Sunday, March 20, 2011

Essential Albums of the '80s: Debbie Gibson - Out of the Blue / Tiffany (1987)

Debbie and Tiffany were to 1987 what Britney and Christina were to 1999--two teenage girls that emerged on the scene with big pop melodies that quickly won the hearts of teen and tween girls (and, ahem, a few boys) all across the country and even around the world. True, Britney and Christina are 12 years later still going strong (Christina less so at present), while Debbie and Tiffany's time in the spotlight was basically done by 1990, but in late '87 to early 1989, that would not have been apparent, as the two continued to lob hit after hit and had very successful albums as well.

Although the two peddled similar keyboard-driven pop with catchy melodies, there were some interesting differences between them. Debbie leaned more toward slickly produced dance pop, while Tiffany's songs had a rockier and more downbeat edge. Debbie had a slicker image too--her videos showed her romping through Central Park and waiting in Manhattan cafes whereas Tiffany's generally less well-produced videos had her hanging out in second-rate shopping malls and working in a diner. On their album covers Debbie's jeans appear strategically ripped, while the hole in Tiffany's sweater just makes it look like she couldn't afford a new one.

Musically, their debut albums are both pretty strong, but I give the advantage to Gibson's Out of the Blue. It opens with a trio of upbeat tracks, bright and shiny "Out of the Blue," followed by dance pop hit "Staying Together" and then the album's real gem, the irresistible "Only in My Dreams." In the late summer of 1987, this, along with Madonna's "Who's that Girl" and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam's "Lost in Emotion," was one of the songs that really got me hooked on pop music. The album's big ballad, "Foolish Beat," follows. It's a sad tale of teenage love gone sour, notable for being Gibson's first #1 hit and the fact that she has sole credit for its writing and production, which made Gibson the youngest person to write, produce and perform a Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit. Other dance pop cuts "Shake Your Love"--one of the album's four top 5 hits--and "Red Hot" are enjoyable too. The album sags a bit in its second half, particularly with mid-tempo "Wake Up to Love," which feels slight next to all the great dance pop, and "Between the Lines," the closing ballad, which again feels quite undercooked next to the album's other grand ballad. Those are minor quibbles though. Given that this was the first full album of popular music I ever owned, it holds a special place in my heart.

While Out of the Blue has its hits upfront, Tiffany withholds its two #1 hits until the end of the album, a strategy no pop album would employ today. The album opens with the guitar-driven, mid-tempo track "Should've Been Me," a song that has grown on me as listened to the album over the past week. "Danny" follows, a darker, also guitar-driven track. It was the album's first single, although it was not a hit. After a good opening, the album sags a bit through the middle with songs like "Spanish Eyes," "Kid on a Corner" and "Johnny's Got the Inside Moves," although I do like downbeat ballad "Feelings of Forever," which was the album's fifth single, but was not a major hit. All of these songs are just killing time before you get to "I Think We're Alone Now," the brilliant dance pop cue that attracted people to Tiffany in the first place. It's got such a great beat and I love the synth horns in the middle section. Almost 20 years later, British pop group Girls Aloud would remake this and release it in Britain as a top 5 hit. Piano ballad "Could've Been" closes the album. It's a big ballad of a song, really stretching Tiffany's vocal ability, but is nonetheless the album's other memorable moment.

Out of the Blue (1987). Best: Only in My Dreams, Shake Your Love, Foolish Beat, Out of the Blue, Red Hot

Tiffany (1987). Best: I Think We're Alone Now, Could've Been, Danny, Should've Been Me, Feelings of Forever

Further Listening
Debbie Gibson - Electric Youth (1989). Gibson followed up Out of the Blue with Electric Youth, which kept up her streak of hits, in fact giving her the biggest hit of her career, "Lost in Your Eyes." It's a lovely piano ballad of a love song that effectively riffs on mundane phrase "lost and found" as a simple, yet clever pop lyric ("I'll be found when I'm lost in your eyes"). A bit cheesy, but Gibson delivers the song with such sincerity that it works. "No More Rhyme" was another good ballad (and hit single). Interesting that the ballads are strong suit here, given that it was the reverse on her debut. However there are plenty of bouncy upbeat numbers too, like "Electric Youth," "Who Loves Ya Baby?" and "Helplessly in Love." Although it didn't have as many hits as Out of the Blue, Electric Youth was still a double-platinum album and, on balance, just as good if not better than its predecessor. Best: Lost in Your Eyes, No More Rhyme, Electric Youth, Who Loves Ya Baby?, Helplessly in Love, Silence Speaks (a Thousand Words).

Tiffany - Hold an Old Friend's Hand (1988). Unlike Electric Youth, Tiffany's second album was not a major hit and started a downward spiral for her popularity. Particularly ego-busting must have been the fact that her tour's opening act--New Kids on the Block--traded places with her as the tour's headliner in the summer of 1989, as their popularity soared and hers tanked. The rock-leaning sound of her debut has been buried by less distinctive synthesizer pop. It's not bad, but it's not as interesting. After the opening ballad "All This Time," which was the album's only top 10 hit, there's little more that stands out. Best: All This Time, Drop that Bomb.


Paul said...

team debbie all the way. Electric Youth remains my favourite album of all time, mainly because it's the first album i could fully play on the piano and at some point during 1989-1990, every song seemed relevant to me. Plus i got to see her live at Wembley supporting Bros... and the Electric Youth dance was totally aces :)

ww_adh said...

I was SOOO into Electric Youth when it came out. I listened to it nonstop for weeks. I'm really impressed you can play all the songs on the piano. You must be really talented. I took piano lessons for 2 years, but I wasn't that great. I never learned any Debbie songs, although I did do Tiffany's "Could've Been."