Music critic Rob Sheffield's memoir Talking to Girls About Duran Duran appears at first to be founded on a fallacy—that Duran Duran are still huge, and that their ongoing fame speaks to something ineffable about . . . well, not so much the female psyche, but at least something that males want to know about the female psyche. (And which, one hastens to add, they never will: This is the band that sang, "All she wants is, all she wants is," but, as Sheffield notes, never told us what "she" wanted.)
Luckily, the book's title and prologue notwithstanding, the governing musical theme turns out to be not just Duran Duran but '80s music in general. Each chapter is built around a song that was popular during the decade: the Go-Gos' "Our Lips Are Sealed," David Bowie's "Ashes to Ashes," etc. Often, the song merely provokes a memory of a moment in Sheffield's life—Prince's "Purple Rain" reminds him of his days driving an ice-cream truck, the Replacements' "Left of the Dial" reminds him of his time living with a bunch of hippies in New Haven. Sometimes, the relationship runs deeper: "Of all the complex females in my life, Madonna was the one who taught me how to be completely exasperated by a woman, and how to like it," he writes in his chapter on "Crazy for You." Or this, on "No More Lonely Nights": "It was Paul McCartney who warped my young brain with the idea that not worshipping a girl was a waste of time, an idea that has caused about 88% of the misery in my life. (The other 12% was caused by 'Say, Say, Say.')" Sheffield seems so conversant and obsessed with every aspect of '80s music that his witty pop-culture philosophizing often feels genuinely fresh; when he discourses on Rambo's gay overtones, it never feels contemptuous or cheap, for example. As you might imagine, though, it's occasionally a bit much: "You could argue the 1980s officially ended the day [John Oates] shaved his mustache in 1991," the author writes, to which the only sane reply can be "John Oates shaved his mustache?"
Sheffield does know his audience—namely, thirty- and forty-something pop-culture romantics with a sense of humor—and more often than not, Talking to Girls About Duran Duran echoes with that demographic. We remember the despair of an adolescence lived in the shadow of others' indefinable magnificence: The young writer attempts to dress like and look like Phil Oakey, the androgynous front man of the Human League, only to realize he was "doomed to dress more like the harmonica player for The J. Geils Band." That such seemingly frivolous observations can provoke both stings and chuckles of recognition speaks to the surprisingly delicate balancing act Sheffield performs: This is hilarious stuff, but to those of us who lived through such moments, it was once deadly serious business.
It's not all romance and style, though: Sheffield grew up as the oldest sibling in an Irish-American family dominated by his bold and opinionated sisters, and the book is at its best when he writes of using them as conduits into the female mind. To wit, on giving women compliments: "My sisters taught me to start with the shoes, then keep the compliments coming. Never compliment her eyes, because that means she thinks you think she's plain." Of course, the fact that the female mind still refuses to completely reveal itself also rings true; even the closest of siblings can remain opaque to one another. Sheffield's journey seems to be one not so much toward knowledge, but toward an acceptance and embrace of a greater mystery.
Alas, as our protagonist grows up, the book begins to feels strangely incomplete, a series of fragmentary—albeit deliciously quotable and often touching—observations about music and love looking for some kind of catharsis. Readers familiar with the author's work may be able to guess why. He has already written the missing part: An earlier memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time (2007), chronicled his marriage to a woman who died suddenly at age thirty-one. An altogether more devastating and confident work, the earlier book used mix tapes of '90s music as its governing metaphor, but the human toll of its story was palpable, intense, and, at times, overwhelming. It wasn't really about music, but about the messy tangle of human emotions that music can either salve, exacerbate, or both. Talking to Girls About Duran Duran places the music center stage: You're not going to find an extended digression about the hilariously awful one-hit-wonder British New Wave duo Haysi Fantayzee in Love Is a Mix Tape. Unfortunately, that also means a curious imbalance eventually takes over, an insistent frivolity that works against darker emotions only hinted at.
Bilge Ebiri reviews and writes about film for New York magazine.