The Return of Debbie Gibson: Electric Youth Never Dies

The time is right for Debbie Gibson to finally get her due as a pioneer. She invented the whole concept of a teenage girl writing and producing her own Number One hits, singing about her own feelings, at a time when the music world scoffed at the idea. Debbie was just 17 when she dropped one of the great pop albums of the Eighties with her 1987 debut, Out of the Blue. She was a songwriting prodigy, but she also had a radical vision: ordinary teen girls deserve to be heard. She’s the godmama to the whole Olivia Rodrigo/Billie Eilish generation of world-beating pop queens. And she’s about to drop her first album in 20 years, The Body Remembers — proof that Debbie’s electric youth lasts forever.

She went into the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest female artist to write, perform, and produce a Number One hit, with her 1988 ballad “Foolish Beat.” The record still stands. In the post-Swiftian world of today, the era of Billie and Lorde and Olivia, nobody can deny the girls know where it’s at. But it took Debbie to open the door. No male Svengali figure, no sexualized posing — just a Long Island high-school theater kid singing her life in hits like “Only in My Dreams,” “Out of the Blue,” “Lost in Your Eyes,” and “Between the Lines.” Anyone who loves pop music in 2021 is living in the world Debbie helped create.

“I always lived for pop music and the radio,” Debbie says now, charming and exuberant as ever. “I still do. I don’t live in the past — I listen to Conan Gray and the Weeknd. I respect the heck out of Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift. I just love a great pop artist who knows how to connect with people on a universal level.”

Her new album comes out August 20th, from Stargirl Records. It includes her new remake of “Lost in Your Eyes,” as a duet with Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block. She and Joey also have a Las Vegas residency coming up in August and September.

Her new tunes go for a delightful vintage dance-floor vibe, in disco bangers like “One Step Closer.” “I love the throwback style of Dua Lipa, Kylie Minogue,” Debbie says. “I love those girls. I miss Donna Summer. I think we all do.” She wrote most of the songs during lockdown. “I was writing both upbeats and ballads, but I was gravitating toward the upbeats just because everybody needs that energy shift now. Pop music does that — it shifts energy. That’s where the title comes from — the body remembers all the visceral moments tied to your favorite pop songs.”

She never let herself get stuck in the past. When pop trends changed in the Nineties, she just moved on to the theater. She starred on Broadway as Sally Bowles in Cabaret, Belle in Beauty and the Beast, Eponine in Les Miserables. (Her 2003 Colored Lights: The Broadway Album is a very underrated gem in her catalog.) “I was never a good strategist,” she says. “Madonna is unbelievable — it’s like she set out to have hits in every decade. And I really didn’t. I preferred my path of, ‘OK, grunge is in, Electric Youth is out; I’m going to explore my Broadway roots now.’ I just go wherever feels natural for me at the time.”

Debbie blew up in 1987 with her Top 10 debut single, the dance-pop “Only In My Dreams.” On the cover, they dressed her up like a chic model — not realizing that her greatness was that she was an authentic suburban geek from the malls of Long Island. She had that unfakeable teen goofiness, like the moment in the “Shake Your Love” video where she uses her shoe to mime a phone call, or the way she painted her knees with smiley faces to show through her ripped jeans. (Her most distinctive fashion statement, along with her U2-style black hat.)

That personality came through in her songs. She topped the charts with “Foolish Beat,” her huge melodramatic ballad. Debbie had never had a real-life boyfriend at that point, but she hit Number One weeping, “I could never love again!” If that isn’t teen realness, what is?

But like young females then and now, she got hostile reactions when she insisted on doing her own songs. “Yes, there was a lot of resistance,” she says. “The label thought it was a fluke — ‘Oh yeah, she wrote one cute song.’ ” Her mom kept pushing. “She was the original momager. Momagers get a really bad rap, but they’ll do nobody else would ever do. And Diane Gibson was at that conference table. It was me and my mom and all men in suits. Everyone was convinced I needed some 40-something male to rewrite and produce. I wasn’t ever gonna ever get myself to Manhattan on my own, let alone convince a conference room full of men to let me produce my own single.”

The suits were skeptical of letting this girl take creative control. “I mean, literally, I can see their shoulders,” she says. “They all laughed, and the suit shoulders went up and down. That’s an image I’ll never forget.”

Needless to say, she was surrounded by men giving her advice. “There was some guy at the beginning hired to critique all my songs that eventually became hits, and I never changed a word. I never listened. And I just remember going, ‘What does this older man know about young girls’ feelings? I don’t understand why they think they can tell these stories better than me.’ It’s not that I thought I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. I just thought, I am the person to connect with my peers. And these puppy-love songs, written from my limited experience? It was speaking to my audience.”

