Come at me for saying this, but Debbie Harry remains the greatest white woman rapper. She came about that distinction on the strength of one song, Rapture, which in 1980 became the first rap song to achieve mainstream popularity. Here she is again in 2003, proving that she’s still got it. Now you may point out that Harry is not very good at rapping and her verses are kind of nonsensical. Well, yeah. I never said she was the best. There’s not a whole lot of competition in the white women rappers category; to the best of my knowledge there are maybe two or three. There’s Iggy Azalea, an Australian whose emulation of black culture is one bad suntan away from straight-up minstrelsy, and Yo-landi Vi$$er, a South African whose work is only tangentially related to American hip-hop. And then there’s just Deborah Harry, who’s not a very proficient rapper but can claim credit for helping to popularize the genre, which definitely makes her the most culturally important white woman in the game.
Here’s a Blondie song you may not have heard on the radio. Because deep cuts from 2003 don’t come up through the cracks very often, not when you can keep playing the old hits. Anyhow, I thought The Curse of Blondie was a pretty great album (especially for a band that had been in and out of hiatus for nearly 20 years.) But it was definitely a weird one, thematically at least. The band was meditating on things not usually found on a pop album; aging, death, the squicky metaphysical implications of May-December romance, and the idea of reincarnation, which some people apparently find romantic.
The first time I heard this song was in concert and I was both thunderstruck and confused. Where was this song from and how had I missed it? I thought I knew every Blondie album through and through. I though it sounded like it might be from the Rapture era. It turned out, of course, that I couldn’t place the album because it didn’t exist yet. It’s quite the honor, at this late date in history, to hear a new Blondie single directly from up on the stage. The point made being that Blondie still has a direct pipeline to the creative spirit that gave them their most euphoric hits. This certainly could have been right at home on one of their 80’s albums, when Blondie was a hit-making machine.
As a policy, I have to state that I am firmly against cattiness, gossip, judgement and self-expression shaming, in all of their forms. It is wrong. Oh, who am I kidding? There’s nothing in the world more fun than being catty at someone behind their back. We all do it. With relish. All the time. No matter who we are, or what our station in life is, we will never hesitate to eviscerate a total stranger’s choice of clothing. Just yesterday I heard a homeless man go into a rant about people who wear knitted hats; he was offended by a hipster in a bright orange knitted beanie. He was right. It was a terrible hat. So yeah, making fun of the poorly dressed, the pretentious, the basic, and the try-too-hards is one of life’s great joys. This Blondie song is the ultimate anthem and the ultimate send-up for anyone who’s ever enjoyed the sport of talking shit about people. If that stings coming from someone as impeccable as Debbie Harry, just remember that she left the back of her head its natural color because she sucked at dyeing her own hair.
Blondie’s music is always such a shot of vitality. It’s music to listen to in cold weather, because it gets the blood pumping. And on the dance floor, of course. I’m sure that Debbie Harry with her attitude and glamour was like a bolt of lightning in the dark, coming into the punk scene in the seventies. That attitude and style hasn’t aged in the intervening years, and the neither has the music. Like I said yesterday, things that have achieved classic status are immune to changing fashions.
The popularity of rap music begins with Blondie in much the same way that the fashionable bindi traces its history all the way back to Gwen Stefani. That is, it doesn’t. At all. But, long and complex history of cultural appropriation aside, in 1981 it was a novelty song by a pop group named after the color of its singer’s hair that gave middle American viewers of MTV their first taste of a new and exciting musical style that was fomenting within the coastal, urban black community. “What is this cool new sound that cool people in New York City are listening to?” Bible-belt Americans asked themselves. “I must discover this Fab Five Freddy for myself, posthaste!” they said. While I doubt that hearing Debbie Harry rap about space aliens really did all that much to turn a generation of suburban white kids into Run DMC fans, the adage that it takes a blonde woman to get black culture’s foot in the mainstream door continues to hold true.
Do only men get to push the boundaries of decency by lusting after adolescent girls? No, not if that girl is Brooke Shields. Pretty Baby, of course, is the once-controversial 1978 movie is which then 12-year-old Shields played a child prostitute turned child bride. Shields was the Lolita of the 70’s & 80’s, known for appearing in risque movies and photoshoots from a shockingly early age. Needless to say, she inspired untold numbers of statutorily illegal boners. Debbie Harry, meanwhile, made her songwriting mettle by gleefully satirizing every creepy and gross gender convention that pop music took for granted. Blondie’s first single was called Sex Offender, after all, and their catalog is full of songs about following some hapless sap’s car downtown and similar escapades. So, of course Debbie Harry had to pay winking tribute to the nubile ingenue who was the toast of the jet set and the subject of pearl-clutching outrage. I get that it’s a parody of a gross pop song, but the element of satire slightly lightens it. It’s still, if you think about it, one of the queasiest pop songs ever. Remember, Brooke Shields was 12 years old, and Deborah Harry was a grown-ass woman who would later come out as bisexual. Obviously, the two knew each other, and all things considered, a lighthearted song about being the object of desire by an older woman who most likely probably didn’t mean it was the least creepy thing Brooke Shields had to deal with. The broader social context, as usual, is gross beyond belief, because yeah, precocious teenagers exist to be sexual chum in the eyes of the world, and the best anyone can seem to do with it is wink and shrug.