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.
“Picture this, a sky full of thunder/Picture this, my telephone number”
Even in the most tender love song, Debbie Harry shows her craziness. She wants to sit and watch her man shower; she teases him for working in a garage. Those aren’t particularly weird things, but those are weird things to put in a love song. It’s a tone markedly different from the established one. It may not even be a love song, really. She wants him but she may not even like him. She certainly doesn’t look up to him, or need him. She’s a girl who sets the pace and knows what she wants. She’s the kind of a woman who walks up to men in bars, I bet. She’s the type who throws your number away and never explains why. In short, Debbie Harry is the kind of a woman who really doesn’t care about roles and boundaries, even when she cares a lot about people.
I love hearing Deborah Harry pay homage to one of her biggest influences. She does such a great – and straight faced – job reinterpreting The Shangri-Las’ classic single. In fact, Blondie blows the original away. Girl group tropes delivered with a nudge and a wink have always been the basis of the Blondie sound, but this tribute is totally heartfelt, and therefor far less campy than the original. The Shangri-Las’ mildly naughty bad-girl image was the thing that set them apart from all of the other girl groups in the sixties, but their singing was never quite on par with the Motown groups. They weren’t exactly risque, but their songs were deliberately melodramatic in the spirit of pulp comic books and other teen-based entertainment of the time. Harry puts a more adult spin on the material and finds some real heart in it.
Apparently Debbie Harry wrote this after having a stalker of her very own, but most people don’t know that. Since she wrote it in the first person, it sounds like she is the creepy one. And it’s not the only time. I’ve noticed before that stalking is, in fact, a favorite theme for Debbie. Obviously, being who she is and being on the receiving end of unwanted attention, she would know all about it, but she never takes the tone of a victim – not one smidge. She seems to identify more with the creepy side of the equation. Clearly, being creepy and obsessed knows no boundaries, and even rock’n’roll’s greatest bombshell sometimes feels that she has to follow some guy downtown just to see what he’s up to. Of course, it’s all in fun, and you can take it as a winky-eyed commentary on whiny passive-girl song tropes. It’s a commentary on romantic song tropes in general, and gender roles, and double standards, and all of those weighty things (if you want it to be.) Or it may be a lesson that if someone ignores you, you should definitely follow them downtown. Or it’s a joke, the punchline being, this woman was stalked by a former lover and wrote a hit song about it and now she never has to take the E Train again.