But to the shock of the music business, the fans went crazy. The pop girls can always smell a phony, and they knew she was the real deal. MTV was full of models and poseurs, yet only one pair of painted knees. The video for her best tune, “Out of the Blue,” was just Debbie in her room, with stuffed pandas and a guitar, flipping through a photo album.

Her ballads were the biggest hits, but her disco moves hit even harder — especially “Only in My Dreams,” which bangs in the mode of post-Madonna Fun House electro and freestyle. “I was in three clubs a night, four nights a week — a teen club, a straight club, and a gay club. I was with my two dancers — one was Buddy Castimano, who still dances with me to this day.” He’d defeated Debbie in their 1986 high-school talent show, but later became her choreographer. “He still backflips at 51 years old, God love him. But we hit those clubs. I would sing ‘Only in My Dreams’ live to a track. Everyone was drinking and picking people up, and they were like, ‘Who is this little white-bread pop girl interrupting our evening?’”

But her new songs explore adult life with the same candor as her teen hits. “I’m in an interesting position because I’m 50 and never been married. I was in a ten-year relationship that was like a marriage, but now I’m solo. I don’t have kids. So I live this strange arrested-development lifestyle, which is so much fun for songwriting. My imagination can run wild, you know? “Strings” on the new album—I wrote that after a text came in and it was some guy from my past. A reaching-out message disguised as being selfless, but it was totally selfish and there were strings attached. And literally the next minute I was writing ‘Strings.’ Things just come out in song form when I’m processing something emotional.”

Something that always set her apart: she was a pop classicist with a sharp sense of history. As a kid in the Eighties, she raved about how her songwriting idol was Billy Joel. Now she laughs uproariously when she’s told that Olivia Rodrigo also sings about Billy Joel in “Deja Vu.” (That Billy — always the downtown man inspiring every new generation of uptown pop queens.)

But for someone who had such an impact on the music business, she’s surprisingly modest about her own place in that history. “I’m not gonna lie — I do appreciate when the young girls give me props. I’ve met Gwen Stefani and P!nk many times, and those two girls have always given me my props. They respect that history. And when I started, I respected the history. Marie Osmond, Lesley Gore, Rosemary Clooney — I respected that they were teenagers doing it before me. I remember being on one of the big morning shows with Lesley Gore, feeling like, ‘This is an honor,’ even though she was my mom’s uncool music. I love Rosemary Clooney’s autobiography, Girl Singer. She was on the road at 16 when it also was such a male-dominated world, but she was the only cool girl allowed to hang out with the Rat Pack.

“I do hope that these younger girls are up on the history too. And by the way, I’m here if they ever want to reach out, because I can tell them about all the twists, turns, pitfalls, and everything else. Because nothing really changes but the dates, you know? It’s the same. And I have the map.”

She’s kept busy in recent years, from hosting “Debbie Gibson’s Mixtape” on SiriusXM to doing a bizarre cameo on a Circle Jerks album, dueting with the L.A. hardcore punks on a cover of Robyn Hitchcock’s “I Wanna Destroy You.” She starred in the excellent Hallmark movie Summer of Dreams, and the sequel Wedding of Dreams, playing a former pop star turned teacher who worries that she peaked at 15. (Spoiler: she hasn’t even peaked yet!) She also showed off her comedy chops in the Syfy trash classic Mega-Python vs. Gatoroid, alongside her longtime friend and fellow Eighties teen-pop starlet Tiffany. When they’re trying to escape the monsters, it’s Debbie who utters the punch line: “I think we’re alone now.”

“I’ve lived a lot of life in the last 20 years,” she says now. “I’ve not been a pop princess in a bubble. I’ve lived a whole life since the Eighties. But I pay homage to the Eighties now from a modern viewpoint, like everybody else. People are even releasing things on cassette again. Olivia Rodrigo is doing a cassette, you know?” Like a lot of her fellow Gen Xers, she has to marvel at the electric-youth powers of Gen Z. “One of my primary musical collaborators on the album is a kid named Sean Thomas, who’s 19. I met him when he was 13. He played one of my students in my Hallmark movies. So I worked with him at 13, then I worked with him again at 16. Now he’s mixing in Prince and even a little of Martika’s Kitchen, and I’m like, how old ARE you?”

But she’s got her eyes focused on the future. “It really feels like one of my favorite chapters already, and it’s just starting — 35 years into my career! I’m never the coolest kid in the room. I waited 35 years to feel cool — I mean, longer, but 35 years of the business. So I’m going to just enjoy that because I know it doesn’t happen every day.”