Debbie Harry is about pulling off the impossible. Her vocal performances shouldn’t work: how can you sound distant and intimate at the same time? You can’t, and definitely not in a pop song. Yet Harry does. Her stage persona–the untouchable glamor girl who still shows every ounce of her vulnerability–should be a train wreck (file under “Love, Courtney”). Instead, the front woman’s presence has helped propel a four-decade career for Blondie. Pop music owes this band a lot. The new wave pioneers spent a decade in the 70s and 80s experimenting with an eclectic mix of musical styles like disco, hip-hop, and reggae, inviting the predictable wrath of punk’s self-appointed bore brigade. But it’s hardly an exaggeration that Blondie opened up more lanes for more artists than any New York band since The Velvets. And they’re not stopping. Friday sees the band complete an 18-city tour with fellow path-breakers X, at the Roseland Ballroom, and then it’s back to the studio to complete their 10th album, tentatively titled Ghosts of Download and due out next year. We sat down with Harry to talk about sexual personas, World Beat, and what “selling out” really means.
You still live in New York City, and it’s very different from the mid-70s. Does its current incarnation fill you with hope or despair?
I don’t know if I’d use either of those words. The city always changes very quickly and I’ve been here long enough to see a lot of shifts. It’s inevitable. Gentrification, a population explosion, and changes in communication have made a major difference in the life of the city. And that’s part of what Ghosts of a Download is about. It’s about the spirit of something being in the medium. How spirits now live in the digital realm, and how that has altered our lives.
Are you saying that the real spirit of NYC is vibrating inside the music and art that comes out of the city? That the city is not about what it looks like, but about the digital echo of stuff we make?
Yes, I think so. The city is a reflection of the music and other art made here. That’s what the city is.
People romanticize the decrepit New York of the 1970s. How do you feel when people do that?
I don’t always think about the past. I’m always motivated towards the future and creating new things. I miss a lot of the people who are no longer with us from the ’70s, and it would be wonderful to hear or see what they’re doing now. I’ll tell you this: one of the things that hit me after 9/11 was phases of mourning–you go from sadness to anger, and all the rest… but one of those phases was me thinking “God, I wish it was the ’70s again”. It was because of a great feeling of freedom and love and innocence in that decade. It wasn’t easy or romantic on a day-to-day basis: it was a struggle. It was scary. Sometimes it was ugly and nasty. But it was a whirlwind full of life: not a single atonal picture, but a wild world of experience. Chaos is a great factor in making art happen. And we had a fundamental chaos going on with the state of the city. With our music, Blondie were trying to do something that harkened of the past–a trace of the pop of the ’60s–while still reflecting our subculture and harnessing some new technology. We were lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Blondie constantly grew the musical map for the mainstream. Punk, disco, hip-hop, reggae… you guys always expanded the territory that pop music was exploring. What’s next?
The beats in our current record are more like World Beats. The references are bigger. And we’ve done a lot more collaboration with other artists. Chris [Stein, Harry’s former partner, Blondie co-founder and bandmate] did a lot of work with Systema Solar from Colombia. And we have a song that’s not truly indicative of Maori culture, but a very sweet one–by a New Zealand band called Dukes. This album is a dance record, but doesn’t really fit into the dance music trends of the moment.
The tentative new album title–“Ghosts of the Download”–sounds ominous.
It’ll be interesting for a moment. But the record will have a digital lifespan. It’s predictable that it will soon be obsolete, and become even more ghost-like. Maybe that’s just a bunch of metaphysical claptrap, but things move very quickly now.
Things live forever because they’re digitized, but it’s our attention that gives them life. And people are always making new things, making old things obsolete. That’s a powerful idea.
I’m sure I’m not the one to originate it.
The band released a record in 2003 called The Curse of Blondie. Was your stage and cultural persona–the magnetic blonde–a curse?
[Laughs] I don’t walk around calling myself Blondie–I think of Blondie as the group. But I know that in the public’s mind I am Blondie. I don’t feel cursed about looking the way that I look. It’s been good for business. And on a personal level it ‘s very nice to be loved, appreciated, fawned over, all of those things. I’m a lucky girl.
From very early on, you became a sexual avatar in pop music: something that men and women could project all kinds of things onto. Do you have any advice for the pop stars of today–the Miley Cyruses of this world–bout how to handle that?
It’s a different world for them. You have to develop your own sense of personal radar, your comfort zone, your strengths. The most important thing is to be willing to challenge. The public has to feel challenged by you. And that’s a difficult position to take. It’s an essential part of being a pop star. You have to risk some sort of emotional exposure and embarrassment and realize how important it is to put all of yourself on the line.
Do people pander more than challenge these days?
People are very career-minded now. Rock and Roll has taken on a real show business mentality. When I was coming up it was more counter-culture. It’s better to be an underdog like that because it gives you more liberty.
What’s your proudest moment in music so far?
Gee. I don’t know. Maybe a few very small moments in performance or writing, when you surprise yourself. “Wow, that was me?” It was great to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but it’s the little, intimate moments of self-realization that stick with you.
I’m not very dissatisfied right now, so that’s a hard question to answer. I guess right now, the big disappointment is that we haven’t gotten a big radio hit since “Maria” [in 1999]. That’s one of the great things about Blondie. We’ve been able to have a credibility and an undertone and an edge that broke some rules, and yet still have a commercial life. And that’s not an easy thing to do.
Commercial success vs. credibility. How do you ride that line? People love the phrase “selling out”. What does that phrase even mean to you?
I’ve never particularly liked it. It’s about people’s bitterness. In a way, it’s about possessing things. When the music you like becomes more popular, you feel like you don’t own it any more. You become off-balance. I don’t think that I have to be in any kind of format. There was a time when blending different styles of music was completely verboten. Which is where some of that “selling out” attack comes from. We were highly criticized for “Heart of Glass” because it was considered to be too much of a disco song. But in today’s market that doesn’t mean a thing, thank god.