In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth, which went to No. 1 on March 11, 1989, where it stayed for five weeks.
When Beyoncé released “Run The World (Girls)” in 2011, chatter about its empowering message turned sour when it surfaced that she co-wrote the song with a team of men. Yet this outrage could’ve been applied to a surprising number of rah-rah girl-power anthems of the last 20 years—including Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women, Pt. 1,” which was also penned by Queen Bey and a team of male scribes. Spice Girls’ “Wannabe” was a co-write between the band and the song’s two male producers. Christina Aguilera co-wrote “Fighter” and “Can’t Hold Us Down” with the songs’ producer, Scott Storch. Even Britney Spears’ “Stronger” was written by two dudes.
Of course, it’s dodgy territory to accuse men of being unable to empathize with the female experience; it’s also highly debatable whether the “you go girl” vibe is diminished because men were responsible for the sentiments. At the very least, the latter accusation is an insult to the performers, all of whom made these dynamic songs their own. But it’s certainly unsettling (if not more than a little creepy) that the thoughts, feelings, and emotions expressed by young female pop singers are predominantly dictated by grown men.
A quarter-century ago, Debbie Gibson was determined to change that. The self-assured style icon and teen-pop pioneer wrote every song on her first two albums, 1987’s Out Of The Blue and 1989’s Electric Youth—which were released when she was 17 and 18, respectively. “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,” she told Billboard earlier this year.
To ensure the success of this debut single, the Brooklyn-born, Long Island-raised musician traveled far and wide—reaching tweens, teens, and mall queens alike. “The first nine months when ‘Only In My Dreams’ was out, it was bubbling under in the clubs,” Gibson recalled in 2009. “So I would play teen clubs, straight clubs, and a gay club, four nights out of the week. I was 16. I remember being in an all-lesbian club with women hugging me and kissing me, and here I am, a 16-year-old girl from Long Island. It was like, ‘Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore!’” This hard work paid off: Until Soulja Boy’s 2007 smash “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” she was the youngest artist to write, record, and perform a No. 1 single, 1988’s “Foolish Beat.”
Electric Youth was an even more impressive display of musical confidence. Working closely with Brooklyn-based producer Fred Zarr, Gibson received credit for producing, arranging, and mixing the majority of the music, while also contributing keyboards, drum programming, backing vocals, and piano. While a little less upbeat than Out Of The Blue, Electric Youth’s music reflects increased poise. In fact, it’s a quintessential example of pristine late-’80s pop production: sparkling keyboards, stab-wound synths, rattlesnake percussion, electronic drum programming, and overdramatic electric guitars. There are even charmingly dated flourishes, such as the ’80s-sitcom-theme sax on “Should’ve Been The One” or a flute solo on standout “Silence Speaks (A Thousand Words).”
Although the double-platinum record spawned three Top 40 singles—including another No. 1 hit, the piano pirouette “Lost In Your Eyes”—it didn’t feel like an easy commercial smash. Besides the obvious dance-club bait of the title track, Electric Youth is deliberately more sophisticated: Syrupy AOR R&B and theatrical ballads alternate with peppy electropop and upbeat power-pop.
Perhaps more impressive, Gibson’s take on typical romantic issues doesn’t go the fluffy route. “Should’ve Been The One” doesn’t let a breakup stand in the way of eternal love: “I’ll never give up on your love / ’Cause you always will be the one.” (The lyric sheet is even more emphatic: “You know you SHOULD’VE BEEN THE ONE”—all-caps flourish included.) The narrator of “Silence Speaks (A Thousand Words),” meanwhile, slowly realizes that the guy who broke her heart isn’t worth it—“You just don’t take the time / And that is where I draw the line”—before having the (figurative) last word: “You use lies / Don’t worry, I’ll return your song of silence.”
On a 1989 episode of The Arsenio Hall Show, Gibson explained some of the inspiration for her songwriting: “Obviously, I have had boyfriends—nothing major, though. I go by feelings I’ve felt and just observing other people, really. My friends [will] have a breakup and go, ‘Oh, I’m going to hear it on the radio tomorrow.’” And, sure, Electric Youth isn’t above normal melodrama; “Helplessly In Love” proclaims, “My lips are gonna fade away / Without kissin’ you.” But subtly, Electric Youth touches on deeper things. The title track is wise beyond its years as it defends young people (“Don’t underestimate the power / Of a lifetime ahead”), while “Over the Wall” is philosophical about the future: “Fear of the unknown / Is unhealthy to the soul / But it eats you up inside / If you don’t have a higher goal.” Gibson didn’t insult the intelligence or inner life of her listeners. In fact, she respected that they weren’t just obsessed with boys, but perhaps were also busy exploring who they might become in the future.
Naturally, this didn’t always sit well with the powers-that-be. “I always had people thinking they could write better songs for me,” Gibson told Parade in 2011. “My thinking was that you might be able to write a better song, which is subjective anyway, but I want to write what speaks to me and what speaks to my audience. At one point, they wanted to bring in Prince and a lot of older, urban producers, and I was like, ‘I’m a teenage, suburban, white girl. Really? Come on, now. I’m not even buying it, so I doubt my fans are going to buy it.’ I was very intent on doing my own thing. Not out of ego, more out of relatability.”
Gibson’s insistence that Electric Youth be well-crafted real-life stories rather than radio-friendly pandering was vindicated when she and Bruce Springsteen co-received the 1989 ASCAP Songwriter Of The Year award. More than that, the record’s success felt like validation that music made by teenagers, for teenagers, mattered. There was plenty of intrinsic value to songs for normal, non-glamorous teens struggling through awkward growing pains and agonizing puppy love. Not every kid was sneaking out and having sex; some were just trying to get their crush to notice them.
Today, Electric Youth’s chaste teenpop feels quaint, culled from a simpler time. But Gibson’s influence still lingers. In recent years, versatile artists such as Taylor Swift, Charli XCX, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams have carried on her penchant for smart, relatable songwriting. Others—namely Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus—have stood their ground in the face of industry pressure and defended their creative direction. And even publications such as Rookie owe a debt to how Gibson spoke to and for teenagers, without condescension.
Gibson, too, is well aware of the challenges female artists still face. “I think that young girls in the business are often made to feel like puppets and I think it’s really important to empower kids in general,” she said in a 2012 interview. “Especially the girls, because when I first started, the writing and the producing side of the industry was very male-dominated. And it still is—I mean, it’s gotten better, but it was always basically like, ‘Okay, little girl, shut up and sing and look cute.’”
But she weathered this disparagement with grace. In fact, the creative freedom Gibson ultimately had on Electric Youth was unprecedented: Today, the idea that a pop star—much less a star under the age of 18—would be able to make a record without a fleet of co-writers and micro-managing collaborators seems downright impossible. Electric Youth is a testament to Gibson’s prodigious music talent, and remains a reminder that smart teenage girls can and should rule the world.