Tiffany Naiman, UCLA, USA

Abstract: This talk considers the nuances of Debbie Harry’s aging vocal identity on the re­recordings of Blondie’s works “Atomic,” “Rapture,” and “Heart of Glass” that the band recorded for their 2014 box set, Blondie 4(0)­Ever: Greatest Hits Deluxe Redux/Ghosts of Download. Chris Stein, guitarist and co­founder of Blondie, stated that the band re­recorded eleven of their best­known hits, “partially as an exercise, but also for sync rights.” The band was not working to add something creatively new to their songs, aiming to maintain a close fidelity to the originals so that when film and commercial producers approached them for their classic music, the band could offer new recordings for which they owned both the publishing and sync rights.

At the age of 69, Debbie Harry’s voice has changed since her early recordings in the late 70s and early 80s and the listener can hear her physical limitations. Though there are aesthetic choices made both musically and in the studio in order to manage Harry’s voice, her aging voice is not always consistent or coherent and these inconsistencies, these failures, open the door for my analysis of Harry’s vocality on these new recordings as compared to the originals. Questions surrounding the organization of musical sounds and the presentation of vocal identities provide an opportunity to consider structures of value within the vocal performances of aging popular music artists such as Debbie Harry. By analyzing Harry’s vocals and examining the journalistic and audience receptions of the new re­recorded tracks, I attend to the ways in which the aging female voice is situated within structures of value and authenticity in popular music.

Heart of Glass 2014

Heart of Glass 1979

Tiffany starts with the observation that Blondie’s ‘punk’ reputation (perhaps via association with CBGB’s) was perhaps not well deserved given the pop content (and success) of a lot of the band’s catalogue. She asks ‘what happens when a ‘sex kitten’ reveals through her voice that she is 70 years old?’. The ‘Best of Blondie’ (1981) was re-recorded as ‘Ghost of Download‘ (2014) by the band with a view to getting better terms for licence/synch deals. Tiffany notes that given this goal, the sonic elements were intended to be as close to the originals as possible. She lists the various production and studio techniques that could be used to get the fidelity of the new recordings as close to the originals as possible, including Melodyne formant adjustment.

Mic bleed and room ambience was a part of the sound of 1977 (1981) and these ‘weaknesses’ of the original recordings actually defines their character. The instrumental opening of ‘Heart of Glass’ (1979) is played and contrasted with the 2014 version. When a company wants to licence a song they want the original gestalt of the actual recording, and the new recordings, despite having ‘better’ production, lack these desirable qualities.

Harry’s vocal technique 1979-2014 is compared and Tiffany highlights the tonal differences of singing as a result of being older. She also observes that her under-powered vocal delicacy of the 1970s (combined with double-tracking) was key to the sound of the originals. The effortless slide across the head voice on the word ‘gas’ in the original becomes a shocking prominent ‘failure’ because she is producing the pitch (and the register jump) differently.

Tiffany describes the comparison as ‘like shifting from VHS to HD in the aural world’. She unashamedly describes the re-recordings as a ‘failure’ because they fail on a technical level and therefore may harm the brand (as an artist and as a sexual object). Perhaps, Tiffany speculates, a reimagining of the songs with different arrangements (and vocals that did not try to conceal the passage of time) might have been more successful.

Aesthetic and economic value have a reciprocal relationship, and if an artist’s brand is associated with youth, the biological process of ageing creates a challenge for the fidelity of these recordings and therefore their value in both respects.