This past weekend, on Aug. 18, marked the 25th anniversary of the release of pop singer/songwriter Debbie Gibson’s debut album, Out of the Blue. At that time, in 1987, I was just a wee thing at 5 years old, and wasn’t hip to the day’s pop hits. I knew children’s music such as Raffi, Tim Noah and Joe Scruggs; I knew the music that my parents listened to, like the oldies (Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Connie Francis, Gary Lewis, etc.), classical, and some adult contemporary stuff; and I knew what I heard in movies. One thing I definitely wasn’t keen to was Debbie Gibson.
But, for whatever reason, my mom bought me Debbie’s album on an audiocassette tape and that was that — I was a Debbie Gibson fan. In first grade, I had friends who fawned over Paula Abdul and New Kids on the Block. We would meet for playdates and they’d play those tapes. “Paula Adbul is my FAVORITE,” my friend Michelle would rave while we drew pictures (hers being exclusively of horses, another one of her FAVORITES) and I would shrug. “Do you wanna listen to Hangin’ Tough?” one of my besties Alison would ask while we jumped rope in her driveway. One thing all of these friends had in common was that they did not have any albums by Debbie Gibson, MY favorite.
Now, I know Debbie must have been a formidable pop star; Electric Youth did reach No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, and its first single, “Lost In Your Eyes,” sat at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. But I can’t help but see her as sort of an underdog among all the other pop stars of her time. Everybody knows all of Janet Jackson’s and Madonna’s hits. That stuff dominated airwaves, and certain radio stations will still play all those old favorites. What radio station ever plays “Only In My Dreams”? So I suppose it feels all the more appropriate to me that my mom serendipitously chose Debbie Gibson to be my childhood pop music model. It could have been anyone else, but it was the underdog. The one who was really doing something special, something different, from all the people who were doing the same thing. It’s things like this that make up the core of my being, and that’s why Debbie was the one for me.
She was just 16 years old when her debut single emerged. Her wholesome teenage innocence went very well with my pre-grade school inexperience. I couldn’t much relate to her lyrics, but the very simple beats and rhythms were something a little girl like me could definitely grasp. Remarkably, Debbie has no co-writers for any songs on Out of the Blue. What you’re hearing on that album is genuine teen angst. “Staying Together” has the kicking, screaming mark of a stubborn young adult trying desperately to avoid heartache, while “Play the Field” celebrates the freedom of young love, encouraging her peers to “let yourself go wild” and “have some fun,” without trying to be tied down to one person. Out of the Blue isn’t terribly complex and not especially insightful, but anyone who’s ever experienced teenage hormones can hear a little bit of themselves in these songs, which makes this album probably a little bit better in retrospect.
In 1989, an 18-year-old Gibson released her sophomore record, Electric Youth, on my 7th birthday. It’s no surprise that this was the album that she really broke through with; it’s easily what I’d consider the best overall work of her career (though I actually stopped buying her albums after Anything is Possible in 1990 because that was when hip-hop and grunge began to take over my heart). Once again, Gibson takes full responsibility for the writing credits on this album, but this time her lyrics reflect a much better understanding of love and emotions.
“We still live for each other, but still we keep pretending that there’s no love in disguise,” she sings on “Love In Disguise,” a number whose melody is more chipper than its message. Her youthful yearning for romance is still strong this time around, perhaps beyond reason, but the way she describes it shows creative growth. “You never ever put me down, but when you speak, you turn around, and saying not much is saying a lot,” Gibson expresses in the chorus of the forlorn “Silence Speaks (A Thousand Words).” She spends equal amounts of time on Electric Youth soaking up love and wringing it out. But no matter which, she does it beautifully.
As I said earlier, I didn’t buy any Debbie Gibson albums beyond 1990’s Anything Is Possible. This third release has a handful of truly great songs, but is a little too full at 16 songs and may be a bit overambitious with its variety of musical styles. It’s Gibson’s first album to include Lamont Dozier as a co-composer on some tracks. The songs I love on this record I REALLY love, but I was so fatigued by those that would have worked better as scraps (“Stand Your Ground,” “Lead Them Home My Dreams” and “Negative Energy” are all fairly terrible with wayward ventures into gospel choirs and funky rhythms) that I felt like she’d reached her peak and was on her way down.
It actually wasn’t until I was older that I truly appreciated most of the good songs from Anything Is Possible. “Sure,” “Try,” “In His Mind” and “This So-Called Miracle” are all in fact superior to many songs from her previous two albums.
I may not have kept up with Debbie after that, but what I already had lives on with me to this day. I can still sing along with any of her songs as soon as they start playing. Just like whenever Harley riders pass other Harley riders on the road, whenever I meet another Debbie Gibson fan, I give them a signal of approval, of community, of understanding. Usually it’s sort of an excited squee of “OH MY GOD, YOU LIKE DEBBIE GIBSON?!” because that’s just how rare it is for me to meet fellow fans. So a big high-five to all my underdogs, and keep up that Electric Youth.