Music fans from the late 20th century will recognize the name instantly: Debbie Gibson, the Brooklyn-born, blond wunderkind who wrote, sang and produced massive hits like "Foolish Beat," "Lost in Your Eyes" and "Electric Youth." Gibson was just 16 when she broke big, releasing two back-to-back albums that went triple- and double-platinum.
And she kept flying on that rocket ship of fame all throughout the 1990s — but in 2001, she released her last all-new studio album, "M.Y.O.B." and shot off in a bunch of different directions, acting, creating musicals, opening summer camps, heading out on nostalgia tours. She's been around. Fans — "Debheads" — know how to find her.
But 2021 is different: She's back with her first studio album of originals in 20 years, "The Body Remembers," and as she tells TODAY, "It is a new chapter in my life."
How so? Well, there's been a lot going on behind the scenes with Gibson, now 51. "This next step feels like the culmination of a lot of life I've lived in the last decade or two, which has led up to this musical point," she explained, adding that she's now out of a 10-year relationship, she "parted ways" with her momager of 25 years (on good terms), and battled Lyme disease.
"I do feel there's a lot I've come out of, and I do feel like my ability and my stamina and my joy is back in a whole new bigger and better way," she says.
Musically, what that means is she's able to let go of the reins a bit. "I've proved I could write a song already, so I welcomed input into this album," she says. That means pairing up with songwriters like Tracy Young and Dirty Werk and even duetting with Joey McIntyre (of New Kids on the Block), with whom she performed in Las Vegas in August) on a version of "Lost in Your Eyes." Not only that, she's released the album on her own label, Stargirl Records.
"I'm very comfortable in my own skin at this point, and I do feel an extraordinary freedom in my life and creativity," she says. "This music was born of my experiences and the emotional space I was in, and that's parallel to my very first album ("Out of the Blue"). The first go-around I missed so much in the whirlwind — I was always worried I might miss a note, or I was figuring out how to get through the itinerary of every day — and now I'm more in the moment."
Part of that is the maturity that comes with age, but Gibson says she's always been a fan of older pop stars, referencing how she got into Cher and Tina Turner when they were in their late 40s — and she was just in her 20s. "I've always wanted to be heir to that throne," she says. "An ageless, empowered female. Young female performers want to be super human, and please everyone — and I sure was like that."
Fortunately, she had the grounding of her mother Diane, and the support of her family in her career. Though their house had three mortgages on it, her mom borrowed $10,000 when she was a kid from an "uncle who owned a farm equipment company in New Jersey" to purchase her a home studio. In these days of Garage Band and ProTools that might not seem like a big deal, but in the 1980s it was a lot to spend on an unproven teen wannabe.
"I had the most tenacious and slightly insane — in a good way — mother, and had it not been for her I don't know that my music would have seen the light of day," says Gibson. "She was always resourceful and found a way for me to create my early demos, which I produced in our garage. My mom's a badass, and always has been — I was not going to be 14 years old and getting the attention of Atlantic (Records) without someone in my corner."
This may be why she — like many music fans — empathizes with what fellow 1990s pop princess Britney Spears has been going through lately. Gibson says she met Spears "years ago" and has "gotten messages to her through her old management," but doesn't like to assume anyone needs her advice.
"I feel like everybody's rooting for her," says Gibson. "It's a crazy thing we do in this country, build people up and then tear them down. I hope and pray that on the other side of gaining her freedom she can regain all of her stability and creativity and thrive again. I watch her dance videos (on social media) and she's using that art as a therapeutic way to get through life. For me, making the album during the pandemic was that — it got me out from under the covers every day."
These days, Gibson doesn't really buy tabloid magazines (though she has nice things to say about People magazine), and has moved on: to the new album, but working on more musicals, and still has big dreams — she wants to score films and even a symphony.
"I have so many goals," she says. "I love that I can start this chapter in my 50s with decades of goals, and plans in my head creatively. It's like resurgence — and also like I'm doing this for the first time, all over again."