Debbie Gibson On Moving From Pop Stardom To Broadway, Today’s Dance-Pop, & Staying Single
When Debbie Gibson signs onto Zoom from her residence in Las Vegas, she looks immaculate — hair and makeup fully done, almost as if it’s 8:30PM instead of 12 hours earlier. There’s an array of miscellaneous, career-spanning knick-knacks behind her, everything from the usual framed platinum records to a sprawling grand piano, plus an orange throw pillow with the Nickelodeon logo splashed across the front (she hosted the Kids’ Choice Awards in 1988). I can’t resist asking: Has Gibson seen Hacks? She hasn’t, but it’s on her list. “Delivering this album has kind of prevented me from watching a whole lot of anything lately,” she says.
I can’t help but be a little reminded of the mega-popular HBO Max comedy during this conversation, given how many well-earned swipes it takes at Sin City, but more so because Gibson is about to kick off a residency with New Kids On The Block’s Joey McIntyre in late August. When I compare Hacks‘ main character, career comedian Deborah Vance (played by Jean Smart) to Joan Rivers, Gibson’s face lights up: “I knew her and loved her,” Gibson says. “And I always think with everything that’s gone on in the world, and with politics and with COVID, I’m always like, ‘I wish Joan Rivers was here.’ Because she’d be the person to turning it all on its ear, and hopefully making people less polarized by laughing.”
But back to that album Gibson was talking about: The Body Remembers, out August 20 via Stargirl Records, is the ’80s pop superstar’s first new album of original material in 20 years, and her 10th overall. A video for its single “One Step Closer” is out today. Thirty-odd years ago, people regarded Gibson rather like they did Taylor Swift in 2007: a teen songwriting prodigy who excelled at crafting universally appealing love songs, despite still being a high school student. Not only did she write “Only In My Dreams” at age 13, in 1988, Gibson made the Guinness Book Of World Records as the youngest person ever to write, produce, and perform a #1 single.
The ’80s were undeniably good to Gibson, who rolled out a successful string of hits: gauzy, soft-pop ballads (“Lost In Your Eyes,” “Foolish Beat“) and drum-machine bangers “Electric Youth,” “Shake Your Love”). When the next decade rolled around, pop music took a turn for the grunge, and Gibson tried her hand at new ventures: She returned to her first love, musical theater, playing Eponine in Les Misérables in 1992, Sandy in Grease in 1993, Velma Kelly in a Boston-based production of Chicago, and Sally Bowles in the Broadway revival of Cabaret. Later, she did film and television, appearing in Hallmark movies (“I love the predictability of them,” she laughs), and even a stint on The Celebrity Apprentice in the mid-2000s (she is understandably tight-lipped about her experience there).
Now, following up 2001’s M.Y.O.B., Gibson is readying The Body Remembers, which is stacked with dance bops (Gibson cites Miley Cyrus and Dua Lipa as major influences) and even a reworking of “Lost In Your Eyes” featuring McIntyre. Taken as a whole, though, The Body Remembers is a signal that Gibson has zero interest in exhuming sounds from the time period that made her famous. “I love, love, love current music,” she says, talking about how much she loves Miley and Olivia Rodrigo. “I love older music, but I don’t think everything great was done in the ’70s and ’80s. I think it’s great to keep it alive, but I think it’s great to move forward.”
Speaking to Stereogum, Gibson opens up about how she got to this place (she ended a long-term relationship and endured a battle with Lyme disease), what to expect on The Body Remembers, and what it’s been like to live her life “completely out of order.”
The press materials I’ve read for The Body Remembers push the narrative that this is your first studio album in 20 years. But a lot of the time when I talk to artists, especially career artists, they are like, “Well I never went away.” To what extent is that “it’s been 20 years” verbiage true to you?
