart opened the very first VMAs in 1984 with his song "Infatuation."