As one of the top teen performers of the '80s, Debbie Gibson influenced a generation with perky, poppy songs such as "Only in My Dreams," "Foolish Beat" and "Electric Youth" before dropping out of the music business to focus her energies on the Broadway stage.
She's playing to arena audiences once again, for the first time in a decade, as the opening act for 'NSYNC (see "Look Out, Britney: 'NSYNC Going Out With Deborah Gibson").
And as the older, wiser and renamed Deborah Gibson observes the generation of Britney look-alikes she's eager to entertain, she can't help but remark upon the difference between '80s kids and modern teenagers.
"Kids today grow up so fast," she said from her New York home a day before joining the tour. "In the '80s, it was more about sexy innocence as opposed to being so blatant. I didn't know how to walk in a pair of heels at that age. I didn't know how to wear red lipstick, walk into a room and own it. Some of these girls today seem pretty comfortable with it, which is kind of scary."
Before you peg Gibson as old-fashioned or out-of-touch, hear her out. She understands that today's high school students mature faster than ever, and that advertising, film and other media revolve around themes of sex and seduction. She accepts that contemporary girl-pop stars such as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Mandy Moore merely reflect the environment they grew up in. Yet she fears the consequences of kids having to face adult issues prematurely.
"I hope it's not all too-much-too-soon," she said. "I just wish kids would allow themselves a little more time to be kids while they can, because they're gonna have so much time to flaunt their sexuality later, and they don't realize that yet. Among singers, it feels like there's a race going on and stripping your clothes off brings you to the next level. I just wonder how comfortable all these girls are with that image when they put their heads down on their pillows at night."
While Gibson said she's awed by the sexual energy Britney exudes, she doesn't target Spears as an especially bad influence on today's electric youth.
"I think she knows to a degree that she's playing a role," Gibson said. "It seems as though she can distinguish between what she does onstage and what she does in her life. She puts on her face and her clothes and her hair extensions, turns up the energy and goes for it, which I enjoy. I don't get the feeling she takes that side of herself too seriously. She always has a little tongue-in-cheek glint in her eye when she performs."
Christina Aguilera, however, is another story. "I get the idea that Christina lives and breathes the sexual image, which frightens me," Gibson said. "I look at her and go, 'Ooh, she's gotten a little ahead of herself.' There are so many girls out there wearing less and less. I look at their videos and think, 'Does that mean each time you come out with an album you have to lose more clothes and get more explicit in your lyrics?'"
Onstage, Gibson tries to stay current through modern choreography, youthful exuberance and winning melodies. But she'll never use sex as a weapon.
"I've always taken the role-model approach," she said. "I care how my music rubs off on kids and I don't think you need to perform in a bikini to be current. My performance is filled with a lot of what 'NSYNC's performance is filled with. It's not like every one of those guys has an amazingly buff body and goes for showing skin they're charged with an energy. I have a similar energy and it's an energy you can use at any age with any audience."