This is the sixth post in a biweekly series. Read about the series — and just what we mean by “freestyle music” — here. Freestyle Fridays post on the first and third Fridays of each month.
Debbie Gibson is something of a prodigy. Born in 1970, she sang in the children’s chorus at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, performed in musical theater, and wrote her first song (“Make Sure You Know Your Classroom”) at age 5. When Debbie was 12, her mother hired a producer to help start her daughter’s career. Two years later, Debbie wrote “Only in My Dreams,” and two years after that, in late 1986, the song was released as a single.
Debbie spent the next year writing more songs for her debut album, “Out of the Blue.” I remember that, at the time, much was made of that album title and how a propos it was for the incredibly talented young woman who wrote and sang it. That album spawned her first #1 hit – the ballad “Foolish Beat” – which made Gibson the youngest person to write, produce and sing a Number 1 single entirely on her own. Debbie went on to release eight more albums, but her first two were her most commercially and critically successful.
Side note: At some point, we’ll need to talk about freestyle ballads, but I’ll admit here that they are not, generally speaking, my cup of tea. If we want to talk about Debbie Gibson ballads, I much prefer her 1989 Number 1 hit, “Lost In Your Eyes” – a dreamy show tune that seems to be exactly what an 18-year-old theater girl would write.
I have to admit that I never considered Debbie Gibson a freestyle artist – certainly not in 1986, when I didn’t know the term, and not even more recently, when I started exploring the genre. But as soon as you hear the opening of “Only In My Dreams,” you can hear it, right? And listen to “Electric Youth” from 1989 – you hear it there, too. These songs were so hugely popular that I just thought of them as bubblegum pop songs (which they certainly were). The lush freestyle production in Gibson’s songs seems different from dark, sparse New York freestyle, or latin-flavored Miami freestyle. And yet now, 30 years later, Gibson now performs regularly in freestyle revival music festivals.
So, that leaves the question: How did a 14-year-old girl from Brooklyn come to write such massively popular freestyle hits? A little digging finds an answer: Although she was marketed as the sole creative force behind her music, Gibson’s first album actually had several producers, including Fred Zarr. (Zarr also worked on Gibson’s second album, “Electric Youth.”) A quick look at Zarr’s projects from that time period sheds some light on his production style:
- 1983: Planet Patrol’s album “Planet Patrol” (with freestyle god Arthur Baker)
- 1983: Madonna’s self-titled début album. Zarr contributed to most of the songs on the album, but worked with Arthur Baker on “Everybody,” the track that helped secure her a record deal.
- 1984: Break Machine’s “Break Dance Party”
- 1987: Jody Watley’s “Don’t You Want Me?”
- 1988: Pretty Poison’s “Catch Me I’m Falling”
So it seems clear that Zarr and his co-producers married their freestyle production to Gibson’s undeniable songwriting and performance skills. Wikipedia claims that freestyle “started to really take off by 1987,” but it doesn’t mention Debbie Gibson anywhere in its article. I suppose I’d argue that, with 1987’s “Only in Your Dreams,” Debbie Gibson and Fred Zarr launched freestyle rhythm and production into the mainstream.
- Number 4 on US Billboard Hot 100 September 5, 1987.
- Number 12 US Dance Club Songs.
- Number 95 on VH1’s 100 Greatest Songs of the 80s.
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