A Dance to the Music of Time — “Heart of Glass”

A Dance to the Music of Time is my attempt to pinpoint exactly why I like pop music (and also try my hand at music criticism). It’s entirely subjective, but if you’re interested in starting a conversation I’ll be down in the comments. It’s gonna be published whenever I feel like it and I’ve no intention to target specific songs — when a song gives me joy or makes me think hard enough, I’ll do it on the spot.

The Song: “Heart of Glass”
from the 1978 album Parallel Lines by Blondie
peaked at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100

Let’s admit it: even though “taste is subjective” is one of the most commonly touted adages on Earth, nobody would ever say that any unfettered kind of taste is a good thing. There has to be a couple of standards which we hold works of art (including pop music) against. For centuries we’ve used loads of objective measurements: melody, lyrics, harmony, and so on. (To be fair, a lot of people still hold pop music to this — musicologist Alan Pollack’s laudable series of analyses on Beatle songs is something I’ve devoured again and again.) But these days, our standards are more subjective. How long am I going to remember this song? Does it tell a good story? Does it fit my standards of decency — and if it doesn’t, is that the song’s fault or is it mine?

I’d argue that one question, however, now overwhelms all the others: is a song, for lack of a better word, truthful? For a song to hit us, we need it to not only have emotions, we need raw emotions that lay bare the soul of the singer/songwriter, emotions that we can hopefully relate to and find ourselves in. Examples: in “In the Air Tonight”, does Phil Collins actually sound angry? When Billie Eilish says “duh”, does she actually feel like she couldn’t give a shit like the titular “Bad Guy”? To not sound genuine not only risks turning the singer into a mere machine, spouting words that they do not mean: we also feel, to some extent, cheated. The pop song becomes merely a money-making exercise, our emotions toyed and played with. Nobody likes that. But the weird thing about “Heart of Glass” is in how it looks at this question of authenticity, smiles — and then cheerfully flips the bird at it.

“Heart of Glass”, coming from Blondie’s 1978 breakthrough album Parallel Lines, is kind of an oddity. Part of Blondie’s disco experiment, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein didn’t think much of it and only pushed it forward when their producer asked them if they had any more songs (how is it that a lot of great works start off as throwaways?). It’s really just your typical, average heartbreak song, the lyrics couldn’t be plainer about it — but at least that emotion’s perfectly accessible, right? Lots of people experience heartbreak, and how hard can it be to replicate that in your voice?

Blondie looked at that, and decided to go the other way. To say that “Debbie Harry sings the song plainly” would be understating the point. Actually, even “understating” is an understatement: listening to “Heart of Glass”, you become amazed at just how antithetic her voice is to the lyrics, right from the moment Debbie Harry’s vocal descends from the heavens to tell you “once I had a love, and it was a gas”. (A gas? We’re not describing a vaguely pleasing roller-coaster ride. This is LOVE.) It’s not just that there is no emotion within Debbie’s voice: it’s how she sounds utterly bored with the whole thing. It is impossible to find a person that might sing this song with more don’t-give-a-damn energy: her voice simply comes and goes, lightly floating over the surface of the words as if they are mere facts that she’s reciting (“oh yeah, that guy was once my boyfriend. Anyway…”).

Of course, we might be tempted by another thought: perhaps this is all part of the presentation. Perhaps the singer has become so shocked by this parting of the ways that she’s become emotionally catatonic, unable to respond, or to even state the facts with a shred of emotion. But come on, does Debbie Harry look like the sort of person who’d allow herself to be shocked senseless? I mean, look at the music video for the song. (It’s a different cut, but the visual aspect is instructive, so you’ve got two versions coming up here. I make no apology.)

She SMILES as she delivers the words. Her voice is a masterclass in ennui — maybe it’s mild irritation, even, in realizing that she’s being asked to sing about someone who she’s forgotten about already. She and the band seem to be intentionally fouling it up: sneering at the camera, dancing at the mic to a relentlessly upbeat tune that in no way fits the mournful lyrics. In one of her interviews, Debbie Harry said that she sang it like this cause “people break up and then they move on, it’s not that big a deal”. I’ll be prepared to challenge that: breakup songs have such a huge market because it’s a big deal. Nobody goes to pop songs for the history stage — we’re trying to grieve, to gripe about that bastard who dumped us. Even the songs that say “I don’t need you anymore”, those contain a kind of anger/anguish within, something that tells you that this mattered, once. None of that is in “Heart of Glass”. So either we come to the undesirable conclusion that Debbie Harry is a psychopath, or that we need to accept that this is all just a performance.

