[11 August 2010]
Your appreciation of Rob Sheffield’s new memoir, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, depends in large part on precisely how contemporary you are with the author. Based on the title, I thought this would be right in my pop-cultural wheelhouse. After all, when I was in sixth grade, I bought two copies of an unofficial Duran Duran biography (complete with 16 color photos!), one for my mall date, Erin Van Osbree, and one for myself.
I cheered for “New Moon on Monday” against (I want to say) the re-release of Def Leppard’s “Me and My Wine” on MTV’s Friday Night Video Fights, back when Music Television actually played music. One year, I even found a copy of the Seven and the Ragged Tiger cassette poking through the fake grass of my Easter basket. In short, I too was a child of the ‘80s, so I expected Sheffield’s book to be a commiseration of sorts, two guys with a shared history engaging in some witty bar talk.
Sheffield has five-and-a-half years on me, though, which is an eternity in the world of pop music, and the difference between coming of age in the early- as opposed to the mid-‘80s is vast. I lack the necessary touchstones to connect completely with chapters on Bowie, Ray Parker Jr., or Roxy Music (and yes, I realize that a working knowledge of the likes of Bowie and Roxy Music should be part of any would-be cultural critic’s vocabulary, but for whatever reason they’ve just never done it for me).
This disconnect is especially frustrating because Sheffield otherwise relates to these artists in such personal ways. I’m not Irish and/or Catholic, and I didn’t grow up with a gaggle of sisters, which eliminates those ways in, and even the larger cultural references don’t ring true for me. (Did people on airplanes really use to cheer when the plane landed safely? Did Rambo really get swallowed up by history? I remember things a little differently.)
Thankfully, in chapter 16, Sheffield describes his summer driving an ice-cream truck and the “cathedral-sized opening guitar chord” of a popular song from the radio. The song was “Purple Rain”. Prince. 1984. Now this is what I signed up for.
Sheffield wastes little time before he lays the foundation on which these 25 short essays are built. He writes in the Introduction, “It’s complicated, the way we use pop culture artifacts in our day-to-day emotional relationships”. “Complicated”, perhaps, but not impossible to parse out, as he himself demonstrated in his outstanding first memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. That book adoringly recounted his relationship with his first love, a relationship that was cut tragically short. The early ‘90s serve as the backdrop for their story, and their shared passion for Pavement nearly rivals their passion for each other.
Love Is a Mix Tape brilliantly balances personal experience and cultural insight, to the point that the two are as entwined as the lovers themselves: the personal is the cultural, and the cultural is the personal. Sure, it’s a little sentimental, but his feelings for his lost love are so genuine that I have a hard time recalling the book even now without things getting a little dusty.
Talking to Girls About Duran Duran reaches these heights on a couple of occasions—interestingly, in the one chapter in the book in which he revisits that lost love and then again in a subsequent chapter about singing karaoke with his new one—but for the most part the book is far less balanced than its predecessor: There are personal anecdotes and there are cultural observations, but the relationship between the two rarely mesh.
One problem is that the ill-advised chapter titles set up false expectations. The chapters are named after an artist and a song—for example, Haysi Fantayzee, “Shiny Shiny”, The Smiths, “Ask”, or Big Daddy Kane, “Ain’t No Half Steppin’”—but this does not necessarily mean that the chapter engages its namesake in any significant way. One chapter stands on its own as a lovely short story about a guy (Sheffield) working with a group of colorful characters on a garbage truck. One day, a “stuck up” woman joins the crew and disrupts their equilibrium. She latches onto the guy, presumably because he seems the least threatening and he has a car. Their chilly drives home from work tell us everything we need to know about where they will end up ten years down that road. The title of the chapter? Why, naturally, it’s Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”.
I appreciate that the title may resonate with the subject matter in an instance such as this—and I appreciate even more that Sheffield doesn’t make any half-assed attempts to connect the title with the story, as he does elsewhere in the book (see the closing line of “Roxy Music”)—but in all likelihood the chapter earns its name because it was the song that was on the radio that summer. This’s fine. Good, even. I like the idea that the mere title of the song evokes the memory.
However, especially in a book that elsewhere includes pop-cultural nuggets of pure gold, this chapter illustrates the degree to which the personal and the cultural are not always completely integrated. The cultural title is slapped onto a personal story. The implied relationship between the two remains unexamined.
Even when Sheffield sets his sights on the culture at large, the results are mixed. He settles for some easy targets when he mocks a Journey video or waxes poetic about the cas-single. In addition, this book is far jokier than I remember the first one being. Sometimes they land (“Monogamous musicians are like vegan hockey players”) and sometimes they don’t (“I was eighteen, and I liked both kinds of music. Echo and the Bunnymen”).
Yet, I forgive him all of the ups and downs when he compares Boy George to Keats or describes getting away from Bowie as “trying to break up with the color orange, or Wednesday, or silent e” or when he drops an insight such as this: “In a way, Catholic devotion was preparing me for my adulthood in the record collector/taper/critic world—collecting relics, obsessing over hagiography, looking for physical traces of the divine in the most ordinary things”.
Elsewhere, juxtaposing Morrissey lyrics with the play-by-play for a Red Sox game works better than it has any right working. These are the moments that make me realize just how self-inflated my initial notion of engaging in “bar talk” with Sheffield may have been. I never would have been able to keep up.
In preparation for this review, I flipped back through the book and transcribed by hand any insights that I had underlined as I read. They fit on two pages, which really isn’t half bad. I’ll take 800 underline-worthy words any day. Still, I was a little disappointed. After the power and beauty of Mix Tape, I had hoped for more.