Popular Culture  •  March 5, 1995

Debbie Gibson

For some reason the name Debbie Gibson became a paradigm of naive music. This has much do with the way she was produced and marketed, as well as what she represented. Marketing in our age is a science, incorporating everything from psychology to semiotics, employed by everyone from the president of the United States to pop singers. We are all suckers for them, and we hate our own vain selves that fall for these clever marketing ploys. If a marketing strategy is sophisticated enough, it works transparently. While we all want to deny that we are suckers, somewhere in our sub/unconscious we are aware that we have been taken advantage of.

Because of this, whenever we see an obvious enough marketing ploy, we are repulsed by it. Debbie Gibson became a victim of this phenomenon. It feels good to point our fingers at her and laugh, because it makes us feel in control, but meanwhile we are falling for everything else.

Debbie Gibson’s marketing efforts were lead by her own mother who had no experience in marketing. This is the most likely reason why she ultimately failed. Her mother squeezed as much money as she could out of Debbie, as if she was selling Barbie dolls. There was something visibly crass and shameless about it, and so we pat ourselves on the back for seeing right through it. In essence, we were just pointing our fingers to our own vain selves; it is a case of projection.

Once at a bar after work, I was talking to one of my co-workers on the subject of artistic values. He told me that they are absolute. I asked him to prove it by examples. To my surprise, he brought up Debbie Gibson and the Beatles; the former as the worst and the latter as the best. Then I asked him what the basis of his claim was. He did not give me a clear answer, but I was rather amused by his examples because I had always thought that they were very much alike.

Debbie Gibson’s songs are straight out of textbooks, meaning they rigidly follow all the classic song writing techniques. The Beatles were the same way. Another good example of this type of music is Nirvana. Visually these three are so different that we tend to think they are different musically. Interestingly, according to a biography of Kurt Cobain, he learned song writing mostly from the Beatles.

This necessitates us to separate form from content. In terms of form, popular music usually follows very specific formulas. If you formally analyze songs by Debbie Gibson, the Beatles, and Nirvana, you would see more similarities than differences. It is more interesting, therefore, to compare them in terms of content.

Kurt Cobain and Debbie Gibson are from roughly the same generation, which makes the comparison more relevant. Comparing the Beatles and Debbie Gibson would require us to compare the contexts from which they emerged; it becomes an argument of generational differences.

Kurt Cobain represents the lower-middle class while Debbie Gibson, the upper-middle class. Immediately they have a good reason to hate one another. Kurt Cobain is a victim of a dysfunctional family with alcoholism and divorced, abusive parents, which is common among his class. Debbie Gibson is a victim of materialism and consumerism that afflict her class. That is, she is a victim of hypocrisy which glorified the spirit of money for money’s sake. A little girl who knew nothing of the evils of the world was encouraged to sell herself, like a mother sending her own child to a whore-house. I recall Marshall McLuhan describing William Burroughs as “reacting, not acting”. Kurt and Debbie are also reacting to their own predicaments, regardless of their classes.

In my opinion, Debbie’s songs are well written. They are more than just correctly written songs. It is not easy to listen to her music without forming a certain image of her; the image gets in the way of listening. In our culture, a genre of music serves as a symbol that represents our identity. Punk, Alternative, Rap, Reggae, Jazz, Classical, Blues, etc. are more than just different sections of a record store. We are judged by which section we are browsing around in.

If you must buy a CD of Debbie Gibson for your little niece, you would look embarrassed at the casher, as if you were buying a porn magazine. You would explain to the cashier for whom you were buying it, even though the cashier did not ask you. Why would you be embarrassed by this? Because you would not want people to think that Debbie Gibson represented your identity.

Music has so much to do with our own identities that our ears necessarily become prejudiced by them. A song’s accurate representation of our identities gets the priority over its connections with our souls. That is, if it does not represent our identities, we refuse to listen to it. We may even refuse to like it. But this is rather silly. Identities are nothing more than our egos, images of our own selves. Are we to listen to our egos or to our hearts? Could we listen to music without this sort of prejudice? If we could, Debbie Gibson is not that bad. I guarantee you.