One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut
Dutton: 274 pp., $25.95
I hate the '80s. I'm not saying I hate the days of my youth, but I hate burnished nostalgia for an era in which I just happened to have been a teen. "The Breakfast Club" and "Pretty in Pink" did not change my life; I really liked "The Joshua Tree," but I never wanted to dress like the guys in U2. And "The A-Team" and "Knight Rider"? Catchy theme music, but I'll be damned if I ever meditated on either once I hit 15.
Whether you long for those days — or ironically pine for them to the point where maybe you're not being ironic after all — may play a great part in your enjoyment of Rob Sheffield's book "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran." The follow-up to his bestselling memoir "Love Is a Mix Tape" is a sometimes lovely and evocative, other times giddy and sentimental summoning of his New Wave-obsessed, awkward (aren't they all?) adolescence.
A series of vignettes and riffs, the book is a collection of milestones marking the author's musical and lovelorn progression from high school to college. Despite its subtitle "One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut," it isn't just about a journey to find a soul mate. At its best, it's about something far more interesting: a Catholic teen enamored and bedeviled by everything feminine — from his sisters to pop stars — trying to figure out how or when girls will like him in a romantic way.
The book's 25 chapters work as impressionistic pieces, even as transcribed stand-up bits. Amid titles such as "Chaka Khan, 'I Feel for You'" and "Culture Club, 'I'll Tumble 4 Ya,'" Sheffield alternates between straight-ahead, restrained prose and punch-line-drunk, reference-laden patter. Here is an example of the latter, as he recounts his days as a pitiful high school wrestler:
"Spiritually, we were trapped in the odd historical vacuum between 'Rocky II' and 'Rocky III.' Rocky was still the world heavyweight champion — he hadn't lost his crown, wept at Mickey's deathbed, been pitied by Mister T. He had not regained the eye of the tiger. We had no way of knowing Apollo Creed was going to help him rise up to the challenge of his rival …. The jury was still out on this Balboa meathead."
From such bubble gum-snapping we bounce to patches of coolly direct prose, such as in his measured retelling of his time on a road cleanup crew, a fine piece of writing. Or to insightful music criticism, like this on Roxy Music's "More Than This": "I've loved this song since the first moment I heard it, yet I really have no idea who the girl is he's singing to or what she's like. I guess this is a song about desire so complete, it doesn't even need an actual girl in it. He is beyond such details. If she won't accept his love, he'll have to adore it himself. The end of the song is just Bryan Ferry murmuring the words 'more than this' and 'nothing,' so that every time, they describe a new shade of blue. Gatsby would have understood."
Unfortunately, the sparkling writing is too often smothered by praise for the benign music of the era's mostly disposable pop culture (which, by the way, can describe every era since at least the '20s). The squealing delight he doles out with degrees of irony (I hope) for the likes of Ray Parker Jr. (who reminds him of Mr. Roarke of "Fantasy Island") and John Hughes (who at the time of his death was "arguably Hollywood's most famous director") shouldn't have taken so much real estate. Sheffield has intriguing ideas, especially about masculinity equated with seriousness of art in pop music. Those ideas never get developed.
Instead we have pronouncements like: "Movies for adults sucked in the 1980s, and music for adults sucked even worse; whether we're talking about Kathleen Turner flicks or Sting albums, the decade's non-teen culture has no staying power at all." I guess "Blade Runner" and " Nebraska" don't hold up? And where to begin with this: "At the time, we all figured we were stuck in an Epoch of Bogus. …But something has kept this all alive. And in retrospect, the Epoch of Bogus evolved into the Apex of Awesome. Who made this decision?" I'm guessing the same way the '50s and '60s became "awesome": through the alchemy of middle-aged angst and commercialization.
The hell of it is that "Talking to Girls About Duran Duran" is certainly funny enough and the author's voice is charming and sweet. But like an uneven album, it's maddening to realize how much better it could have been.
Villalon is a San Francisco writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, NPR.org and the Believer. He is the former book editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.