The Case for Blondie as the Sound of the 70sBreaking News
tags: 1970s, pop music, popular culture, cultural history, Blondie, Deborah Harry
Kevin Dettmar is the W.M. Keck Professor of English at Pomona College.
No decade is dominated by a single genre of popular music, but the 1970s was arguably more motley than most. What is the sound of the ’70s? Is it … folk rock? (Neil Young’s Harvest turned 50 last year.) Progressive rock? (Prog’s nadir, Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans, was released in 1973 and promptly crashed under its own weight.) How about disco? Punk? Post-punk? New wave? Reggae? Rap? Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. And what do we do with Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell, one of the 10 best-selling albums of the decade? Is bombast a genre?
But if you were to drill down through the decade and pull up a core sample of ’70s pop, it would come up Blondie—and would look, in fact, very much like the band’s eight-disc box set, Against the Odds: 1974–1982, which is nominated for the Best Historical Album Award at this weekend’s Grammys. As the academic and artist Kembrew McLeod has written, Blondie was a mediator between the experimental music and art scene of downtown New York City and the larger pop audience. But more fundamentally, I’d argue, the group was also a conduit and popularizer of a wide variety of new rock and pop sounds.
A simpler though maybe less charitable way to say this is that Blondie was a musical sponge rather than an innovator. One of the astonishing things about David Bowie’s career is the way his antennae were attuned to the newest fresh thing happening in music: Time and again, he seemed to arrive on the scene before it was a scene—be it Krautrock, disco, ambient, or “plastic soul”—and to leave before the party went bust. Blondie, by contrast, was more reactive than inventive, reflecting rather than leading the music scene in which they were immersed.
And they were immersed in nearly all of the most vital music of the 1970s. A track from their earliest studio sessions, for instance, is artlessly called “The Disco Song.” Although it’s not clear from the Afropop-inflected demo that the band yet knew what disco sounded like, they had certainly figured it out by the time of the song’s commercial release, as “Heart of Glass” on the 1978 album Parallel Lines. When the band was founded, progressive rock was on life support; “Fade Away and Radiate” (also from Parallel Lines) features guitar work from the prog god Robert Fripp and stands as a loving elegy. Attuned to and energized by the street revolution in pop music coming out of the Bronx, they recorded the well-intentioned if cringey “Rapture,” which became the first, well, let’s not call it “rap song,” but song featuring something like rapping, to top the U.S. charts, in 1981. That same year, they went to No. 1 on both sides of the Atlantic with their cover of the rocksteady (post-ska, pre-reggae) song “The Tide Is High.” Across their career, and throughout the ’70s, they were a genre chameleon.