DEBBIE GIBSON: Well that’s true, which is even shocking to me. Both statements are true. I definitely have never gone away. Even at the beginning of my career, when artists would purposely hibernate for a couple of years and create a mystery, and then come back with a new look, I never could do that. I always had to be doing something. I’m in this because I love performing, and if I’m taking a vacation I’m like, “What am I vacationing from? My glorified hobby?” That doesn’t make any sense to me. So I haven’t gone away in that I’ve continued to perform. At one point I did 17 musicals in 17 years between Broadway, the West End, and national tours. And I’ve contributed things here and there to projects, or I did the Ms. Vocalist album for Japan, which was Japanese cover songs in English.
But yeah, as far as an album full of originals, it’s actually been that long. I guess I frontloaded that first 15 years of my career. I did a ton of original albums in those first 15 years. The last decade was pretty tumultuous, with splitting from my mom as my manager, which needed to happen. And my mom’s amazing, and she did an amazing job, but it was time for a change. I think it’s the equivalent of people going through a divorce. I’ve dealt with Lyme disease. I was debilitated at times. The last decade was really rough, and coming out of that now into this album really does feel like a new chapter.
I saw a quote that you gave recently: You said that “The Body Remembers feels very much like Electric Youth 2021, in how it encapsulates my life.” What about your life does The Body Remembers encapsulate?
GIBSON: I am such a visceral person, and to me this music is very visceral. Even within the super-slick, highly produced dance-pop side of things on this album, there’s nuances that I made sure to pay attention to. For instance, “One Step Closer,” Tracy Young and I co-wrote it. I really pay attention to the female artists out there: Dua Lipa, Miley and Noah Cyrus, whose voices are really dropped in. Because that’s where you hear life. And I grew up with that smiley sound, and that really theatrical sound at times. And that’s there too, but I really wanted to pay attention to, again, that vulnerability that you feel when everything’s just dropped down and in, and you’re not pushing.
I have a very interesting life because I’m 50, I’ve never been married. I was in a relationship that was akin to a marriage. It was 10 years. But I never signed the piece of paper and walked down the aisle like a lot of people, which I admire people for doing because I never had that feeling of level of commitment, I guess. Or I did in my last relationship, but I don’t know. I didn’t go there with the piece of paper. “One Step Closer” is really about people who have come and gone in my life, and even in the last few years where I have not dated anyone, there’s [still] been emotional interactions with people. It’s so funny that there’s a line in it, “I see you and you see me, that stupid love stuff. It’s so twisted. Yeah, it’s twisted.” It’s like when a guy is like, “I see you, and you really see me.” And then two seconds later, it’s done, and you’re like, “Okay, what was that?” And it’s the idea of “that’s getting me one step closer to real love.” And not only real love with someone else, but trusting that I’m enough too.
The body remembers times in [its] life where I felt like I was stuck, whether it was stuck in a relationship, stuck in my body that wasn’t functioning well due to illness, stuck in professional situations I didn’t want to be in.
Even in my exploration of Lyme disease, I realized so many things are triggered by emotions. But I never felt like a victim of a disease. I felt that I was able to allow this bug — pardon the pun — to take me over so violently. The mind/body connection, to me, is everything. And I’m now in a place where I know myself so well and I feel so empowered because I know that. I know that if I wake up and I have a stomachache, it’s probably from something I went to bed thinking about. It’s probably not something I ate.
And then, on the romantic [side]… The title track, “The Body Remembers,” is really about summertime love, those junior high, high school [loves]. My musical counterpart on this album [primarily] is Sean Thomas, he’s 19 years old. And what I love about working with him, he tracked “The Body Remembers,” he co-produced it. And he naturally is pulling from those nostalgic sounds that I grew up with.
When people wrote about your earliest work, there was a lot of discussion around, “Oh, Debbie was 15, 16, 17. She hadn’t even had a first boyfriend yet when she wrote ‘Lost In Your Eyes,’ and yet she’s writing about these visceral feelings of romantic love.” And that sounds to me like now it’s evolved to “Oh, she hasn’t even been married!” But that hasn’t stopped audiences from connecting to how you express love in song.
