Debbie Gibson Q&A: Celebrating 25 Years Of 'Electric Youth'
On Jan. 24, 1989, Gibson released her sophomore album. It would spend five weeks atop the Billboard 200 and yield the Hot 100 No. 1 'Lost in Your Eyes.' On the set's 25th anniversary, Gibson reflects on its success and reveals what's ahead in 2014
That's it how it feels to listen to a highly-anticipated second album from an artist after you've been won over by a captivating debut.
Will it be as good? Will there be more hits? Will the overall sound have changed?
Can it even be better?
Twenty-five years ago today, fans of pop music's then-teen queen Debbie Gibson pressed play on their boom boxes (or, CD players, if you believed that CDs were going to catch on …) and began getting to know "Electric Youth," her follow-up to her smash first album, "Out of the Blue."
Quickly, "cautiously" was surely removed from the experience.
Gibson had an impressive track record to follow. "Blue" yielded four Billboard Hot 100 top 10s in 1987-88: the No. 4-peaking hits "Only in My Dreams" and "Shake Your Love," the No. 3 title cut and her first No. 1, ballad "Foolish Beat." The album peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 in a hefty 89-week run and was certified triple-Platinum by the RIAA.
"Electric Youth" measured up.
The set's first single, piano ballad "Lost in Your Eyes," soared to a three-week Hot 100 reign, while the album ruled the Billboard 200 for five frames. (In the '80s, only four other albums by solo women posted commands as long or longer, two each by Whitney Houston and Madonna.)
The "Electric Youth" title cut (No. 11) and ballad "No More Rhyme" (No. 17) both hit the Hot 100's top 20, with Gibson listing fourth single "We Could Be Together" among her five favorite songs of hers (when pestered last year by a certain zealous fan to rank her releases in order of preference).
On the milestone 25th anniversary of the release of the double-Platinum-certified "Electric Youth," Gibson muses on many facets of the album, along with plans for upcoming projects, all with an energy that aptly mirrors the set's lasting effervescence.
Billboard: Debbie, congratulations on the anniversary! It's said that an artist has his or her whole life to make a first album, but a limited window to make the all-important follow-up. Did you feel that pressure when making "Electric Youth"? Perhaps not so much, since some songs I know were written, and performed live, years earlier? Plus, you could draw on the experience of having made "Blue."
Gibson: I love this question and it definitely applied, but not to my first two albums, because, in a way, I feel like they were my debut combined. I had presented Atlantic Records with more than a hundred songs before they signed me, just to release "Only in My Dreams" as a 12-inch single, to make sure it wasn't a fluke, since I was a teenager who wrote.
So, even though some of the songs [on "Youth"] were written after "Out of the Blue" came out, many were actually from that first batch of songs I wrote between the ages of 12 and 16.
Also, the beauty of recording as a teenager is that you don't really know pressure yet. I had no bills to pay and I lived with my parents, so it was all really a glorified hobby to me. Pressure just did not enter into the equation.
I later did feel the pressure to release albums and had not accumulated songs from true-life experiences, which is why a lot of the material, I think, became mediocre.
I'm thrilled to say I have now taken real-life moments to accumulate my next batch of songs for an upcoming record. I feel like it's "Out of the Blue" and "Electric Youth" all over again, because I am in a true channeling mode that can only come from giving yourself the luxury of time and living, as opposed to trying to create, or recreate, something.
How do you compare "Out of the Blue" and "Electric Youth"? To me, the latter presented a more mature artist (yes, even at 18), with songs like the flute-driven "Silence Speaks (A Thousand Words)" and "No More Rhyme" more adult-leaning, lyrically and musically, than much of "Blue."
It's funny to think a maturation process happens between the ages of 16 and 18, but I think, yes, those songs do represent a more poetic/less teenage point-of-view.
And, now thinking about it, I had traveled the world in the time between "Out of the Blue" and "Electric Youth" and went from rags to riches, so to speak, all of which will grow you up real quick.
How did "Lost in Your Eyes" come to be the first single from "Electric Youth"?
I had started performing that song on the road on the "Out of the Blue" tour. From the opening two bars of the piano intro, it elicited screams from audiences. It had yet to be recorded or played on the radio, but it was already a hit. That's not ego talking. It's just true of any artist and any song that has that feeling of being familiar, yet new. My acting teacher, Howard Fine, said that phrase to me in relation to what is a hit, be it a hit piece of theater or a hit song.
It's so true. It's like an old friend. You predict that the melody is going to go in a satisfying way.
Was there any trepidation, either from you or the label, about releasing a ballad first, with pop radio historically tempo-driven? Obviously, the success of "Foolish Beat" provided key evidence that you know your way around a ballad.
I don't remember exact conversations, but it was no contest. And, at that point, I instinctually knew what would work next for me in my career. I had also witnessed firsthand audience response to the song on the "Out of the Blue" tour.
Obviously, dance songs can stand the test of time, but nothing penetrates and spans all age groups, all ethnicities or all genders like a ballad. One of my favorite things, to this day, is that many people come up to me and tell me that they learned how to play the piano from that song and from that sheet music, which is such an honor to me.
