From the Boudinet Archives XI: The Ingenious Sexual Nature of Debbie Harry

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18 avr. 2012, 21h36m

Note: As I alluded to in my Favorite Albums journal entry, in college I wrote a number of essays touching upon the subject of popular music. Every essay included in these journals was written between 2007 and 2009 and in the MLA format, so please excuse the at-times somewhat forced academic subtext of these essays.

Goddamn, I love Blondie. If I had grown up in the 70's, I would have tried to emulate the style of all the males in the band, and without a doubt I would have longed to date a girl who was as strikingly beautiful and impossibly cool as Debbie Harry...actually, come to think of it, that's exactly how I feel right now. Anyways, this paper was written during my Junior Year, back when I my appreciation for the band, while strong, still remained underdeveloped. This paper changed all that, and granted me a better understanding of just how subversively ground-breaking both Debbie Harry and the band itself truly were.

Transforming the Notion of “Blondie:” The Ingenious Sexual Identity of Debbie Harry

Introduction

Pop music history is rife with female musicians who have impacted the greater American culture by acting as the voices for the female gender as a whole, utilizing the artistic medium and commercial recognition to voice concerns prevalent to the female populations of their era. From Aretha Franklin’s calls for “Respect” to Chrissie Hynde’s plea for sexual female empowerment in the “Middle of the Road,” female artists have had a lasting impact as the witting or unwitting spokeswomen for their generations. Unlike movie and television stars with whom they shared the spotlight, many of these female artists spoke through their own words in their artistic mediums, challenging notions ranging from the disparity of power with regards to gender to the sexualizing of women in the media. Often, these women eschewed conventional female roles in society and took a more avant-garde approach to their music and lyrics within the context of the times, thus allowing modern Americans to gain a sense of the prevailing social and personal concerns of women from different eras. If one were to encapsulate the most important female artists within their certain time period, he or she would certainly place Aretha Franklin within the Feminist and Civil Rights movements of the 1960s and most likely Madonna within the growing material prosperity and personal empowerment of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Yet, one important female artist that often remains overlooked in this respect is the embodiment of the cutting-edge, hipster aloofness of the disco and new wave cultures in the late 1970s and early 1980s: Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie. Innovative and unique in ways previously unmatched by her female predecessors, Debbie Harry represented the growth of feminine power within American society by appearing, quite simply, confidently invincible. Representing the ultimate combination of several pre-existing feminine media darlings, Harry was the Marilyn Monroe bombshell beauty, but with the wily cunning of Patti Smith, a cutting-edge socialite with a callous streak. Everything about Harry, her look, demeanor, vocal tone and lyrics indicated that she was untouchable, completely independent of any male influences. Whereas the most-praised of her earlier peers, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Joni Mitchell to name a few, garnered legions of fans through their emotional, personal testimonies and nature of their character, Debbie Harry represented the post-modern contradiction of modern female stereotypes through her music and her image, leaving an important legacy for future females in pop culture.

Background

Foremost, as the lead singer of Blondie, Harry fronted one of the most successful groups of the changing music scene that occurred during the transition from the 1970s to the 1980s. “Striking a balance between edginess and catchiness, Blondie enjoyed hit records and artistic credibility - a best-of-both-worlds situation that few others (the Police, the Cars and Talking Heads come to mind) pulled off in that era” (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). This balance of edginess and catchiness was also embodied in Harry herself, who took an iconoclastic approach toward promoting her own progressive views on society while using her sex appeal to add an extra element of commercial intrigue to the band. Backed by four nattily-attired, yet faceless male band members, Harry was the premiere focus and voice of the group, which rose to prominence as part of the New York underground rock scene. The group’s music was featured catchy rhythms and danceable beats, but the feature of Blondie that made it instantly recognizable was Harry’s high-pitched, emotionally restrained vocals. The band’s obvious musical talent and Harry’s instantly mesmerizing vocals and physical appearance made pop success almost a certainty, but, led by Harry, Blondie chose instead to challenge conventional notions of the methods a band could use to gain both respect and popularity with the release of their iconic third album, Parallel Lines, in 1978. The album, heralded in 2004 as one of the top 150 records in rock and roll history by Rolling Stone magazine, demonstrated the band’s highly-cultivated attitude streamlined through Harry as the group’s visionary leader, and was championed to be “a perfect synthesis of raw punk edge, Sixties-pop smarts and the cool New Wave glamour Blondie invented” (Rolling Stone).

