While Patti Smith was singing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine,” and Television sang “I remember how the darkness doubled” from the stage of New York’s legendary punk palace CBGB’s, Deborah Harry and the rest of her band, Blondie, sang charming little three minute pop ditties, like the ‘50’s doo-wop girl-group pastiche “In the Flesh,” or ‘60’s California surf garage combo tribute “In the Sun.” No foreboding proclamations about the end of the world or devotions to sniffing glue in the basement from Blondie. Instead, Blondie offered classic American pop music with a great beat, memorable melodies, and infectious hooks.
They were everything that punk rock was advertised to be against. There was no revolutionary sloganeering, feigned amateurism, or nihilist posturing with Blondie. At their best they produced some of the most upbeat and danceable, or melodic and romantic, pop tunes of the whole punk era. Their albums always sounded great, and Blondie was an identifiable brand before that sort of thing became popular.
Much of Blondie’s mystique was generated by their enigmatic and instantly recognizable frontwoman Deborah Harry. Whether one hears her adorable New Jersey accented vocals, or spots her trademark pout on the side of a building, or something like that, Deborah Harry’s presence is iconic and recognizable within seconds.
And why shouldn’t she be? She has been everywhere and done everything within pop culture’s media landscape long before everything was connected within a few seconds by the click of a mouse. Harry’s presence emanates from a time when word travelled slowly and the world was a lot more fragmented, and less homogenous, than it is now. Deborah Harry and Blondie emerged from the DIY ethic of punk rock, which meant that groups had to do the work and make the rounds for their voices to be heard.
And that’s what Blondie did. And then they became huge. And then they were criticized in the press as sellouts.
Whatevs…haters gonna hate, yo.
A quick look through Blondie’s earliest MTV videos, like “Heart of Glass,” “Rapture,” and “In the Flesh” reminds us what a great sense of humor and style Harry had, and how it contradicted the typical punk ethos of cacophonous seriousness of, say, The Clash or the Sex Pistols. Blondie seemed to revel in the ridiculousness of it all, while at the same time enjoying themselves and inviting their audience along for the ride. However devastatingly beautiful Deborah Harry always was, she never appeared unapproachable as gothic ice queen Siouxee Sioux, but there was still always a distance from her that one couldn’t transcend. Deborah Harry always seemed like she knew something that you didn’t know. But that was okay. She never hated you.
Then one remembers that all of Blondie’s classic MTV videos were produced before there was even an MTV. Although 1980’s “Rapture” became the first “Rap” song played on MTV after it debuted in 1981, it and “The Tide is High” and “Heart of Glass” and “Call Me,” etcetera, became # 1 singles through radio airplay and record sales alone. They did not have the advantage of an MTV or Clear Channel media conglomerate push that became so prevalent in the later 80’s and 90’s. Records rose and fell on their strength alone, and Blondie’s short reign at the top was a result of hard work, great songs, and almost relentless self-promotion.
Despite being denigrated by punk “purists,” like Johnny Ramone, for selling out to commercial interests, Blondie had a knack for prescience and marketed themselves masterfully while maintaining the insouciant cool of their beat generation idols. As well as helping introduce punk rock and new wave to mainstream American pop culture, Blondie also introduced mainstream American airwaves to hip-hop with “Rapture,” to graffiti art with 1979 single “The Hardest Part,” successfully merged disco and punk, long before it was hip, with 1978’s “Heart of Glass,” merged reggae and pop with 1981’s hit single “The Tide is High,” and was the first band to make videos for every song on an album with 1979’s Eat to the Beat.
In time, Deborah Harry would collaborate withGiorgio Moroder,Andy Warhol,Nile Rodgers andH. R. Giger. She went on to advertise Gloria Vanderbilt’s Murjani Jeans in 1980 as well as sing “Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog on The Muppet Show. Heck, she even fielded questions from children on TV for Saturday morning’s “Kids Are People Too,” before returning to children’s television in 1993 for an episode of The Adventures Of Pete And Pete
In 1983, she starred in David Cronenberg’s awesome mind control epic Videodrome, and in 1988 she was hilarious as the overbearing, suburban mom in John Waters’ Hairspray. She has created a fairly stunning film career for herself over the years, appearing in over 30 films including My Life Without Me, Spun, and Cop Land.
Deborah Harry’s frontwoman status was a largely thankless task, as Blondie was not taken seriously by the CBGB’s crowd from whence they came, and were continually criticized as a lightweight pop concoction by members of the “serious” rock press. What Blondie managed to achieve, however, was a well-crafted performance art piece accompanied by a kickin’ soundtrack.
It seemed that nothing was off-limits to the Blondie aesthetic, as art, fashion, music, and film collided years before the internet made such multi-media behavior easily accessible, or acceptable.
In 2006, Blondie was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Shirley Manson of Garbage, and 2013 sees the 40th year of collaboration between Deborah Harry and her musical partner Chris Stein.
Chances are, whatever experience any female musician can imagine having, or might have in the future, Debbie Harry has been there first. She showed that it is possible to maintain one’s feminine identity against the overwhelming odds of a male dominated industry, and that women don’t need to be mindless meat puppets in an industry that is always looking for the next big thing.
Debbie Harry said it was okay to be beautiful and smart and silly at the same time. She said it was okay for a woman to be tough as well as vulnerable. Mostly, though, she taught us that it was always best to just be ourselves. Especially with a good song and a great beat.
Anthony Galli currently lives in Athens, Georgia. He shares a birthday with his black cat, Magic, and they both claim Wings of Desire as their favorite film. Anthony has published two books of poetry, Amnesia for Insomniacs and Invisible Idiot.