Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Blondie's Debbie Harry: Trailblazer
On October 24 - man that seems so long ago, but it was about 3 weeks ago - Billboard Magazine held their 3rd Annual Women in Music breakfast at the swanky St. Regis Hotel in NYC, which coincided with their Women In Music issue. The music biz trade journal honored Blondie's Debbie Harry with their Icon Award, given to a woman whose art and career have blazed trails for successive generations.
There is a video on the Billboard Magazine website where you can watch the interview with Debbie.
One of the things she addresses is the socio-political and economic condition of New York City when Blondie first formed in the mid 1970s. New York City was on the brink of bankruptcy - total economic disaster. The City was asking the Fed for a bailout... sound familiar? The chasm between the haves and have-nots in the city was huge; the trickle down effect of rampant poverty turned the city into the dystopian, post-apocalyptic vision that paved the way for the depiction of the Big Apple as a Rotten one in John Carpenter's Escape From New York. Let me connect the dots a little more... people out of work can't pay their rent... multiple tenants in apartment buildings can't pay their rent and the landlords just stop taking care of the buildings, which fall into disrepair... landlords leave the buildings for dead... the apartment buildings devolve into squalor and turn into squatter's havens... and NYC was like that even in the mid 80s when I moved there!
However, the chaos, disenfranchisement and discontent were fantastic fodder for art -- which is what you'll hear Debbie say if you watch that interview video stream on Billboard's site.
Chaos has historically been good for art, and punk rock was the art that bloomed in the 1970s as a result of the socio-political and economic chaos.
In times of chaos, anything goes. There are no rules, and if there are, you just break them. The mid-to-late 70s was a time when women could flourish, fresh off the heels of the first wave of feminism making inroads with respect to equal rights and the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision which admitted that women can take control over their personal affairs, beginning with the most personal business of all - their bodies.
How can a singer in a band be a trailblazer for generations that followed her in light of all this cultural upheaval? Debbie Harry knew opportunity when it knocked and she opened the doors for aspiring performers - men and women alike - to live their dreams in public, and to experiment with their art forms. Debbie Harry mentored both Pleasant (pictured with her above) and me in many ways simply by being like a cool big sister. Everyone in Blondie, however, let us shadow them and their friendship and support certainly helped us realize our goals and build our futures.
As the focus of the group Blondie, Debbie Harry certainly opened a lot of doors with her charm, charisma and campy on-stage persona. Even though Blondie was a part of the pioneering underground punk rock movement, they were able to make mainstream success from it, commandeering the charts with a punky brand of power pop as well as a pop kind of dance music and later in their career, were on the leading edge of commercial artists who embraced a new underground genre - hip hop.
It was on their album Autoamerican that Blondie continued to embrace other genres within their pop punk discipline and break down musical barriers. The nascent hip hop movement, born in NYC was reflected in "Rapture," a dreamy punk disco number that broke into a rap with Debbie name-checking local hip hop luminary Fab Five Freddie in the song. Reggae, long a favorite genre of UK punks, was reflected in the cover, "The Tide is High" where Toronto's favorite punk daughters, The B Girls (pictured with Debbie above, backstage at their Whisky a Go Go gig) sang back up.
2008 was certainly high time to recognize Debbie Harry as a trailblazing icon. Her punk friends and fans have known it all along. Welcome to the club, Billboard, and thanks.
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