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”?
But fluff aside, for many crotchety music geeks, 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, 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.
“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.
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.
Chapter six details Sheffield’s summer as a teenaged exchange student in Madrid, where he embraced then-revolutionary European techno-pop and had 100 percent 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 they 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 to also go on to publish such a memory three decades later.
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.