Editorial: “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran” by Rob Sheffield

Life During Duran Duran
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly
12/3/10

For some, the bulk of popular music in the 1980s is looked back upon as a mere punch line. Flock of Seagulls? Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney doing “Say Say Say”? Poison? Bob Dylan hamming it up in a tacky video that found him earnestly singing, “What’s a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this / A woman like you should be at home / that’s where you belong / taking care of somebody nice”?

Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon once said that rock ’n’ roll exists so that people can pay to see other people believe in themselves. In a lot of ways, it’s undeniable that pop music in the ’80s mostly existed so that people could pay to see young musicians make fools of themselves in order to become stars, and established rock stars—think David Bowie’s Never Let Me Down (1987) or Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla (1985)—eagerly embarrass themselves in order to ride the tidal wave of hair-sprayed nonsense.

For many crotchety music geeks – myself included – the ’80s equals epochal LPs like the Clash’s London Calling and Sandanista!, the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation; the birth of The Pixies, Ween and others; and countless unforgettable hardcore classics such as Black Flag’s “Rise Above” and Bad Brains’ “Sailin’ On.” While the gluttonous mainstream record industry made millions proving Americans are dumb enough to giddily consume anything with a sizeable promotion budget, the argument goes, underground music in the ’80s thrived—and was subsequently responsible for influencing the post-’80s popular music we can be proud of, from Nirvana to Radiohead to Arcade Fire.

However, as Yale-educated Rolling Stone writer Rob Sheffield states in his new book Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut (Dutton), making sense of the ’80s is much more complicated than all that.

Like Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City before it, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran details the suburban (and in Sheffield’s case, Irish Catholic) upbringing of a young man who falls deeply in love with stereotypically ’80s music, never really outgrows it, and never really feels the need to apologize. Sheffield, who turned 14 in 1980, points to troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ famous quote, “Fear of pop is an infantile disorder – you should face up to it like a man” in order to justify his never-ending adulation of ostensibly shallow (and wildly successful) ’80s acts like Duran Duran.

“Loving Duran Duran has been one of the constants in my life,” Sheffield writes in the book’s introduction. “They’re Zen masters on the path of intimate sluttiness…and there’s nothing about them that would evoke the dreaded words ‘guilty pleasure.’ As Oscar Wilde said, no civilized man ever regrets a pleasure, and no uncivilized man knows what a pleasure is.”

In other words, enjoy it or listen to something else, but don’t waste energy trying to make Sheffield feel ashamed.

Poignantly, Sheffield asserts throughout Talking to Girls About Duran Duran that he “learned about love through pop music.” Unlike Klosterman circa Fargo Rock City, Sheffield doesn’t feel the need to insult fans of punk and what came to be known as “alternative music”—nor does Sheffield make a dolt of himself comparing Guns ’n’ Roses’ lyrics to the Bible—in order to make himself feel OK about remaining a Bon Jovi fan twenty years after “Smells Like Teen Spirit” laid waste to the reign of glam-metal.

Sheffield does have his own moments of fevered, frivolous interpretations of drivel such as his beloved Duran Duran’s “Rio” and Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” (which Sheffield claims is just “sensible advice” in pop-song format). But the Massachusetts-raised writer brilliantly discusses his undying passion for ’80s music as a mere backdrop for eminently readable—and often hilarious—coming-of-age anecdotes set to Madonna and Culture Club.

One chapter finds Sheffield working as a garbage man, and another as an ice cream man, while chapter six details Sheffield’s summer as a teenaged exchange student in Madrid, where he embraced then-revolutionary European techno-pop amid 100% platonic relationships with sexy Spanish girls who took Sheffield to discotheques and welcomed the idea of an American boy “twirling as one of the ladies of the night” while his female friends made out with other guys. Sheffield succeeds in making the music of Depeche Mode and other ’80s euro-pop greats ring in his readers’ ears during the latter passage, but what’s more attention-grabbing is that a teenage male really has to love ’80s music to not only fill a role Sheffield admits in hindsight is usually served by gay dudes who don’t know they’re gay yet but also go on to publish such a memory three decades later.

Joe Strummer was Sheffield’s sincere hero, for inspiring the Clash’s listeners to fight tyranny and injustice, but the outright garishness of Simon LeBon and others was his blatant obsession—and still is.

“Laurie Anderson complained that MTV was all ‘boys playing guitar in the shower, boys playing guitar on the roof,’” Sheffield writes in Talking to Girls About Duran Duran, “but both of those ideas were fairly excellent.” With 30 years of perspective, Sheffield also still thinks Madonna’s ’80s material is “so beautiful it hurts,” and in a recent interview with BarnesandNoble.com the author stated, “I’ll Tumble 4 Ya’ has to be one of the most ridiculous hit singles that any international superstars have given the world…but it sums up everything meaningful and excellent about Culture Club, right?”

In the words of Thom Yorke, “whatever makes you happy.”

For those of us who were born in the ’80s but didn’t become conscious consumers of music—using our own paychecks to buy albums—until after MTV was playing videos for songs like the Screaming Trees’ “I Nearly Lost You” and Rage Against the Machine’s “Freedom” instead of Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” it’s admittedly easier to look back on popular music from the ’80s with unequivocal contempt. For Rob Sheffield, however, the sound of “Livin’ On a Prayer” and other ’80s swill is now permanently attached to his recollection of becoming Rob Sheffield, for better or worse, and the writer’s apparently ongoing Catholicism is forever attached to gravitating towards decadent pop music.

Sure, I think that’s unfortunate, but I also think believing a man named Jesus rose from the dead and then ascended to heaven is unfortunate. As Lemmy sang, “I’m in love with rock ’n’ roll / it satisfies my soul / and if that’s all there is / it ain’t so bad.” But, along with preferring the ’80s recordings of the Misfits to those of Hall & Oates, that’s just my opinion.

In the end, growing up Christian and remaining so, as long as it’s not your M.O. to convert others, isn’t a condemnable offense. Neither is coming of age in the ’80s and still unabashedly loving Duran Duran when you’re 44, as long as you’re not hurting anyone—and especially if you’re good at making people laugh by telling them about it.

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