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.
Ahh, the poet’s age old quandary; to do a line or not to. Heh, heh. Pretty clever. Otherwise, though, it’s kind of a sad song. There’s something inherently sad about telephone numbers that never get used, calls that are never answered. It could’ve been something great but it didn’t happen, because apathy. The poet, being too busy doing lines (in all the senses of the word), misses out on whatever it is normal happy people who answer the telephone are out doing. And, the singer being Debbie Harry, she’s probably going to go out later and follow some guy around in the supermarket. But for now, she’s not taking phone calls.
Why on earth was this not Blondie’s debut single? Too meta for the times, I guess. It didn’t even make the album, initially. It’s obviously a great song, so it wasn’t a quality thing. I imagine Debbie Harry might have wanted to deflect the kind of attention that would prevent the band being taken seriously, and comparing herself to “Marilyn and Jean, Jayne, Mae and Marlene” would not have been the way to do that. It’s a tough call, striking a balance between owning your status as a sex symbol, and being governed by it. Harry has kept that balance with remarkable grace over the years. For the most part, she’s had fun playing with gender tropes, winking at both the femme fatale and the wilting wallflower. But it can’t have been easy, and I understand her reluctance, as a fledgling in the music industry, to release a song that appears to invite being viewed – and judged – as a fantasy figure in a long line of fantasy figures. Now, of course, it’s a clever mission statement from a woman who’s redefined what it means to be a platinum blonde. Platinum blonde isn’t just a fashion; it’s a concept of womanhood, one that doesn’t necessarily benefit the woman wearing it. Or, if it benefits her, it does so at the implied expense of other women. Debbie Harry has been one of the few blonde icons whose blonde identity isn’t inexorably entwined with tragic victimhood. Her image wasn’t forced on her by a male Svengali. It wasn’t a facade to cover crippling self hate, or a disguise in which to escape from a horrible life. It wasn’t a survival strategy, used to float more or less unharmed across the hostile waters of systematic patriarchy. No, Harry would be blonde, and she would be sexy, but she wouldn’t accept that it’s a woman’s burden to suffer willingly or be punished. If blondes are supposed to have more fun, Debbie Harry is going to have more fun.