In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The ’60s cast a long shadow over late-’80s pop. Vietnam-era veterans like Steve Winwood and Aretha Franklin were still hanging around the pop charts. Covers of oldies regularly topped the charts, and so did pastiches of older styles like George Michael’s “Faith” and “One More Try.” In November of 1987, Tiffany became the first star born after the ’60s to release a #1 hit, but she did it with “I Think We’re Alone Now,” a cover of a ’60s song. It was almost like the neon-plastic pop music of the moment was apologizing to the world for not being Woodstock fare. Anxiety ran high.
Debbie Gibson had no anxiety — or, at least, she had no anxiety about that. Gibson and Tiffany are forever twinned in the pop-culture imagination, and that connection makes sense. The two singers, born 13 months apart, were the first two artists born in the ’70s to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. They were two teenage girls who came along around the same time and who sang bright, peppy, synthy mall-pop songs about crushes and heartaches. They competed for the same audiences and the same radio-station placements. But there were crucial differences between them.
Tiffany was a classic power-belter, a Star Search alum who sang like a Star Search alum. Tiffany’s big weapon was her older-than-her-years voice. At least early on, she didn’t write her own songs. Debbie Gibson was another story. Gibson was a perfectly capable singer, but the great thing about her voice was the way it communicated hurt and longing and excitement, not the way it hammered big notes. Gibson had once tried to compete on Star Search, and she had been rejected. She wasn’t that type of singer.
More importantly, Debbie Gibson wrote her own songs. She was a freaky-talented prodigy who had written her first song when she was five years old and her first hit when she was 13. When a 16-year-old Debbie Gibson signed a deal with Atlantic Records, the label couldn’t believe what it had, dithering on whether or not to give Gibson anything more than a singles deal before finally surrendering and strapping a rocket to her. Eventually, in 1988, Debbie Gibson appeared in the Guinness Book Of World Records as the youngest person ever to write, produce, and perform a #1 single. (That record has since been broken, but it stood for nearly 20 years.)
Debbie Gibson was different. She did everything herself. She was her own svengali. By the time Gibson’s ballad “Foolish Beat” reached #1, she’d already notched three top-five hits. A day after “Foolish Beat” dropped out of the #1 spot, Debbie Gibson graduated from high school.
Deborah Ann Gibson was born in Brooklyn, and she grew up in a Long Island suburb. (On the day that Gibson was born, the #1 song in America was Edwin Starr’s “War.”) Gibson’s parents gave her a ukulele when she was two years old, and she started playing classical piano at four. At 12, Gibson won $1,000 in a songwriting contest thanks to a track called “I Come From America.”
When she was 13, Debbie Gibson wrote “Only In My Dreams,” the song that would make her famous. That same year, the entertainment lawyer Doug Breitbart signed on to manage Gibson, with the provision that Gibson couldn’t turn pro as a musician until she was 16. So Gibson spent three years learning all the mechanics of making records. Finally, Atlantic Records heard the 16-year-old Debbie Gibson’s demo tape, which included “Only In My Dreams.” The label signed her to a singles deal, sending out promo copies of the “Only In My Dreams” 7″ to DJs. Gibson travelled around to clubs, singing “Only In My Dreams” over a pre-recorded backing track. After Gibson worked the single for a while, Atlantic gave the song a proper release, and it took off.
This would be a good place to point out that “Only In My Dreams” is a pop miracle. The song bumps. Gibson recorded it with Fred Zarr, a Brooklyn producer who’d played a lot of the keyboards on Madonna’s debut album. The house legend Little Louie Vega mixed the track. It’s an exciting record, with strobing synths and jittery synth-bass and hard-slapping congas playing something that sounds a whole lot like the “Apache” break.
But Gibson doesn’t sound like a dance singer on “Only In My Dreams.” Instead, she’s proudly, profoundly young, her voice cracking over all that relentless percussion. Gibson goes through heartbreak on the dancefloor, remembering a bad relationship that she wants back: “Every time I’m telling secrets, I remember how it used to be/ And I realized how much I miss you/ And I realize how it feels to be free.” “Only In My Dreams” is strikingly mature without being boring about its maturity. Its total lack of sophistication almost makes it sophisticated. It’s artisanal farm-to-table gourmet bubblegum. (“Only In My Dreams” peaked at #4. It’s a 10.)
When “Only In My Dreams” hit, the people at Atlantic decided that they needed to rush a Debbie Gibson album to market. Gibson wrote and recorded every track on her debut LP Out Of The Blue in the space of a few weeks, shuttling between Brooklyn and Miami and working with producers like Zarr and Exposé mastermind Lewis A. Martineé. Gibson didn’t work with any co-writers; she wrote every track on the LP herself. She also co-produced a couple of songs with Zarr and, crucially, produced one entirely on her own. The album is a cheap, giddy dance-pop whirlwind, full of winsome melodies and bubbly beats. It had hits. Gibson followed “Only In My Dreams” with “Shake Your Love,” which reached #4. (It’s a 7.) After that, Gibson made it up to #3 with “Out Of The Blue,” one of the songs that she co-produced. (That one is an 8.)
