Rob Sheffield, a pop critic for Rolling Stone and elsewhere, has just published Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut. He spoke to the L earlier this month about the 80s, its music, and other wondrous and inexplicable things.
The L Magazine:How did you get the idea for this memoir?
Rob Sheffield: I'm always curious about the music of 80s and why it had such a strange and permanent place in our collective cultural imagination. Even the stuff that at the time we all thought of as really temporary and sketchy, it's turned out, for better or for worse—for better for me as a fan—that it never goes away. I wanted to understand that better. I'm not sure I do understand it any better than I did when I was writing the book, but it's definitely a question that I keep coming back to. There are some songs, bands and stuff from the 80s that no one thought would be remembered in a few years. It's always so funny how much of that stuff keeps coming back.
The L:Why does 80s music resonate with so many people?
RS: I think it was a time in music that was so inventive and innovative. People were so experimental largely because they thought their own genres were tired and everyone wanted to try doing a little bit of everything. On a record like Purple Rain, Prince is doing all these guitar solos. It's like Prince wanted to be Van Halen. And with 1984, Van Halen was blatantly trying to sound like Prince. The synthesizers, the beats. The song "Jump" is basically the Prince song "Dirty Mind" slowed down a little. In 1984, it was perfectly normal for Prince to want to be Van Halen and for Van Halen to want to be Prince. Top 40 radio was the place they could both be.
The L:Why was Duran Duran so popular in the 80s and still well-known today?
RS: If I could figure that out I would probably be Duran Duran. That band has arrived at something so perfect and so incomparable and they located this place in the female heart and totally held on to it and have not surrendered it for all these years. It's really wild. Every woman has her Duran Duran story or her Duran Duran song or her Duran Duran member. It's music that's so geared toward girl fans and inspires such loyalty and devotion from girl fans.
The L:How do men connect with music versus how you think women connect to music? You offer theories in the book.
RS: There are a lot of differences. I was asking the band Phoenix about this. They said that the guys are leaning against the wall with their arms folded and women are up front dancing and jumping around. You want to incite different kinds of enthusiasm in the audience. Some fans are able to get both. Stereotypical boy fans and girl fans have such different ways of listening to the same music. I remember how much I loved The Doors as a teenager, because all teenage boys love The Doors. I found something in my parents' attic. I wrote out all the lyrics to The Doors's "Roadhouse Blues" in italic script with different colored pens for each word and I signed at the bottom: James Douglas Morrison, 1943--? Because no one saw his body. But that's the kind of fan you are as a teenage boy. Teenage girls are into The Doors but in a different way.
The L:What is the difference between a girl's artist—you mention Neil Diamond, Duran Duran, Jeff Buckley, REM, New Kids—and a boy's artist?
RS: A girl's artist is one that you loved a long time ago and still carry a torch for them. When REM came out, boys thought they were a boy's artist and girls thought they were for them. REM was completely genius. U2 has that as well. Boy fans like REM for Peter Buck and girl fans like REM for Michael Stipe. Boy fans like U2 for The Edge and girl fans like U2 for Bono. It's an aspect of new wave and 80s music that a rock star/pop star was expected to have both.
Rush are a big example of a boy's band with a really small female following. There's a Geddycorn, which is a woman at a Rush concert—like a unicorn, so difficult to find. Then there's a band like Phoenix where there'll be four or five women jumping around in the crowd. It's funny how different artists appeal to different desires of fans. With bands like REM and U2, the female and male fan bases don't necessarily recognize each other.
I used to go to a lot of hardcore shows. And a hardcore show is definitely a tribal boy gathering. I'd go to all-ages shows at the Channel in Boston and get my ass thoroughly kicked. I remember going to a Replacements all-ages show in Providence and it was the first time I'd been to a hardcore show where half the audience was female. That really blew my mind. There's all this testosterone flying around and that made it an exciting show. Everybody was jumping up and down all together.
The L:What is the difference between writing a music profile and writing about your personal connection to music?
RS: There are similar elements in both. You're writing about someone's personal connection to music. There are certainly other perspectives to have on music. For musicians, it's about personal connections, and ultimately I'm interested in listeners and our personal connection to the music that musicians make. I like hearing behind-the-scenes stories but in my writing I'm more interested in what is going on in a listener's mind and a listener's soul-what it means to surrender to recorded music.
The L:Why do you think people have such a love/hate relationship with the 80s?
RS: I think it used to be more of a love/hate relationship. People could only acknowledge it by loathing or in a goofy way. Now, people appreciate the genuine inspiration and invention and open-hearted experimentation that was going on in the 80s. You see new bands doing something new with something that comes from the 80s.
The L:What appealed to you about David Bowie?
RS: There are so many different David Bowies. My favorite period is 76-83. David Bowie is always so passionate and romantic and open to new areas of emotional and textural experimentation for music. Early in his career, during the Ziggy days, he was messing around with gender roles in an obvious and adolescent way, and when he moved on to the Let's Dance phase, he explored gender roles in a more adult way. He went from a boy dressing as a girl to a man playing a woman and playing around with boundaries. I'm the kind of Bowie fan who will tell you that Earthling is a great album. I think there are about six of us.
The L:Who did you first see in concert and when?
RS: A triple bill at Sullivan Stadium, outside Boston: The Police, The Fixx and Flock of Seagulls in 1983. A night of magic.
The L:Why do you think one-hit wonders were so prevalent in the 80s?
RS: You're asking me as new wave fan and I'd argue that there were so many brilliant bands that there was only room for them each to have only one hit at a time. Biased answer. What makes that time exciting is that people were chasing the moment, chasing the beat, chasing the latest style. A real explosion of artists surrendered to that moment entirely. Artists weren't careerists. Just in it to make one big score. I find that rapturous and beautiful.
The L:How did you become a new wave aficionado?
RS: The 80s was a great time to grow-up because there was music that was very romantic about being confused about girls and boys, gender and sexuality, sex and romance.
I really related to those rock stars-they didn't present themselves as all-conquering heroes or sages. They were Goth kids. Even Duran Duran, they had this self-parody image where they made fun of the old-world idea of Casanovas. That was the kind of rock star that was really cool and exciting at the time.