I curse my younger self, though, every time I go to belt the high D at the end live. (Laughs)
NEXT: Gibson on her next album and more
What was the inspiration for the "Electric Youth" album title? As a then-18-year-old, did you feel a responsibility to be a voice for your fans?
That was one of those channeled titles that I feel was meant to be a phrase infused into pop culture at the time. I never really put any thought into coming up with it. Literally, it, and the song, dropped in and I looked up to the sky, waved and said "thank you!" To me, that's how anything inspired comes. If you and your thinking get out of the way, the universe provides what is supposed to be and it comes on through.
I also believe, if it is not picked up by someone, the universe will lay it on someone else until it comes through. There was a melody and a song I was working on more than three years ago that is the exact melody as Daft Punk's "Lose Yourself to Dance" [from last year's "Random Access Memories"]. I swear I didn't plagiarize it! Mine came years before and I have recordings that are dated as proof, should Daft Punk ever try to sue me when mine comes out. (Laughs) It's called "Turnitaround." My point is, I waited too long and the universe really, really wanted that melody out there and thought I was taking too long, so it dropped it in on someone else.
Fans do love the imagery of the phrase "Electric Youth" and it did, at the time, feel like there were so few of us teenagers out there, unlike today, with throngs of them and award shows devoted to just them. Tiffany, New Kids on the Block and I were at the forefront and there was also Shanice, Tracy Spencer, Menudo, the Jets and Glenn Medeiros, but that was about it. If I had to list everybody under the age of 20 with records out now, that would take the rest of this interview!
So, yes, I did feel, in a way, responsible to lead a movement of youth empowerment and to encourage kids to use their creativity, if you will.
In years since, mentoring young talent has been a passion of yours. What is it about helping teach young people music and performing skills that's so vital to you?
I love collaborating with young people. I've had many a pop star friend say that they would never work with younger, unsigned talent. I have probably more than 200 songs copyrighted as a collaborator with people under the age of 15. To me, giving them and their writing skills validation, at that age, is priceless and will encourage them to do great things in the future.
There's a teenage boy named Brandon Vitale who I feel is like a new-Pet Shop Boys and a future writing force. Also, Leilah Ali's song "Choices" is one we worked on together at one of my music camps and that I'm proud of. I wanted to help her channel her teenage angst and combine it with my knowledge of how to craft a hook and produce something lush. I co-produced it with Gavin MacKillop, who has many more years experience than myself, and together we provided her with a real-world experience and a finished product that she can take to social media and promote.
I simply have no ego because it's not us doing the writing, anyway. Again, to me, it's us channeling from somewhere else. There's no credit to give away or share. There is only talent to help facilitate, and collaborations to be had. I just want great music to be out there.
I want young people to know that they do not have to be reliant on big-name, high-priced writers and producers, because everybody has the power, if they open that channel.
One last question about "Electric Youth": What's the origin of the cover art, with the title a lit-up neon sign (fitting, obviously, considering the album's name)?
I remember being on an airplane sketching out the album cover. Back then, there was no Photoshop, so that ginormous neon sign that was photographed for the cover still lives in a huge wooden crate in my storage space. Man! You just got me thinking that I must ask my boyfriend if he'd mind it being in our living room. Ha!
Bonus Question: What's ahead for 2014? You've blogged that you're working on not only new music, but also a book? Not surprising, since your career has covered so many avenues, from music to performing on Broadway to acting (including as Katy Perry's mother in the fun "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" video) and more.
I've been quietly going through a lot of things in my life that I don't like to Tweet or blog about, so I've decided to put it all in a book, because I've developed many techniques for getting through challenging situations in life that are not exclusive to being an entertainer or a celebrity. They're real-life situations and are framed by anecdotes from my career.
I think people will find it interesting to know, and I bet this is the case for many performers and many people, that, in general, from outside appearances, when it looks like the chips are up, quite often, people are going through their darkest and most difficult moments. And, when those on the outside are looking in and saying "poor thing," often that's when people are the happiest and most fulfilled. I'm collaborating with longtime Rolling Stone journalist and SiriusXM host Jenny Eliscu, who is helping to channel my voice beautifully.
I'm also the composer on a new musical with Jimmy Van Patten, "The Flunky," which may possibly be renamed "FlunkyTown" to reflect Los Angeles and all its wannabe stars who migrate to live in guest houses of stars, while slowly giving up on their own talents and getting sucked into celebrity as its own vocation. We hope to see it have a Las Vegas debut in the near future.
What else? I'm an expert/judge alongside Darrell Hammond on the upcoming ABC show "Sing Your Face Off" and have helped to create some TV movies that are in the works for production this year. I'll also tour South America this spring.
I've been intentionally taking time to live life so that the next phase of my music will be relatable and not a series of songs about being a pop princess in a bubble. That's actually what I love about Miley Cyrus. For better or for worse, she's out there in the world and singing from a real and raw viewpoint, with no apologies.
You mentioned in the first question how artists take a lifetime to create those first albums and then suddenly people wonder where you stand if you've not released anything in five to 10 years. I've learned to not settle for the first clever rhyme scheme, but to wait for the absolute perfect, fresher way.
This next album will be visceral. No one cares when an album comes out. They only care that it's worth the wait and that it's great. And it will be.