Blondie’s X-Offender

I’m still editing this essay, so feel free to let me know what you think in the comments! I’m also still having a hell of a time with WordPress, so let me know if any of the format is off.

Blondie’s official video for the song.

“I saw you standing on the corner, you looked so big and fine
I really wanted to go out with you, so when you smiled
I laid my heart on the line.”

Debbie Harry reads the opening lines from Blondie’s 1976 debut single, “X-Offender,” in a singsong girlish tone that evokes the beginning of The Angels’ 1963 hit “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Harry’s bit was intended to honor – and possibly tease – Richard Gottehrer, who had produced The Angels’ single and also produced Blondie’s eponymous debut album. The juxtaposition of the subject matter – a streetwalker having a crush on the police officer who’s arresting her, and her fantasy of their developing relationship (and you thought the plot of Pretty Woman was improbable) – is executed with the ironic sensibility that characterized punk and new wave, in an era of music that sometimes questioned the idealized innocence of the 1950s-1960s era of pop music while simultaneously celebrating its aesthetic charms.

“X-Offender,” originally titled “Sex Offender” but renamed for the single’s release, featured the acceptance of undesirables and skepticism of authority prevalent in punk rock. The B-Side to the single was another of my all-time-fave Blondie tunes, “Rip Her To Shreds,” about a mean girl picking on another girl’s clothing – something Debbie Harry, with her eccentric style, probably knew a thing or two about.

Prior to forming in Blondie with her partner Chris Stein, Harry had parlayed her classic good looks into a job as a Playboy Bunny. From 1968-1973, she represented a standard of mainstream beauty in the exclusive Playboy Clubs, where glamourous servers uniformed in heels, fishnets, bunny ears, and tight-fitting bodysuits with bunny tails delivered cocktails to men in business suits and smoking jackets.

While working as a Playboy Bunny may not be sex work, it’s certainly sex-work-adjacent, and it’s definitely adult entertainment. Harry was savvy about the implications, and as the front person for the band she regularly fucked with the ideas of marketable beauty and commercialized sex. In the 1970s it was a fairly common expectation — practically a moral imperative — that any woman who could use her looks to get a rich man would do so. As the singer for Blondie Harry began to make herself appear unmarriageable without sidelining her sexuality, dressing in big floppy shirts when she felt like it — but also not holding back from sexy outrageous clothing, including torn t-shirts with panties and gunbelts, miniskirts with torn fishnets and thigh-high boots, outfits that either were or merely resembled items from vintage Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogs, and clothing from individualistic and vivid designers such as Fiorucci and Vivienne Westwood. She bleached her hair and mussed it, often layering in dark roots. She jumped around erratically on stage and made contemptuous faces, demonstrating a sensibility as far as possible from the elegant-dinner-hostess image she would have been assumed to develop based on her appearance as a representative of Playboy. She even wore acrylic heels in the official video for “Heart of Glass.”

The band’s music and her style continued to be experimental, always remaining iconoclastic, and over time evolving into the iconic. Even when the band incorporated popular dance and mainstream radio themes, she retained an exotic subcultural sheen. Her fashion sense continues to be studied and written about, and versions of her look, a mix of goldigger-era Marilyn Monroe and 1970s nightclub catastrophe, continues to be a girl-band standard. (She’s just one of my favorites, in case you can’t tell — I still come over speechless every time I see her live.)

It’s just inevitable for a public-facing woman to be scrutinized for how she engages with her sexuality, and Harry knows it. Other Blondie and later solo-era Harry songs that are either directly or indirectly about prostitution include “Pretty Baby,” from the album Parallel Lines (1978), which makes a reference to the child prostitute Violet in the movie Pretty Baby, a film which I’m pretty sure would never be made today; and “Call Me,” in collaboration with disco music legend Giorgio Moroder (who also produced “Bad Girls” for Donna Summer), the anthem from hit film American Gigolo (1980), in which Richard Gere plays a high-dollar male hustler (ten years before he would be immortalized as a client with a heart of gold in Pretty Woman). Furthermore, Debbie Harry was the original choice to play the sex worker robot Pris in the movie Blade Runner, but was persuaded to turn it down by her record label at the time, a missed opportunity which she says she regrets to this day.

Like many women in the sex industry, I’m capable of a particular type of cognitive split around my own status, one which, in my case, allows me to enjoy the playful irony of “X-Offender” from the perspective of a privileged civilian and yet, as a veteran stripper, porn model, and prostitute, still be mad about the idea of a cop flirting with a sex worker. This is infuriating to think about in a culture where cops can have sex with sex workers and then arrest, them anyway and where there’s significant history of cops extorting sex for freedom. The fetishization of the cop’s “badge and rubber boots” is reminiscent of the uniform fetishes that were on display in may gay clubs, where, in an era where visbily non-heteronormative sexuality was both casually discriminated against and in many ways illegal, dressing like a cop could still be seen as sexy.

In my view, the song pushes back against expectations about characters subject to stereotype. You mean a cop could go astray from the law? You mean a hooker could experience romance? You don’t say! Knowing Harry was not innocent of the implications of nightlife and the sex industry, I see the song as sympathetic to sex work rather than mocking it — needling people who are startled to see the sex worker addressed as a human with emotions, hopes, and lovability. Who believes she’s worthy of love and dares to ask for it from a man who knows her reality.

One of the things I keep in mind as I listen to the lyrics of popular music is that the word choices serve more than one purpose. While all the words retain their meanings, their arrangement may be influenced by musicality as well as by storyline. They may be evocative of mood and emotion rather than directly indicating the singer’s thoughts, and they may be structured not to convey a clear message but to accompany the music in a specific rhythmic and tonal way. In the case of this particular song, as the verb tenses change, I’m not sure if the story is just that this happened, or that the narrator wanted it to happen.

Since the recording of her 2022 performance is a little fuzzy, I’ll share the closing lyrics she’s singing:
“I think all the time how I’m going to perpetrate love with you
And when I get out, there’s no doubt I’ll be sex offensive to you.”

However, at the beginning of the song the cop just read her her rights and said nothing more, so maybe he didn’t actually flirt with her? I’m not sure if the rest of X-Offender is about the streetwalker’s fantasy or is the beginning of a true romance. Maybe if he arrests her enough times, they’ll come together and cut a ridiculous caper a la Raising Arizona, in which Hy, a convict and recidivist robber, marries an officer of the law, and goes on to raise a family of children and grandchildren who “weren’t screwed up

I don’t know. You tell me. Or should I ask @blondieofficial ? I might be too shy to approach her! She’s still belting out this song, as you can see in the second clip, and as far as I’m concerned she should never ever stop.

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