Meaning of Blondie’s “Rapture”

Blondie - RaptureYesterday 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.

“Get up!”

7 thoughts on “Meaning of Blondie’s “Rapture”

  1. I haven’t used LSD since military school in the 1990’s; I was never skilled at scoring drugs, I just was willing to try what other people offered socially, and the Naval Academy chem lab kids were proud of their concoctions. (As well they should have been; excellent work.) It’s not something people offer socially anymore, much the pity. I stick with beer these days, but a break from my brain would be delightful if such a thing were legal and the product standardized and regulated.

    If I had to pick a Beatles LSD song, I’d actually choose "Penny Lane." Seeing something perfectly normal and enjoying it more than one usually would. I suppose all the tales of "bad trips" have some truth to them, but I never had one or met anybody who did.

    It wasn’t even hard to make morning muster after a strong LSD trip, frankly. Adult military officers are cued in to catch drunkenness (and I got caught for that), but you can stand attention blitzed out of your gourd on hallucinogens and they have no idea. I spent about three months constantly high on cough syrup (we had little sampler packs of razors and rubbers and cough syrup, I bartered condoms for Robitussin, I figured correctly I had no shot at getting laid) and never once did it have a negative impact.

    Ahh, misty syrup-covered memories (god, does cough syrup taste insanely disgusting) . . .

    • Stop thinking too much into it. Blondie was into the 80’s underground Hip-Hop scene. They had a deep appreciation for not only underground Punk but also Hip-Hop; Joints like Roxy, Negril, Peppermint lounge. Afrika Bambaata took hip-hop from the Bronx to Manhattan. Fab 5 Freddie turned on an entire generation to not only the musical scene but the visual artistry that is hip-hop. “GRAFFITI” (For those of you that are not culturally sophisticated; “STREET ART”) and for all things considered. Grandmaster Flash had an uncanny way of mixing breaks & smoothly mixing beats together .This & this alone is attributed to Blondies love for Hip-hop & why they felt it necessary to bring this cultural movement to the white stream.( By the way this is a white guy)

      • @Doug Burke – Spot on about NYC and the art and music scenes of punk, New Age, and hip hop. It’s not a deep song. But it’s good, and fun, and pays homage to hip hop cousins who headed downtown.

        • Since I didn’t really respond to Doug, let me say two things to him. First, what you are saying is, “Don’t write this article.” You believe I am over-thinking it, but I have thousands of readers because I over-think everything. Second, you are welcome to your opinion of the meaning of the song, just as the writers are — but only as listeners, not as writers. As I have written about on many occasions, the meaning of any work of art is determined exclusively by the reader/listener/viewer/whatever. Saying “My history lesson is more valid than your meaning analysis” is the same as saying “I am the ultimate arbiter of what can be said about a piece of art.” What you wrote doesn’t conflict with what I wrote. You simply wish to look at the art from a process standpoint. I’m not interested in that at all because, again, meaning does not come from the artist. In the 21st century, I would think this would be common knowledge. Yet I constantly hear people say fatuous things like, “Oh, that song means X because I heard the write talk about it and they said so.” What a sad, sad way to approach art.

          • One last thing: What Doug wrote isn’t actually about the meaning of the song. He’s discussing process and that’s certainly legitimate, but it isn’t meaning analysis. What’s really bad about it is that it claims to illuminate meaning and does it in a way where meaning is, once again, something absolute that the artist puts into the work. That’s simply wrong.

  2. @JMF – The only real Beatles LSD song is "She Said." My band used to do that song, but I changed the words. They are weak.

    Here is Jim Hogshire’s classic discussion of a cough syrup trip:

    [quote]Last night I drank about eight ounces of DM cough syrup. I was feeling kind of achy and wanted to see if it would kill pain. After a couple of hours all my pain had gone away, and I went to bed. It was midnight, but I felt neither awake nor asleep. It was like a typical narcotic high–mildly content, kind of nodding–but not as pleasant.

    At four o’clock in the morning I woke up suddenly and remembered that I had to go to Kinko’s copy shop and that I had to shave off about a week’s worth of stubble from my face. These ideas were very clear to me. That may seem normal, but the fact was that I had a reptilian brain. My whole way of thinking and perceiving had changed. I had full control over my motor functions, but I felt ungainly. I was detached from my body, as if I were on laughing gas.

    So I got in the shower and shaved. While I was shaving I "thought" that for all I knew I was hacking my face to pieces. Since I didn’t see any blood or feel any pain I didn’t worry about it. Had I looked down and seen that I had grown another limb, I wouldn’t have been surprised at all; I would have just used it. Looking back, I realize that I had already lost all sense of time.

    The world became a binary place of dark and light, on and off, safety and danger. I felt a need, determined it was hunger, and ate almonds until I didn’t feel the need anymore. Same thing with water. It was like playing a game. I sat at my desk and tried to write down how this felt so I could look at it later. I wrote down the word "Cro-Magnon." I was very aware that I was stupid. I think I probably seemed like Benny on L.A. Law.

    I thought I would have trouble driving but I had none. I only felt "unsafe" in the dark street until I got into the "safe" car. Luckily there were only a couple of people in Kinko’s and one of them was a friend. She confirmed that my pupils were of different sizes. One wasn’t quite round. I knew I was fucked up.

    I knew there was no way I could know if I was correctly adhering to social customs. I didn’t even know how to modulate my voice. Was I talking too loud? Did I look like a regular person? I understood that I was involved in a big contraption called civilization and that certain things were expected of me, but I could not comprehend what the hell those things might be.

    All the words that came out of my mouth seemed equal. Instead of saying "reduce it about 90 percent" I could have said "two eggs and some toast, please." The whole world was broken down into elemental parts, each being of equal "value" to the whole–which is to say, of no value at all.

    I sat at a table and read a newspaper. It was the most absurd thing I had ever seen! Each story purported to be a description of a thing or an event, or was supposed to cover "news" of reality in another place. This seemed stupid. An article on the war in Burma was described as "the war the West forgot." It had an "at-a-glance" chart that said Burma was approximately three times the size of the state of Washington. This was meaningless and I knew it. The story did not even begin to describe the tiniest fragment of the reality of what was happening in that place. Since I hadn’t always been a reptile, I knew things were what they call "complicated" and that the paper’s pitiful attempt to categorize individuals as "rebels" or "insurgents" or to describe the reasons for the agony was ridiculous. I laughed out loud.

    I found being a reptile kind of pleasant. I was content to sit there and monitor my surroundings. I was alert but not anxious. Every now and then I would do a "reality check" to make sure I wasn’t masturbating or strangling someone, because of my vague awareness that more was expected of me than just being a reptile. At one point I ventured across the street to a hamburger place to get something to eat. It was closed and yet there were workers inside. This truly confused me, and I considered trying to find a way to simply run in, grab some food, and make off with it. Luckily, the store opened (it was now 6 A.M.) and I entered the front door like a normal customer.

    It was difficult to remember how to perform a money-for-merchandise transaction and even more difficult to put it into words, but I was eventually successful. I ate the hamburger slowly and deliberately. If I had become full before I finished the hamburger, I think I would have simply let it fall from my hands.

    The life of a reptile may seem boring to us, but I was never bored when I was a reptile. If something started to hurt me, I took steps to get away from it; if it felt better over there, that’s where I stayed. Now, twenty-four hours later, I’m beginning to get my neocortex back (I think). Soon, I hope to be human again.[/quote]

    Jim is brilliant. I miss him.

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