Subverting Beauty

Although well-established and respected within the influential New York punk music scene at the time, Blondie became pop superstars with the success of, inconceivably, the disco hit “Heart of Glass.” The song itself represented everything avant-garde about Blondie and Harry herself, the song’s title evoking her dispassionate recollection of a broken relationship with both a hypnotic and icy vocal delivery. The song, which embraced the shallow modern dance craze of disco during the time, was ironically rebellious coming from a punk group, and this formula of manipulating shallow cultural clichés embodied Harry’s own approach to being a female artist. In fact, much of Blondie’s musical and lyrical content was a highly intellectual parody of these genres, “Heart of Glass” at once mocked the elitist views of the New York underground while conveying its own vapid nature as a disco song through its soulless title. Yet, in breaking into the Top 40 charts, “(Blondie’s) conquest was no minor feat, as it meant overcoming music-industry wariness about punk and New Wave, which challenged the established order (…)they spiked their songs with New Wave freshness, vibrancy and attitude. In so doing, Blondie helped usher in a changing of the guard” (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Moreover, this “changing of the guard” mentality also applied to the new notions of feminism that Harry’s new pop icon status provided to mainstream young girls who admired her tenacity, poise, and defiance of cultural norms and traditions as a dispassionate socially elite woman in the pop spotlight.

Blondie would make similar surprising, seemingly ill-advised genres shifts throughout their career with Harry at the forefront, and both the band and Harry’s riskiest move occurred in the song “Rapture” on their 1980 album AutoAmerican, where Harry delved into territory unvisited not only by any prior popular female artist, but by any popular white artists by rapping the song’s verses and referencing hip-hop and inner city subculture authoritatively and successfully. This groundbreaking move, captured as one of the first music videos, exposed Harry to the utmost scrutiny of critics and public who recognized that a female vocalist was the first to summon the courage and cross into such once-forbidden territory with grace and ease. As if dispelling notions that women could not dictate rock’s most masculine-oriented subcultures was not enough, Harry appeared determined to confront centuries-old social myths about the perceived dangers of interaction between a rebellious black male and an attractive white woman, attempting to push the social agendas of unfairly stereotyped citizens even further. For once, men were not the distinct cultural trendsetters in pop music, and though the album would be the group’s last hurrah, Harry’s musical legacy as a female artist who could seduce listeners with her hypnotic voice, adapt seamlessly to any genre no matter how unconventional, and helm one of the most prominent bands in a masculine dominated musical movement while critiquing the latter’s arrogance made her the demonstrative representation of the new feminist generation, which corroborated the prior generations’ intellectualism and self-awareness with a newfound sense of independence, capability, and invulnerability for many young women.

The Identity of Debbie Harry

Equally important to Harry’s influence as a female pop culture icon was her personal image, not because she had the rare sex appeal of a Playboy Bunny (which she also happened to be before fronting Blondie), but because she manipulated her beauty into a part of a greater image that, on a shallow level, made her a tempting, untouchable fantasy for men, but with a deeper sense of ironic criticism directed at society’s own misguided attempts to pigeonhole her as just another blonde bimbo socialite. In a 1993 interview, Harry asserts her distaste for society’s stereotyping of her both as an attractive blond woman and as the frontwoman for a rock band: “‘Blondie was easy (…) a compact theatricality that was easy to understand. I made my own image, then was trapped by it’” (Eileraas 136). As Harry’s legacy grew, her upper-hand with conventional society of the 1970s became apparent; she was not the beautiful, melodramatic heir to Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac, nor was she the radical Patti Smith rebelling in angst against the injustices of society. Instead, Harry represented a new breed of women who, instead of rejecting or suffering less-progressive parts of greater American society, used her God-given talents and tactful grasp of persuasion to control and influence groups of people to her own advantage, even as they failed to grasp just how savvy and innovative she really was. For example, rather than downplay her beauty as part of the punk underground, Harry utilized it to her advantage, since the shallow Playboy Bunny image directly conflicted with hipster notions of being intellectual and independent of bourgouise social norms.

