Yesterday was Debbie Harry’s birthday and I was shocked to see that I had not written about the meaning of the song “Rapture.” Or at least I hadn’t written about it here. I did write a discussion of the song over at Song Meanings. So let me expand on that a bit. To me, the song is very clear. This is distinct from just about everyone I’ve heard discuss the song. There are two primary theories. The first is that the song means nothing because Harry and Stein threw it together on a limo ride to a gig. As it seems I am forever reminding people: meaning is a construct of the listener, not the speaker. I may mean to communicate some idea to you in a story, but you are the final arbiter of what it meant. Or put another way: a comedian may think a bit is really funny, but if no one laughs, it isn’t funny.
The second theory is the fallback for all rock songs: it’s about drugs! But when writing about drugs, most songwriters are pretty explicit about it. For example, “I’m Waiting for my Man” is about drugs; “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (LSD, get it?) is not. Anyone who has ever done LSD knows the song seems very much like what someone who has never done LSD thinks it is like. Even “Lookin’ out My Back Door”, which seems like a guy coming home, dropping acid, and tripping on his back porch, is probably not about drugs, but rather about a man home from work who finally gets a chance to play with his creativity. I honestly don’t know why people would say that “Rapture” is about drugs. Do people on drugs hallucinate about aliens devouring cars?
Before I get to the song itself, I want to dispel the idea that “Rapture” was any kind of cutting edge song. Blondie did not invent rap, or for that matter, “white rap,” whatever that might be. Certainly the group was aware of Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”) if not “The Last Poets” and similar groups. But more to the point, “Rapture” was just a punk attempt to do what white musicians have been doing for hundreds of years: co-opt the cool stuff that black musicians were doing. In this particular case, it is hard to believe that “Rapture” would have ever existed if The Sugarhill Gang hadn’t been so successful with “Rapper’s Delight.” And none of that takes anything away from the brilliance of “Rapture.”
Before I started talking to people about it, I thought it was obvious to everyone what “Rapture” was about. It is about environmental destruction and over-blown consumerism. Not that I’m saying it is that simple, but in one sentence, that’s what you get. There is clearly a lot about sex, but this too is related to the commoditization of the act. Look at how they deconstruct the human interactions in the song. When dancing close, the body is breathing “almost comatose.” They aren’t grinding pelvises, they are “back to back” using the sacroiliac join—indicating that they are trying to interact as little as possible with each other. When they do face each other, they don’t look at one another. Without human connection, what is left: the things we buy.
The man from Mars, is, of course, us. He eats up cars until there are none. Then he eats bars until there are none. Then he eats guitars, but before he can get through them, the song ends with the best guitar solo on any Blondie song. The whole issue of “The Rapture” is present throughout the song. At the end, Harry’s disclosure that the man from Mars has gone back up to space is cold comfort. She seems to say, “The Rapture is a myth, no one is really going to come down and destroy you, but your things are going to be taken away from you — by you and the way you live — and you will be left with, what? Each other.” Thus, the song provides a tidy message: don’t relate with your things, relate with each other. The song is more relevant today than ever.