I would be very happy to leave it at that. After all, when I wrote about ELO’s “Here Is The News” I said so much about pop being theatrical, and who am I to argue against myself? “Heart of Glass” does seem like just another version of such a performance — constructed, catchy, and designed to pull at your heartstrings.

And yet. That disconnect in emotions bugs me. The fact that Debbie Harry still manages to tug at our heartstrings despite the complete lack of emotions there piques my interest. I used to listen to this song and feel extremely weirded out. I wasn’t miffed by the apparent lack of emotion — being Asperger’s makes you realize just how easy it is to not have emotions, and how easy it is to fake them and twist them around, make them come out in a completely ironic voice. (God knows how much I did it when I was young.) But I will own that I was amazed: most people would, in a performance, try to show their full range of emotions — I’m capable of understanding these complex feelings, I’m the one who knows how you feel. Blondie going for the complete opposite — on the hit that made them famous, no less — flew in the face of everything I knew. So I can’t treat this as simply another performance: how she manages to pass this off as just another meaningless piece of her romantic history, when the common convention is to cry and weep, seduces me and draws me in.

And on taking another look at the music video, you kind of realize why. Debbie Harry might portray a look of complete boredom, but the way she looks at the camera, the way she sings everything, makes me think there’s something else. Those bored tones, how she sings about how she’s “in between ‘what I find is pleasing’ and ‘I’m feeling fine’”? She CAN show those emotions — she just chooses not to. And that control over her emotions gives her the upper ground: she’s able to deal with it. She’s able to sing about heartbreak in a totally blithe way without even batting an eyelid. What about you… punk? (Strange, that, how the punk so easily becomes the righteous one in music.)

The more you think about it, the more wondrous it feels. If you’re listening to “Heart of Glass” and you find yourself relating to the lyrics — dear God, “lost inside adorable illusion, and I cannot hide” is just so damn good even if the grammar is atrocious — then you’re already a step below Debbie Harry, and you can’t help but envy her. Here’s a person who’s got her shit together, who knows how to deal with these things — deep down inside, we all want to be her, and yet we know we cannot, could never achieve it in a million years. But those emotions still wait to be purged, and so for now you dance to her tune, the optimist/fantasist in us hoping that one day, we will be the one in control of the song, that we’ll be the one “riding high on love’s true bluish light”.

It’s a narrative that Debbie and Chris are fully aware of too. The production gives the song itself an otherworldly feel: Debbie Harry’s plain vocals as mentioned before, but also the synths flashing in and out in the background during the verses like shooting stars. And when the lyrics stop before the four-minute mark, before we’re even two-thirds through the song, the instrumental version of the bridge replaces it: playing over and over till the record fades out. (I always can’t help thinking that this is all part of the performance — Debbie too bored to continue, the band takes over.) In that two-minute gap, you feel the richness of the organ, the presence of that deep voice in the background, and suddenly it’s not just music surrounding you. There’s something like light there too: as if you were rising slowly into the heavens, dancing ecstatically towards something that offers you hope. You don’t know what it is, but it seems like an exit. Why not give it a go.

And that basically brings us back to our main point. At the beginning of this piece, I suggested that we listen to pop simply because we look for genuine emotion, trying to find a kindred spirit who will understand us — and maybe call up emotions that we long to have as well. And that’s true of a lot of songs: from the bliss of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, to the anger of “Rolling in the Deep”, we feel heard when we listen to these songs. “Heart of Glass”, though, buoyed by a relentlessly upbeat tune and deadpan vocals from Blondie’s main singer, is already one step ahead. It knows that we’re miserable and it gives our misery a voice within the lyrics, but it does it in a way that also points us toward an ideal — “look, this is what you could be like. Isn’t being like this better?”. The best of both worlds.

And it works — at the end of the day, there’s no guarantee that pop music can actually help us get through tough situations, as with many things in life. But simply by being there, and by nudging us forward, “Heart of Glass” is like its softer counterparts: in the way it gives us hope, and the motivation to one day find our way out of the labyrinth. And what more could you want, really?

(Cover copyrighted to Chyrsalis Records.)

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