By naming the band Blondie, Harry recognized her own physical beauty and powers over men, poked fun at the notion that her physical features defined who she, and the band she fronted, truly were, and yet called attention to the trait anyways out of ironic fun, perhaps knowing implicitly that the more enlightened listeners could appreciate its irony while the less enlightened listeners would buy the band’s newest record. The Parallel Lines record’s depiction of a Harry dressed in an elegant, yet slinky nightgown standing obstinate in front of the band with her fists placed at the hips in playful anger presented the perfect image of the singer as coy, modern, confident, and sexual all at once. Rolling Stone’s review of the album in its “Rolling Stone 500 Albums” list echoes this sentiment in its praise as well: “Deborah Harry, of course, invented a new kind of rock & roll sex appeal that brought New York demimonde style to the mainstream. Madonna was surely watching” (Rolling Stone). In the pop spotlight, Harry cultivated her unattainable image to perfection, always hinting at sex, but only discreetly, occasionally showing signs of interest only to appear bored once again seconds later. Her portrayal in other contemporary art mediums at the time was consistent in this respect, exemplified in Andy Warhol’s 1980 photography of her: “(The photographs) present the subject in an almost full-facial, or more than three-quarter profile, with an elevated chin and a direct engagement with the reader” (Dyer 37-38). This description of her appearance in art captures just how intimidating Harry could be as a woman, almost daring the viewer to stare her in the eye. In the meantime, she blistered through several years of consistent excellency, achieving hit song after hit song, most in different genres.

By the time Harry had worked her way through punk, disco, new wave, and hip-hop with almost effortless ease, she had developed around her a sense of invincibility that made her the alpha-female of pop music during her band’s five year reign from 1977 to 1982. Her image of untouchable self-assurance during this time was particularly instrumental in empowering a new generation of women who could be self-reliant and confident in their own abilities to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in their own lives, while at the same time setting a higher stand for physically attractive female socialites who remained complacent in their “Barbie Doll” status. Though some remain critical of Harry’s aloof, impersonal image during the band’s heyday, these individuals fail to understand the underlying social criticism and parody behind the more shallow aspects of the image; after all, if nothing else, Blondie’s success in multiple genres illustrated Harry’s unique ability to understand and embrace different cultures and musical genres that she foresaw would appeal to the greater populace with the benefit of more exposure. In this way, her confident demeanor, high intellectual capacity, and subtle acknowledgement of her physical charms represent the classy, sophisticated modern woman that Madonna and Corporate American women came up to embody in the coming years.

Conclusion

As a pop starlet for a relatively brief tenure of five years, Debbie Harry had a lasting impact on the concept of the modern American woman, bridging the gap in male-oriented society with her own brand of feminine mystique. The antithesis to Carole King, Harry established her individuality by manipulating the public through thinly veiled criticism in music that sounded both revolutionary and accessible, much like herself. In general, Harry’s progressive approach toward gender in modern society, as well toward pop music and self-image, made her an important, if sometimes misunderstood figure in modern pop culture. Above all, her unwillingness to remain attached, or in her eyes, held down by a specific music genre or a physical relationship represented the end of the dominant depiction of female sexual icons in pop culture as romantics ultimately seeking domestification, and since her introduction to mainstream America, the self-empowering Madonnas, Oprahs, and Hillary Clintons of the world have been able to thrive like never before.

Works Cited

“Blondie.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. RockHall.com 02 April 2008 <http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/blondie>;.

Jennifer Dyer. “The Metaphysics of the Mundane: Understanding Andy Warhol's Serial Imagery.” Artibus et Historiae 25.49 (2004): 33-47

Eileraas, Karina. “Witches, Bitches & Fluids: Girl Bands Performing Ugliness as Resistance.” TDR 41.3 (1997): 122-139.

“140: Parallel Lines.” RollingStone.com 01 November 2003 02 April 2008 <http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/6598743/140_parallel_lines>;.

Blondie

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