Music videos aren’t just for fun – they are historical and cultural artifacts that document a coupling of video and music forevermore. For more Video Vaults and other glances into a glittery past, look to Bloomsbury Popular Music.
ANOTHER POST FOR OUR “THROWBACK THURSDAY” SEGMENT, VIDEO VAULT! ON SELECT THURSDAYS, WE DISCUSS OUR FAVORITE MUSIC VIDEOS THROUGH THE AGES.
With summer now a hazy memory and October dragging into its 17th week, it is fitting to reflect on the moody album once described by Rolling Stone’s Arion Berger as “romantic fatalism”: Blondie’s Parallel Lines. I have been pining for the glamorous while exclusively dressing in well-worn athletic wear and never leaving home. Debbie Harry’s vocals, accompanied by a reading of Kembrew McLeod’s “gloriously revisionist history” (MTV News) of this album, offer a refreshing dose of allure.
McLeod’s text situates Blondie at the center of the disco vs punk battle of the late 1970s and identifies Parallel Lines as in-tune with both genres, influenced by mainstream rock and pop sounds as well. With Debbie Harry leading an otherwise male group, Blondie also broke the mold of male-centric popular music groups, not insignificantly concurrent with LGBT and women’s liberation movements. In both sound and image, Blondie offered something new. While no longer new, Blondie’s darkly lovesick lyrics remain emotionally relevant, particularly during a universal period of arrested development.
The first song on the album, “Hanging on the Telephone,” starts with the sound of a phone ringing. It’s a full and hearty ring, recalling the physicality of corded landlines. The lyrics refer to a phone booth and the act of hanging out by the phone, waiting for a call back. Despite being rooted in a bygone technological era, the youthful, and desperate, pleas for validation via communication with a would-be lover are evergreen. That the caller is in close proximity of the caller-back (“I heard your mother, now she’s going out the door / Did she go to work or just go to the store?”) is highly similar to waiting for a crush to return a message while seeing that they’re online. The passivity and creepiness of lurking are in conflict with the forthright demands of the lyrics.
There are visuals to support the pleading lyrics. In the music video, the band shows up to a studio, gets ready, and performs. Ignoring that this was probably the least expensive way to make a music video, the decision to film the band showing up to the studio in a car and preparingthemselves demystifies the backstage, the moments that the audience isn’t meant to see. It’s reminiscent of any (now trope-y) behind-the-scenes footage in which the performer is humbly shown as an ordinary person arriving to work. Well, ordinary but inordinately cooler than the viewer, as they don leather jackets and dark sunglasses, every bit the rock-god image.
While the band is in the green room, there is an indulgent over-the-shoulder shot of Harry applying makeup and side-eyeing the camera; her downward glance is one of popstar condescension, but she doesn’t look away and the camera shamelessly stays fixed.
In the studio, the band performs against a black-and-white-striped backdrop that covers the floor as well. Against these “parallel lines,” the band is in constant motion, that depiction aided by the camera that approaches each member at an angle and quickly cuts away. Debbie Harry maintains eye contact with the camera each of the many times it finds her. The camera keeps a close up on her for much of the video, and she looks right back, rolling her eyes, shaking her head, pulling faces, and pointing at the camera. She’s overdone, but so is the character she’s singing as, demanding a call back from a recalcitrant (or clueless) subject. She plays her part well (and she gets the call back, so the lyrics say). And if it weren’t for the lack of high-definition, the same video with the same message could have been shot today.
McLeod drives home Blondie’s duality in identifying with the progressive attitudes and non-normative looks and sounds that emerged from New York’s underground music scene while participating in capital-driven records and promotion. That Blondie is still familiar and emotionally relevant is due at least in part to their success in striking that balance.
Looking for more content? Check out Bloomsbury Popular Music for the historical, technical, and cultural development of the music video.