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Again Again

Duran Duran
Ellen Von Unwerth

Return of the Repressed: Duran Duran (from left, Nick Rhodes, Simon Le Bon and Warren Cuccurullo) have survived long enough to outlive their reputation.

Can pretty pop stars survive their good looks? On 'Medazzaland,' Duran Duran proves that good songs are a hedge against vacuousness

By Gina Arnold

FIRST IMPRESSIONS aren't always the right ones, but they're damned hard to shake once they've been formed, as anyone who's endured the American public school system knows. The same kind of reputation-cling that can afflict a nerdy 9-year-old throughout his or her entire high school experience can also afflict rock bands.

Duran Duran, for example, has done its best to erase the first impression it left on America more than a decade ago, but it will be lucky if it ever does. The initial image is practically indelible: five pretty-boy poseurs in mascara and hair dye playing stupid synth-songs about naked chicks.

To all intents and purposes, Duran Duran was the Spice Boys of 1982--as well as the first band to break big via the then-new medium of video (MTV hit the tube in August 1981). The band described itself as a cross between Chic and the Sex Pistols, but that description was as calculating--and as dishonest--as its unpleasantly innuendo-ridden music.

Critics despised Duran Duran, in part because the little girls loved the group so much (and that's always a problem for the mostly male profession). More understandably, rock critics were repulsed because the band was the prime harbinger of a trend that would soon impose a mighty tyranny over the music industry.

In fact, from the moment Duran Duran hit it big with "Girls on Film," critics seemed to know instinctively that from that point forward, good looks and stylishness would be inordinately prized over talent and musicality. They fought back the only way they knew how: by declaring Duran Duran to be a talentless and soulless pile of crap.

But what if Duran Duran weren't as talentless as it looked? Fifteen years after destroying the industry as we knew it, Duran Duran began releasing records that deserved a modicum of respect. The band's 1993 album, Duran Duran (The Wedding Album), scored a hit with "Ordinary World" and received grudgingly good reviews, while in 1995, an album of covers (Thank You) included a surprisingly compelling version of the Grandmaster Flash hit "White Lines."

Amazingly, the brand-new album, Medazzaland (Capitol), is Duran Duran's 11th offering, and it is a quite accomplished record, despite the single, "Electric Barbarella" (the band's name is taken from a character in the movie that made Jane Fonda infamous). "Electric Barbarella" is a feeble attempt to infuse Duran Duran with the kind of sleazy sexual appeal it used to mine in the old days. That gesture is a mistake, since elsewhere, Medazzaland is everything that Britpoppers like Bluh and Pulp aspire to be, but with better-crafted songs and, for the most part, less pretentiousness.

DURAN DURAN is down to two original members now: singer Simon Le Bon and keyboardist/composer Nick Rhodes. (Andy Taylor tours with Robert Palmer in the Power Station, while John Taylor has made a real left turn, forming a band called Neurotic Outsiders with former Sex Pistol Steve Jones and Duff and Matt of Guns n' Roses. Go figure.)

Duran Duran's oeuvre always drew heavily on Roxy Music, and it still does. Originally, the band lifted off from Virginia Plain by adding the then-new sound of synthesizers; these days, it adds just enough hip-hop scratching to sound modern, particularly on "Big Bang Generation," which would have made a better single. Thankfully (except on "Electric Barbarella"), Duran Duran has avoided the disco-heavy rhythms that characterize electronica--and none of the tracks are remixed by the Dust Brothers!

The main strength of Medazzaland is plain old songwriting. "Michael (You've Got a Lot to Answer For)," for instance, is a truly beautiful song about friendship, while "Who Do You Think You Are?" comes complete with my favorite kind of ending: the lyrical coda. In both atmosphere and subject matter, Duran Duran covers much of the same vaguely futuristic, alienated-yet-Orwellian turf as Radiohead, but with a much more positive spin. And though Duran Duran makes free use of orchestral arrangements--cello, viola, etc.--it also rocks harder than most English bands of its ilk.

For all the accomplishment of Medazzaland, however, Duran Duran's rehabilitation in the public eye is not complete. In fact, it seems unlikely that America is willing to forgive and forget. Radiohead--a band that sounds quite a bit like Duran Duran--will always garner better reviews for worse records, because it's younger and hasn't got a shameful past to live down.

Besides which, the little girls of yesteryear who once loved Duran Duran so much are grownup ladies now, and they love Jewel and Alanis Morissette instead. And the new crop of little girls are unlikely to be wooed away from Gwen (Stefani) and Gavin (Bush) by the sight of a paunchy Simon Le Bon.

ONE CAN'T feel sorry for Duran Duran: you reap what you sow, and those initial videos--"Rio," "Hungry Like the Wolf," the awful "Reflex" (and now "Electric Barbarella")--really are the last word in antediluvian sexism. But as bad as they were in 1982, they now merely serve to show the band's age (Le Bon, for example, is 39).

Medazzaland is an acceptable record in this year of dreary fake disco, although it wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny during an era of groundbreaking artistic achievement. But Duran Duran's emergence as a pretty good band does call into question some of the paradoxes and hard realities of pop music.

Ever since the 1950s, when the likes of Dion, Fabian and Sandra Dee were popular, it has been taken for granted that the prettier the pop star, the shorter the shelf life. Moreover, there's a kind of unspoken, widely held belief that despite their success, such pop stars are, at bottom, talentless schmoes. (Contrast this with rock stars, whose careers tend to go on and on and on--long past the time when anyone wants to hear from them.)

Thus, it always comes as a major surprise when a pop star best known for his or her beauty manages to muster up a subsequent career. (Mark Wahlberg, formerly Marky Mark and now in Boogie Nights, is one such surprise.) And yet, some of these performers must have had some talent to have gotten where they did in the first place.

So which of today's meaningless pop twits will go on to have valid careers? Not, I think, the aforementioned Gwen or Gavin (of No Doubt, and Bush respectively). Both those artists' good looks are, if possible, even more indelibly entwined with their music than was Duran Duran's outward appearance.

Could any of the Spice Girls succeed as solo acts? Very, very unlikely--though perhaps one might have a little sister who can benefit from their fame, just as Wahlberg cashed in on the notoriety of his brother, former New Kid on the Block Donny Don. Pundits, however, are predicting a solo path for Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher, who pens all the tunes for his bratty brother, Liam, to sing, however. Missy Elliot is also probably a keeper. The 25-year-old rap star was a songwriter before she came to prominence on her own--and is already branching out into producing.

Hanson, however, is already in a hopeless position. Although the three teenagers who make up the group seem to be musically talented, they were roundly booed while singing the national anthem at the World Series last week. It's easy to see that they'll never be able to escape their role as national joke, however hard they try.

On the other hand, 10 years ago, one might have said the same thing about Duran Duran.

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From the Oct. 30-Nov. 5, 1997 issue of Metro.

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