Talking to Girls about Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut
(Dutton Adult, 288 pages, $25.95)
The 1980s are a lot like Jesus. Underappreciated in its time, the decade went on to quite a life after death. As Rob Sheffield notes in Talking to Girls about Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, somehow "the Epoch of Bogus evolved into the Apex of Awesome. Who made this decision?"
The decade resurrects on Karaoke night, during cable television showings of the movie sixteencandlesferrisbuellersdayoffprettyinpinkweirdscience, and at eBay, where Atari 2600s, BetaMax tapes, and Members Only jackets can be had by the highest bidder. If you remember the sixties, the cliché goes, you weren't there. And if you remember the eighties, you might not have been there, either.
"It's a sign of how 1980s teen culture keeps on resonating -- even people who were born in the '90s can O.D. on borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered '80s," writes Sheffield, a Rolling Stone critic who has become a ubiquitous presence on VH1. "Maybe that's because it was an era when teen trash was the only corner of pop culture that wasn't a high-gloss fraud." Who wouldn't take Square Pegs over Dallas, The Breakfast Club over The Big Chill, and The Smiths' "How Soon Is Now" over any number of lame records by sixties holdovers producing music on fumes during the eighties?
Talking to Girls about Duran Duran is part '80s pop-culture history, part nerd memoir. Because Sheffield's tales of driving an ice cream truck, studying abroad in Spain, and compiling a 0-14 high school wrestling record are compelling only to his close relatives, memories of teenage suburbia are made bearable by interspersing them with pop-culture history. It is a love letter to the 1980s, postmarked several decades late.
The book posits that Duran Duran is the Rosetta Stone to solving the mystery of women. Sheffield maintains, "Something in the music keeps promising that if I could finally figure out Duran Duran, I would finally understand women, and maybe even understand love."
Who cares if Sheffield understands Duran Duran, women, or love? He understands the eighties.
The geeky scribe understands that in the early 1980s law decreed that "no female between the ages of twelve and forty could leave the house without a killer headband-and-leotard combo." He understands the "feeling of expensive mendacity to all the aging baby-boomer dramas, all those sensitive flicks with William Hurt or Michael Douglas or Melanie Griffith backlit with baby oil all over the lens." And he understands that not only is "Ashes to Ashes" David Bowie's "most famous video -- it's an acclaimed work of art" -- albeit a bizarre retro-futuristic "work of art" that still traumatizes weirded-out viewers thirty years after the fact.
Talking to Girls about Duran Duran's unforgettable moment dovetails Sheffield's love of pop with one of the tragic moments of '80s music that goth kids have memorialized ever since with black "love will tear us apart" t-shirts. Sheffield tells of a 1980 conversation between Scritti Politti's Green Gartside and Joy Division's Ian Curtis lamenting how their down and depressing music wasn't making any headway.
"A week later, Ian Curtis killed himself," Sheffield notes, "and Green began playing disco. Ian Curtis's old bandmates went disco too, renaming themselves New Order. Green never looked back. As he proclaimed, 'Fear of pop is an infantile disorder -- you should face up to it like a man.'" This flatters Sheffield's tastes, but, with disco a fad of the '70s (albeit one that reincarnates under other monikers), and The Cure embracing the Joy Division sound and Morrissey aping Ian Curtis's gloomy lyrics, one could make a more convincing case that Curtis's, rather than Gartside's, was the relevant sound of the coming decade. Alas, Sheffield is a man who openly declares that he taped over Meat Is Murder with Like a Virgin.
Confronted with the author's confessions that he slept under a picture of Morrissey and "used to dream about being the only boy in the Go-Go's," the reader finds such lines as, "At nineteen, I had never had a girlfriend," unbearably redundant. Sheffield, ironically, shows himself as the anti-Duran Duran, the boy the ladies want as friend and not boyfriend and the guy no guy emulates.
Like the decade that he writes about, Sheffield's book loses steam near the end. Discussions of "cassingles," "Yo! MTV Raps," and acid-wash jeans flounders because they marked the coda for the eighties rather than the eighties themselves. And there's nothing very "Duran Duran" in all that, is there?
Looking for the secret to understanding girls through understanding Duran Duran proves a fool's errand. Having a number one hit, whether one wears eyeliner and gets a haircut at the ladies' salon or not, enhances one's dating opportunities. Wearing eyeliner and getting a haircut at the ladies' salon, sans the accompanying hit songs, makes one as appealing to girls as a teenaged Rob Sheffield. That's a lesson the author of Talking to Girls about Duran Duran has yet to learn.
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