Blondie is one of the most well-known and beloved bands to come out of the legendary downtown rock scene that emerged from the bowels of Manhattan clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB in the 1970s. Capitalizing on punk’s mainstream crossover success, they cleared the way for other punks with pop sensibilities (like Joan Jett), and helped usher the painfully hip downtown New York art scene onto the national stage. In the latest entry in Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series of small paperbacks on classic albums, author, filmmaker, and University of Iowa professor Kembrew McLeod explores the history and lasting influence of Blondie’s 1978 breakout Parallel Lines, the album that propelled them to the top of the pop charts, largely on the strength of singles “One Way or Another” and the disco smash “Heart of Glass.”
In this excerpted chapter, “Gender Trouble,” from a section titled “‘Disco Sucks,’ ‘Chicks Can’t Rock,’ Blah Blah Blah,” McLeod touches on Blondie’s relationship to contemporary attitudes on sexuality, androgyny, and misogyny. It’s important to note that while the band’s positioning of Deborah Harry as a punk pinup was deliberate and calculated, that image was inevitably coopted by forces outside their control.
Blondie’s ‘Parallel Lines’ is out now on Bloomsbury.
Even though punk grew from glam rock’s queer roots, it was still a tangled mess of progressive and regressive attitudes about sexuality. This was especially ironic, given that the word “punk” started out as prison and street slang for gay men (as usual, the irony was lost on many).
“Gay liberation had really exploded,” Legs McNeil recalled in his punk oral history, Please Kill Me. “Homosexual culture had really taken over — Donna Summer, disco, it was so boring. Suddenly in New York, it was cool to be gay, but it just seemed to be about suburbanites who sucked cock and went to discos.” Legs and his friends railed against this perceived herd-like mentality, and they pulled no punches.
“So we said, ‘No, being gay doesn’t make you cool. Being cool makes you cool, whether you were gay or straight.’” Many downtowners didn’t like their attitude, and they called the Punk magazine contingent out on it. “And of course, being the obnoxious people we were, we said, ‘Fuck you, faggots,’” McNeil recalled. “But as far as us being homophobic, that was ludicrous, because everyone we hung out with was gay. No one had a problem with that, you know, fine, fuck whoever you want.”
The irreverent bad boy image that was integral to the Punk version of punk reinscribed the casual sexism that had long been embedded in rock’s DNA. Take, for example, the two-page “Punk Playmate of the Month” centerfold, which featured Debbie Harry in issue four. “Blondie is the sexiest chick on the New York underground rock scene,” the introductory text salivated. “What else need I say? Just look at the pictures. Look at the pictures.”
“When we did that Punkmate thing,” Chris Stein explained, “there wasn’t really that 1950s pin-up sensibility happening in rock’n’roll, so it was a very instinctive thing to do. It totally fit with our aesthetic, since we were revisiting things from the past. Also, it was a great way of getting the word out about the band, which is why I sent that photo of Debbie in a zebra dress to Creem.”
“I don’t mind posing for photographs. It’s part of my art form,” Harry said in 1978. “Being a photograph, being an actress, being a sculptor. It’s all creating image simultaneously.” She sculpted that image in collaboration with several friends, such as Anya Phillips (who designed Debbie’s dress on the Plastic Letters album cover) and Stephen Sprouse.
“Stephen would find things for me to wear, or go through my collection of rags and put them together so that it had a strong visual look,” Harry recalled. “He was really psychic and I think he probably saw that I was exploring and trying out a lot of different looks and needed help. He took me in hand and helped me put the polish on.”
“We knew that Debbie’s looks could help us connect with people, to gain people’s attention,” Stein said. “So it was kind of an obvious idea to present that image of her, especially because in the beginning we weren’t being played on American radio.” This helped at first, but it became a double-edged sword. “At a certain point, my looks became the focus of attention,” Harry said. “And a lot of journalists seemed to be reviewing my looks rather than our music.”
In 1975, New Musical Express critic Charles Shaar Murray dismissed Harry as a “cute little bundle of platinum hair with a voice like a squeaky bath toy and quite the cruddiest garage-type garage band I’ve seen.” He concluded with an inaccurate prediction wrapped in chauvinist condescension: “Sadly, Blondie will never be a star simply because she ain’t good enough, but for the time being I hope she’s having fun. Whatever her actual age, though, she’s spiritually a part of the Great American Nymphet Tradition.”
Similarly, the record company promotional ad for Blondie’s early single, “Rip Her to Shreds,” piled stupidity and misogyny atop leering sexism. It featured a tough-but-sexy shot of Harry — arms crossed — positioned alone under the headline, “Wouldn’t you like to rip her to shreds?” Another ad used the same photo with the headline, “This young lady plays around” (“This young lady is Deborah Harry,” the ad copy stated, “lead singer of Blondie, one of America’s premier new wave bands” … blah blah blah).
“We were basically a bunch of clueless artists who came from the New York underground,” Harry said, “and we didn’t really know anything about the big marketing machine and how it worked. Yes, perhaps a little, but we didn’t anticipate just how cynical that other world was.”
The 1970s was still the caveman era in the way that female artists were treated by rock writers and record companies. The punk movement responded by raging against the culture industry machine, carving out space for a new kind of female rocker — one who could be masculine, femme, sexy, and/or asexual.
Patti Smith exemplified this new androgyny, and the same could be said of The Runaways’ Joan Jett, The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, and several other women whose music careers began in the mid-1970s. “The best thing about it,” Hynde said of punk, “was that I didn’t have to rely on being a female guitarist as a gimmick.”
Like Hynde, Joan Jett had one foot planted in the mainstream and the other in the punk gutters. Before racking up Top 40 hits, Jett produced The Germs’ debut album and worked with Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook on her solo debut, Bad Reputation (which Blondie’s Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri also appeared on). Bad Reputation included a version of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” along with covers of other 1960s radio hits — which further aligned Jett with pop-loving punks like Blondie.
During Blondie’s first West Coast tour, Jett developed a close friendship with Debbie and Chris. “I was just a seventeen, eighteen year-old girl who wanted to rock and didn’t think much deeper than that, and I think she just got a kick out of that,” Jett said. “I really felt to a degree a mentor vibe from them, because I could ask them questions about things that they had experience with and I hadn’t.”
“I looked up to Debbie,” Jett continued, “because she was expressing herself in a way that was different than what I was doing, but I really respected her a lot because you could tell a lot of thought went into her writing and the way she presented herself.” Punk opened up new opportunities for women to reinvent themselves, whether it was by dressing outrageously, adopting new monikers, or acting out fantasies in song.
Debbie Harry embraced all of these possibilities. She described herself as “a Walter Mitty type” who, at a young age, imagined alternate realities and fictional characters she could inhabit. By the time Harry was singing in The Stillettoes, she began developing her onstage alter ego — Blondie — who was an amalgam of multiple characters.
“This is reflected in my lyrics which are totally trans- sexual. A lot of my songs are written from the male point of view,” she said in 1979. “I approached the songs from kind of an acting perspective,” Harry later recalled, in 2015. “With each song, I could be a new character. I was often performing lyrics written by different guys in the band, along with my own lyrics, which created very fragmented perspectives.” Debbie Harry was pivotal in the shift from an emphasis on authentic self-expression — which defined the 1960s rock era — to an approach used by 1980s pop stars like Madonna. (Not surprisingly, the Material Girl was a big fan of Harry’s.) Unlike earlier rock stars like Janis Joplin, whose appeal was grounded in “honest” displays of emotional pain and ecstasy, Blondie’s frontwoman was clearly acting, faking it. Irony and artifice would become the new authenticity.