GIBSON: Exactly. Yes. What love is. There’s a song called “Freedom” that… I’ve never been a victim of domestic violence, thank God, but it harkens to that subject matter, to human trafficking. Coco Berthmann is a favorite of mine on Instagram, and she’s a survivor of human trafficking, and she’s so inspirational. And I’m in the profession, I’m in the art of being an empath, and channeling what other people are going through. And hopefully, like you said, writing in a universal way. And it’s why I love acting as well. You get to put your feet in someone else’s shoes. And as a writer, I do that all day long.
You know, on a personal note, I’ve only just started being a little more public about how I’m really not that interested in having children. Your 30s are such a pressurized time, for women especially. But I can only imagine that that pressure must be doubled or tripled if you’re somebody in the public eye. I could see how entering your 50s must be a very liberating time in that regard. Does that feel true?
GIBSON: First of all, I love hearing you speak on that and the fact that you push back against that. And yes I do think it’s amazing how much brainwashing goes on in our society. 1000%. People are like, “Well, someday you’ll find the right man, or the right woman, or the right partner, whatever.” And it’s like, what if that’s not everyone’s path? On one hand, I’m a romantic. But I’m only romantic for something that adds something to my life. I’m not romantic over romance for the sake of it if it’s going to come with torture and strings and all that. But if it came my way, great.
I’m in this really unique space right now where I am wanting for nothing. I’m not missing anything. I do not have a feeling of missing anything, which by the way is the best time to meet someone too. I’m not going, “Hey I’m looking to you to complete me in any way.” It’s very empowering. I joke that even if I do get in a relationship, it would have to be after all three of my boy dachshunds have left this planet, because they’re not letting anyone near me. But I’m just savoring the things in my life that I do have. You could go back and read old BOP Magazine interviews from 1988, and I was like, “I want to be married and have six kids. I want to have three naturally. I want to adopt three.” By the way, I’m still open to adoption if that feels right in a year or two or five or 10. I have way more energy now than I did a decade ago.
I’m not a fan of ageism. I’m not a fan of putting people in boxes, and that pressure. I’ve had friends say to me, “Oh I got married not because I really wanted to. I just felt like it was the next thing that I was supposed to do.” What I always encourage people to do is examine their reasons for doing things. I think marriage is great. If you say, “It’s for religious purposes. It’s because I want my children to grow up in a traditional household and have both mom’s and dad’s last name.” Whatever the reason is, some people want the government to acknowledge their relationship. I think in the LGBTQ community that has become important because that community felt dismissed by our government for so long. So that’s a reason in and of itself.
For me, I don’t really have a strong personal reason. Not now anyway. But I also never say never, and if that strong enough reason came up for me, heck yeah. I love a good party, and a big fancy dress. And no one’s ever bought me an appliance, a toaster oven or anything. I never registered anywhere. Hey, that would be a fun thing to do.
I love that!
GIBSON: I’ve lived my life completely out of order too, you know what I mean? I was employing 100 people by the time I was 17. I didn’t go to college. I didn’t learn to cook and do laundry until well into my 20s. So I’ve done everything out of the traditional order. And I love it. I love my life and how it works, and that’s it true to me.
For a lot of creatives, revisiting work they did years before can be an uncomfortable experience. Everyone’s their own worst critic, and we can be so critical of our past selves. When you have so many songs that resonate with so many people over 30 years, and then you look back at material that you wrote when you were a teenager, do you ever feel that inner cringe?
GIBSON: I mean, so many things. When you started talking about that… I always try to be very present in every interview I do, because I don’t like to just keep saying the same things over and over. So something about the way you asked that question made me remember this song that I wrote that I only ever demoed, and now I’m going to want to find it and send it to you. It’s called “Eating To Be Social.” And the chorus was like [sings], “It’s like eating to be social when you don’t have anyone. Loving me means nothing, all you want is someone.” And I was, like, 12. So what comes to mind is: I had these intense perceptions of the world, of love, which as you pointed out I had not experienced, really, and I always observed things with a melody attached. I sing my thoughts. People think their thoughts. I sing my thoughts. And then I have hundreds of notebooks with hundreds of songs in them, and I just think, “God, I was busy. I was busy in my mind, I was busy in my spirit. How exhilarating. How exhausting.”
