Debbie Harry at the Supermarket
Posted by Wayne Koestenbaum
The following essay is an excerpt from Wayne Koestenbaum’s collection, “My 1980s & Other Essays,” which comes out today.
In the late 1990s, I stood behind Debbie Harry in line at Sloan’s. We lived in the same apartment complex, a behemoth. Sloan’s, the unsavory supermarket around the block, was our common ground. One summer evening, a rat crawled past my flip-flop-clad feet while I waited in the checkout line. I vowed never again to wear flip-flops while food shopping. If this essay is an allegory, I’m the rat, scurrying along interpretive thoroughfares where my filth isn’t wanted.
In the late 1970s, I listened to Blondie with a fanaticism founded on my belief that Debbie Harry’s vocal delivery would give me tips on differentiating the genuine from the fake in the apocalyptic world of romantic love, where I was a befuddled amateur, working intermittently on my heterosexuality as if it were last Sunday’s crossword puzzle, a confusing grid of boxes I’d not given up trying to fill.
Every inflection of Harry’s voice I followed, memorized, sought to explain. Why did she approach a cry or a cheer, why did she flatten a vowel or slur a consonant, why did an aluminum aura complicate a phrase? Was she angry, infatuated, indifferent—or was she turning emotionality into an amusing diversion?
I admired her voice’s Lancelot edge, but also its indirection, its underworld willingness to grow tarnished and to sound unsentimentally street-schooled. Phrase by phrase, her voice switched sides. Momentarily, in her timbre, a metallic yet bubblegum inflection emerged—suggesting irony, wit, shininess, rage, and a fondness for things plastic and repeatable. Then, in a flash, she’d adopt a rueful, bluesy sound. She quoted mannerisms from other singers, other milieux; punk London warred with suburban New Jersey. She leapt between the borrowed and the original, the emotive and the shellacked.
Even her physical beauty seemed ironic; she seemed to deploy it as an analytical torch, a secret agent, dismantling the stereotypes she cheerfully traversed. In the Polaroid snapshots that Andy Warhol took of her in 1980, she gazes at him—and at the viewer—from across the moat of received wisdom, whose toxicity can’t touch her; with us, she exchanges a complicit glance, as if to say, We understand the joke that gender is, and we understand how masterfully I embody its barbed glories. Like Edie Sedgwick, Harry seemed a cynical sylph with whom he could giddily unpack the fenced goods stuffed in gender’s suitcase.
MUCH MORE OF THIS GREAT ESSAY AT Debbie Harry at the Supermarket : The New Yorker.