When Debbie Harry moved to New York in the late 1960s, she began carving out a life that would eventually explode into stardom.
After waitressing at hotspots like Max’s Kansas City and becoming a Playboy Bunny, Harry joined various bands, including The Wind in the Willows and The Stilettos.
As a vocalist in the latter, she met the guitarist Chris Stein, with whom she quickly formed Blondie in 1974. The band released their self-titled debut album two years later, which garnered moderate success. Harry became known for her iconic bleach-blonde hair, making a name for herself and the band as they frequently played underground venues like CBGBs.
However, when the band released their third album, Parallel Lines, they emerged from the underground and became international stars. Harnessing the energy of the punk movement that defined New York, Blondie blended other genres into their sound, giving them a unique edge. Disco was a club staple during this time, with artists like Donna Summer and Chic riding waves of popularity.
Blondie tapped into this market, creating music that blended disco with punk and pop sensibilities, subsequently finding worldwide acclaim.
The disco-infused single ‘Heart of Glass’, released in 1979, was a massive hit, becoming one of the biggest-selling songs of the year.
By 1980, Blondie continued to expand their sound further, with the song ‘Rapture’ incorporating a rap section inspired by Harry’s introduction to New York’s hip-hop scene. It hit number one on the Billboard charts, making it the first song featuring rap to reach the top.
Harry’s position as lead vocalist, commanding the stage with a fearless sense of femininity, was groundbreaking. In her memoir, Face It, she wrote: “I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game.
I was saying things in the songs that female singers really didn’t say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass, too.” Harry was unapologetic in her approach to performance, never compromising her identity to fit into the patriarchal music world.
Blondie’s fusion of genres was abundantly influential on their peers, becoming champions of the new wave movement that dominated the late 1970s and early 1980s.
However, by 1981, Harry had moved on to solo music, and the following year, Blondie’s sixth album, The Hunter, performed poorly, leading to the band’s first split. Harry spent time caring for Stein after he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, sporadically releasing music and beginning an acting career.
The singer appeared in movies like Hairspray by John Waters and Videodrome by David Cronenberg, proving that she had more than just musical talent. Over the coming decades, Harry continued performing, acting and releasing music, reforming Blondie in 1997. The band released the single ‘Maria’, which went straight to number one, signalling Blondie’s enduring popularity.
Alongside Blondie’s innovative contributions to music, Harry’s unapologetically feminine persona has been a significant source of inspiration for many successful female artists. Namely, artists like Madonna – one of pop’s biggest sensations – were inspired by Harry when she moved to New York in the late 1970s.
She once said, “In the very, very beginning, when I was just starting to write music and stuff, I was inspired by Debbie Harry. She seemed very in charge of what she was doing, and she also had a sort of wittiness about her and street smarts, and I liked her. She was a role model.”
These days, Blondie still perform, and Harry, now in her late 70s, hasn’t let ageism prevent her from taking to the stage, recently delivering an impressive set at Glastonbury Festival. She once told NME, “There’s always been a prejudice against age and ageing and that has to do with survival.”
Harry, who rose to prominence in her 30s, has often faced media scrutiny as she’s gotten older, facing the brunt of ageist comments considerably more than her male counterparts. However, her insistence on continuing to perform is an inspiration to countless female musicians who must navigate a field that prioritises youth.