And then in terms of what I put out, I mean, yeah. I used to say to my mom, “Don’t ask me who this song’s about.” Because I was that little girl who was embarrassed to say if I liked someone, and yet I was signing about it for four million people to buy. So there’s still a part of me that’s like that. I don’t have a need to talk about my personal life as much as I just want to say, “Here’s the statement on all the things that I’ve been through, all the things I think about, and it’s through my music.” I still kind of am private, even when talking to friends. I’m not a big kiss and tell person.
You’ve done so much over the past 30 years — music, TV, film, theater. As you’ve gone through all these different mediums, have you done each with the intention of, “I want to do theater” and/or, “I want to do movies,” or “I want to do TV”? Or has it been more organic where you make moves on a case-by-case basis?
GIBSON: That’s such a cool question. I don’t know if I’ve ever been asked that.
I mean, my very first dream in life was to be a Broadway star. When I was six, I was auditioning for Annie, and by the time I was 12 I got the role of Annie in a non-union bus-and-truck tour, but I was already in Actor’s Equity and I didn’t want to go against the union, and so I didn’t do it. But being on Broadway was a very deep dream for me. And it was more of when teen pop, there was a huge backlash in like 1990, 90, 91. The minute that happened, I was like, “I wonder if I could revisit auditioning for Les Mis again.” Because I had auditioned for Les Mis when I was 15. It was the last audition I went on before I signed my record deal.
So organically, yes, it was picking up right where I left off. And it was, “I don’t want to be a victim of pop music trends my whole life. I don’t want to have to hit bullseyes and alter the music I’m making so I can have a hit in every decade.” That didn’t interest me. So it was like, “I want to keep doing what I’m doing at a high level and be on top of my game, but somewhere where I’m welcome.” So I was singing the song “On My Own” from Les Mis in my live concert at the time. I just was like, “I want to introduce Les Mis to my pop audience.” And it was a very pop show anyway. Eponine was the poppiest role in it. Eponine really spoke to young girls the way I think I was speaking to young girls.
Richard J. Alexander, who I’m still friends with now, who was the associate director at the time, still sang me through the entire score, because you can’t just hand out a role like that on a name and hope it works.
Then in terms of the Hallmark movies, that was really organic too. I just started getting ideas, because I love Hallmark, I love their movies. I love the predictability of them, as funny as that might sound. I think the world is chaotic and stressful enough, and if you know you’re watching these two characters at the beginning and you’re like, “We know they’re getting together. We just want to know how and watch the journey.”
And I started thinking about my own life in terms of a Hallmark movie. That camp where I was teaching kids [Gibson’s Electric Youth Summer Camp]. I was like, “What if my career really went awry and I was having to teach kids, but I was a hot mess as a teacher, and as an actual functioning adult.” And so I just started to craft it and then asked my agent to get me a meeting.
The SyFy movies, I was approached. Asylum approached me, and I remember reading it thinking, “This is just too much fun to say no to.” Ultimately in my life, I want to have fun. And I think there’s a balance between taking yourself seriously and not taking yourself seriously. And so that was just a not-take-myself-seriously moment, and I thought, “You know what? This is a fun way to see what my acting chops are like on screen.”
And again, it was just so silly and ridiculous and over the top. And I really thought a very limited audience was going to see it. Mega Shark, the first one, Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus. I have to get my sea critters straight. And day one, the trailer had a half a million hits on YouTube, and I was like, “Oh my God. I guess this is not under the radar.” But it was kitschy. I like kitschy stuff. Again, I like Les Miserables. It’s serious. It’s a piece of art. But then I also kitsch, and I think there’s a time and place for both.
You mentioned something earlier that I would love to dig into a little bit more. You mentioned, “There was a backlash to pop singers in the early 90s.” But then, 10 years later, you get the Y2K pop boom with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Jessica Simpson. What did you make of that era of young women? It’s such a hot topic in the media right now, regarding how badly these women were treated by the press at that time.
GIBSON: I mean, definitely things were more sexualized with the girls coming out in the ’90s. And for me, at 21 I did my “Losin’ Myself” video, which in my mind was a play on Gypsy Rose Lee. She was a burlesque queen, and I actually played her in the musical Gypsy, too. And so I had a theatrical approach to the more sexual imagery in that video, which got so blown out of proportion, misconstrued. I was a T-shirt and jeans and Converse girl, and other people are uncomfortable watching you make a transition. So I was a little bit… The word that comes to mind is “envious” of the girls who started with that image, because they never had to make that transition, and they just accepted them with their girliness and their sexuality all at one time.
And they were allowed to grow up, and I really wasn’t. People just really wanted to just keep me in that bubble that they had me in, for their own comfort. It was a different time. And at the same time, as social media… As I watched young girls start to emerge a little later with social media, I went, “Oh I’m so grateful I started when I did.” Ultimately, even with what I just said about image and perception and sexuality, now sitting 30 to 35 years on the other side of it, I go, “Oh my God. Thank God I started when I did, how I did. Thank God I was who I was, and I wasn’t forced to put on heels before I was ready to put on heels.” Because I’m sitting here as a very sane and happy adult, and not every teen star, especially the females, can say that. It’s a very psychologically trippy thing, between the male attention, and the male executives. And so I dodged a lot of those bullets, honestly.
[But] I can take it full circle and say I love the female pop artist landscape now. I feel like there’s so much acceptance of people’s authenticity. And look, from the time the Beatles came out and parents were saying, “That’s the devil’s music. Turn it off.” We’re always going to have older people looking at younger people thinking they’re growing up too fast. And honestly, people are growing up faster. It is a faster moving world. Technology has made it so. And so my version of 12 and 12 today are very different. My version of 16 and 16 today are very different. I mean, I think genetically, it’s different.
So I now look at, going back, starting with Taylor Swift, and bringing up Miley, and now Olivia Rodrigo. I mean I just think there’s so much talent. I focus on talent anyway. I’m like, “Dress how you want. You do you.” I think it’s amazing. Miley’s such a badass. The criticism she’s endured and the artist she’s become. She’s a force of nature. You cannot deny… I don’t care who says what about her. You cannot deny her talent.
Miley is a total survivor.
GIBSON: She’s amazing, and she just puts it all out there. She’s a true rock star. And I finally listened to the Olivia Rodrigo album, and what a musical genius she is as well, and so innovative, and speaking to her audience. So I always feel like the proud auntie off to the side, or the fairy godmother because I know the road they’re on, to a degree. I mean it’s their road. It’s not the same, but I kind of know where they are emotionally and musically, and I’m rooting for them and I’m proud of them, and I’m excited that this generation… And not just this generation, but that we all have these artists to listen to.
What is the story behind your reimagining “Lost In Your Eyes” with Joey McIntyre? I saw you two started singing it together when you were doing New Kids On The Block’s Mixtape Tour a few years ago?
GIBSON: As [Joey] puts it, he was bold enough to ask me to share my biggest #1 hit with him live, and I completely got it. I mean, for one second I gasped and was like, “Oh my God. I’ve performed this song on my own for 30 years. That’s wild.” And then I went, “Oh wow. That’s going to be a goosebump moment for sure.” And the Mixtape Tour shows were like a freight train. It’s mainly upbeat. It’s nonstop, wall-to-wall hits. And at that moment I was on the piano and he would walk out on verse two, and grown women would start weeping. And I was one of them.
As a songwriter, to just be able to accompany him while he was singing, and to witness the crowd. Because the crowd was feeling… It’s what I was saying earlier about The Body Remembers. I got a lot of comments that they were watching their idol and their crush together. And I think in a weird way I’ve always represented all girls and all women, because I’m not the prettiest in the room. I’m not the coolest in the room. I’ve just made myself into the best version of myself, which in my opinion anybody is capable of doing. And I think that women know that, they relate to it. And so me singing with Joey was every woman in that audience singing with Joey. And I could feel that with them and for them.