She stands stock-still in the middle of a chock-full changing room. It’s teeming, practically heaving. As rotating faces scuttle in circles with strange offerings—a mile-high blonde beehive, disco ball dresses, the occasional Diet Coke—Debbie Harry is quiet. I had sidled in moments before with a bellyful of crackling nerves.
Snap back a few hours: I’d been sliding change across the counter, grabbing a morning coffee. My phone buzzed, flashed “Private.” I picked up and jumped when I heard the bark: “This is Debbie Harry, and I’m lost.” Already anxious to interview a woman so personally definitive, I nearly dropped the phone. It was a bit of a shock, not least because it’s always a frantic publicist—never the talent. After stammering out incoherent directions to an essentially unmarked midtown studio, I hung up and nearly heaved.
Snap back to set. She’s demure, and she’s assured. In the midst of the madhouse, she manages to get what she wants with real grace. No, she’d rather not wear those particular glittering heels, but thank you. They’re lovely. We begin the interview as she swaps out looks. The moment she sets her eyes on mine and shakes off as many fluttering fashion hands as she can, my anxiety melts. She’s curious and attentive, and she’s ready to talk.
This September, the iconic Blondie—original members Chris Stein and Clem Burke included—dropped a new record, Panic of Girls, their first in eight years; their ninth in thirty-five. Add in the five that carry Harry’s solo work, and toss out a rough estimate that’ll account for the dozens and dozens of other artists’ records she’s played part in (from the Ramones to the Jazz Passengers to the Heads to Fall Out Boy to—!). It’s staggering.
“I think David Byrne did the song ‘Stay Hungry,’” she says. “It’s hard to stay hungry. Being financially secure, it takes away a certain amount of drive for some people, so the concept of stay hungry is really good. But if you’re dedicated to what you do and enjoy what you do, that’s the heart of it all.” In typical Harry fashion, Blondie fashion, Panic of Girls is a product of brazen curiosity. It cast a wide net over culture (in the biggest, most vast sense of the word), and in the two-year slow drag back, it picked up bits of Spain. France. Brooklyn. There’s the old school new wave—it leans on that familiar reggae backbone at times. Others, it’s dressed up in slick new synth-punch duds. It’s stacked with homage—the album’s first single, “Mother,” is an upbeat electro-celebration of the defunct nineties New York club of the same name. A breezy cover of Sophia George’s 1985 hit “Girlie Girlie” brings Jamaica to the table, and a swelling, gentle rendition of Beirut’s “Sunday Smile” is a nod to modern indie darling Zach Condon (“Beirut’s so cool,” she says).
Decades after Blondie brought rap to the Billboard charts (“Well now you see what you wanna be / Just have your party on TV”), Harry continues to act as an antenna, channeling everything rousing in current pop culture. After so many years of keen scrutiny, she must boast a trove of knowledge that’d trump Trivial Pursuit. She shrugs lightly, as if it’s simply the norm. “It’s fun to fish around, search, pick things out,” she says. And after a thoughtful pause: “You know who I miss? I miss Missy Elliott.”
It’s not the norm, though, this constant questing for cultural currency—this thirst to evolve and produce and never stop. Too many artists fizzle and flop, or get bored. They get crammed into some winsome pigeonhole, or lose touch. Not Harry. “I’m proud of a lot of things, but I think the best thing I can say is that I keep improving,” she says, her speech easy but earnest. “Whether people think I am or not, I feel that I am. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
An impressive feat indeed, as most folks would struggle to pop up and out of the scene Blondie emerged from—a scene so often romanticized by the rest of the world. “I was just trying to survive,” she says. Those who showed face at CBGBs, who prowled Bowery and punched out panicked power chords and begged for simple, for tough and fast and loud, who pegged punk for the L.E.S and the country and the world— those folks landed, ultimately, branded: be tough be brash live fast die young. This legacy is interminable.
“It’s been idealized in a lot of ways,” she says. “It was a tough time in New York. The streets were much more dangerous in those days, so it was exciting in that way—you had to watch your back all the time. I don’t think that it’s like that anymore.”
These days, still—stroll around. Check the stick-thin, stone-tough blondes tipped against the crumbling mortar corners of downtown New York. They’re flipping their fringe, acting hard, but still dangling and dripping and languid. (“I’ve seen my influence in editorial, in fashion, more than I have distinctly in artists,” she says.)
This is power: creating a scene that 30, 40 years later continues to draw legions of prickly, heart-bursting junkie-wannabe dreamers to an idea, a city, a street. The droves keep flocking. They’re hunting the specter of a scene that physically trickled down the city sewers long ago (“It’s the end, the end of the ’70s/ It’s the end, the end of the century”). That original was ephemeral. It was fresh and it was special. And then it was Oi!. And it was new wave, it was postpunk, it was “Love Will Tear us Apart.” Streetpunk, skate punk, hardcore. Then, it disseminated, it diluted, it fell six feet under. Physically speaking.
In this quest for immortality—this perpetual tender quest for crisis—it’s a rare occasion that an experience-hungry kid will step back and assess what truly lasts.
Present for it all was Debbie Harry, is Debbie Harry. She took her scene, took this punk, and shook it till it suited her. She took these frenzied fifths, this desire for fast and easy, and injected more. More intricacies, more observation—all of it fearless, all of it her own. Blondie fused funk into the pop currency, dropped reggae into dance radio, and that was only the beginning. Still, after all of this, after decades, Harry seems to center herself as an artist, rather than an icon. She balks a bit when I ask where she’s seen her own influence manifest, and she’s not even so sure she’s ever been successful at communicating her message (don’t be afraid, be an individual).
Still, after all of this, she’s level, without even a tinge of the jaded, been-there-done-that noseup. Still, after all of this: “I don’t know if I feel like I’ve taken any risks,” she says.