Listen to this track by returning pop-punk chartbusters turned pop rock elders Blondie. It’s “Maria”, their comeback single as issued on their 1999 album No Exit. That record was their first together since 1982’s The Hunter. That’s a pretty long time between releases. But this song ensured their success as their sixth number one single in the UK where they’d always been championed since their early days. This new song’s chart placement corresponded to the day with another number one song of theirs in the UK, “Heart Of Glass” in 1979.
“Maria” was penned by Blondie keyboardist Jimmy Destri, even borrowing the phrase “walking on imported air” from his own “Walk Like Me” from 1980’s Autoamerican. Also, the song shares a similar dynamic with their early song “Rip Her To Shreds” that has lead singer Debby Harry judgmentally (and with a heaping tablespoon of irony) commenting on an observed woman. “Maria” is kind of the twin sister to that song, more concerned with the woman as unobtainable object of love, or maybe lust, with a dash of the divine thrown in for good measure.
“Maria” demonstrates that classic power-pop perspective in this way, and is very connected to the band’s earlier oeuvre on these many fronts. It’s no wonder it did the business for them as a comeback single. Along with that I think it has something to say about women in general.
Destri actually wrote “Maria” when casting his mind back to his days in Catholic boy’s school, dreaming of an ideal girl in lieu of any real ones around. Maybe he conflated that carnal vision with some of the religious imagery he must have been surrounded by at the time, hence the name “Maria”. Apart from that though, this idea of the ideal girl, the untouchable goddess, is very much a part of the Blondie identity anyway. The band traded on that seemingly human impulse to observe and to characterize women, even by naming their band “Blondie”. Debby Harry made waves in the 1970s music press as a sort of punk rock sex symbol herself, and this after a stint as a Playboy bunny, which seemed to confirm that impulse. The idea of the observed woman is woven into the fabric of the band’s identity and was certainly familiar territory where Harry was concerned. In this, I think this song is transformed by Harry singing it in a way that makes it more than just about a passive fantasy girl which perhaps the song’s writer had in mind.
This works on a few fronts. One notable front is Harry’s aggressive delivery, which goes from a low crooning alto to an operatic rock roar through out the song. This is a woman who is beyond reach too in a sense, just like the quasi-divine Maria she’s singing about. In this way, the line becomes blurred between singer and her subject, by virtue of which changing the narrative from male fantasy to one that ends up more feminine as a result. Another front is the fact that by 1999, Debby Harry was 54 years old, with a voice even more powerful and nuanced than before, maybe due to her experience working with The Jazz Passengers by then. With her performance here, she challenges our ideas of what a desirable woman is, which is not necessarily the ingenue in her twenties. In this the figure of “Maria” becomes more than just one idea of what an idealized woman should be. When Debbie Harry sings it, “Maria” becomes a symbol of womanhood that goes beyond a power-pop trope about an observed girl. She is strong and confident, and a force that you want to be close to not because she’s idealized and out of reach, but because she isn’t. To me, this is why this tune has so much impact. It’s tied into themes that this band has explored since their beginning. Yet it adds new dimension to where the band was at when they recorded this song.
I was able to see Blondie play at Glastonbury in 1999, and Debbie Harry was a striking figure in red in very good voice, commanding the stage with supreme confidence, and well past all of the blow-up doll idiocy that a lot of the press that had piled on her twenty years before. She moved like she didn’t care, walking on imported air, a figure of the divine feminine all of her own.
Blondie is an active band today, comprised of original members Harry, guitarist Chris Stein, drummer Clem Burke, along with new members. Learn more about them at blondie.net.
For more about Blondie around the time of this song and their comeback, check out this transcribed interview from 1999 which was conducted via chat in an early form of an AMA.