As with so many late-’80s dance-pop stars, Debbie Gibson finally got to #1 with a song that wasn’t dance-pop at all. “Foolish Beat” was the first Debbie Gibson single to miss the Billboard Dance chart and the first to go top-10 on Adult Contemporary. “Foolish Beat” is one of the only songs on Out Of The Blue that could reasonably be called a ballad. It’s also the only track on the LP that Gibson produced herself. When she was working on the album, Gibson desperately wanted to work with George Michael, her favorite artist. She wrote Michael a letter, asking him to produce “Foolish Beat.” When she didn’t hear back from Michael, she decided to do what George Michael would’ve done. She produced the track herself.
You can definitely hear George Michael’s influence all over “Foolish Beat.” With its syrupy smooth-jazz saxophone and its sweepingly dramatic lyrics about never loving again, “Foolish Beat” sounds like an extremely gifted teenager’s attempt to write her own version of “Careless Whisper.” “Foolish Beat” is hammier than “Careless Whisper,” a song that’s already plenty hammy, and its arrangement seems trapped between the dance-pop that came so naturally to Gibson and the glossy depth that she clearly wanted to convey. It’s like Gibson knew, somewhere in the back of her mind, that she should make sure someone could dance to the song, especially if it was going to have the word “beat” in the title.
As on “Only In My Dreams,” Gibson’s “Foolish Beat” narrator misses a past relationship, a time in her life when all she could do was wish on a four-leaf clover. She’s broken up with somebody, and now she’s in a new place where dreams just can’t come true. (Dreams figure heavily in Debbie Gibson lyrics.) She regrets dumping this person, bringing full teenage-histrionic drama to her apology: “I could never love again the way that I loved you/ I could never cry again like I did when I left you.”
Gibson did not write “Foolish Beat” about her own life; she’d never even had a boyfriend when she wrote the song. In Fred Bronson’s Billboard Book Of Number 1 Hits, Gibson says, “I was just imagining what it would be like to have a love and then lose a love, which is kind of funny, being that I had never experienced it. What ends up happening sometimes is I’ll write a song and then I’ll be able to relate to it a couple years later.”
Gibson came up with the “Foolish Beat” chorus when she was in an airplane bathroom, and she wrote the lyrics after landing. She had to record her album as quickly as possible, and she was sick the day that she recorded “Foolish Beat.” Gibson sings the song in her lower register, not using the excitable chirp that worked so well on her dance-pop songs. The song’s arrangement is a bit all over the place. I like the brief notes of distorto-guitar on the dramatic moments and the intricate cascade of synth-murmurs deep in the mix. I don’t like the squawk-noodle elevator sax. The hook itself isn’t anywhere near as memorable as the ones on Gibson’s uptempo tracks. But Gibson still gives the song some gravity just by singing it as if her world is on the line: “Break my heart! You slipped away! Didn’t know I was wrong! Never meant to hurt you! Now you’re gooooone!”
In the “Foolish Beat” video, Gibson flashes back on past romantic moments with some guy, including a bit where he’s about to give her a bouquet of flowers and some kid suddenly skateboards past and steals it? And then they laugh about it? (New York was rough in the ’80s. You couldn’t even give a girl flowers without getting robbed.) But Gibson also remembers the moment that she dumped him — apparently on a dinner date, before the food even arrived — and that memory is so painful that it turns the film-stock red.
The guy thinks about getting back with Gibson, and he even brings another bouquet of roses to the club where she’s performing, somehow sneaking it past all of New York’s ravenous flower-thieves. But then he thinks better of it and throws the flowers in the trash outside the club. Meanwhile, the best parts of the video are Gibson in that club, singing in front of a shiny metal wall on a stage that seems to be about one foot deep, while the silhouettes of the dancers sway in front of her. What kind of club was this? Did it advertise on the flyer that you might become part of a teenage pop singer’s psychodrama?
Out Of The Blue was already double platinum when “Foolish Beat” reached #1, and it went triple platinum before the year was over. Gibson only released one more single from Out Of The Blue, and that song, the pretty-great “Staying Together,” peaked at #22. Soon afterward, Debbie Gibson had another album ready to go. She’ll appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: In 2019, the New York butt-rock trio Voices Of Extreme covered “Foolish Beat,” and Debbie Gibson herself appeared in the video. Here’s that very silly video: