Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Duran Duran's Rio:a study in context and juxtaposition

This is a really long post. my apologies. I'll try to make most of them a bit shorter

I remember exactly why I became interested in Duran Duran. In 1984 I was in 8th grade, and Dori Bicek was the coolest girl in class. Bear in mind, this was a very small class of about 17 kids at First Baptist Christian School in Downers Grove, Illinois. It was certainly a small ecosystem...but we had our cliques, and she was definitely the top Heather. At the time, she seemed so damned cool. She was confident and worldly (Remember: Baptist school. She probably wasn't that worldly.), and she was really into Duran Duran. For Dori's sake, I sincerely hope that she somehow remained cool when she entered High School. I have no way of knowing. I never saw her again. Most of the kids who went on to public school went to either Downers Grove North (The Trojans) or Downers Grove South (The Mustangs). I didn't live in Downers Grove. I was a couple towns over in Lombard, so I went to Glenbard East and was, presumably, a Ram. Most of the Rams--the ones who wore uniforms, anyway--didn't much care for me.

There was one get-together of the FBCS class of '84 a couple years after we graduated. I couldn't make it--I was playing a gig with my band "Hazzard". It turned out to be our only gig. It was our drummer's little sister's middle school graduation party. We played "I Won't Forget You, Baby" and "Every Rose Has It's Thorn" by Poison, "Love Bites" by Def Leppard, "Never Say Goodbye" by Bon Jovi, "The Eye of the Tiger" by Survior, a crappy instrumental piece we wrote to showcase our "soloing" skills (it would only have been crappier if we had attempted to put lyrics to it) and inexplicably, "Blueberry Hill".

But I digress. The point is, I had priorities. And this crappy band that played songs I didn't even really care for playing for some giggly girl and her giggly friends was more important than going to see friends that I had gone to school with from 2nd to 8th grade, and hadn't seen since. I. Was. That. Committed. To. My. Art.

So I phoned it in. Not my performance with the band. My attendance to the party. I called to say I couldn't make it because I had this really important gig, and we were totally rocking Franklin Park. And then I sat and watched Pink Floyd's "The Wall" on MTV and had my mind blown. I remember these little details.

While I never saw Dori Bicek again, I did continue to have some appreciation for Duran Duran. They sort of became an entry-level drug for me into the world of European pop, which ultimately led to me learning about some other bands that I like a lot more, and continue to like to this day. And a bit later, when my tastes had matured some, I did sort of like the Wedding Album (1993) for it's own merit. But I don't think I would consider myself a Duran Duran fan.

About six months ago, I was driving home from work with the radio on. Normally, I hate listening to music on the radio. I hate to be force fed music by corporations. But the NPR station refused to come in any longer--my "automatic" antenna on my aging car only raises itself 1/3 of the way--so I clicked over to a more powerful station. In this case, it was one of those "we play anything" type stations. A song or two in, Duran Duran's "Rio" came over the airwaves. I'll admit to having liked this song at one time. But for some reason, possibly because of the way my stereo sounds, or was equalized at the time, or maybe because the windows were open, I was able to hear the lyrics very clearly. And so I listened...and was horrified. Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. But the lyrics to Rio are really, really bad. And I began to hate the song, and every time it has come up in conversation (a surprising amount of times for a 24 year old song) I've taken the opportunity to vent about this terrible song that deceived me for many years.

Flash forward to this morning. I was using the elliptical machine at my health club in my ongoing attempt to curb the effects of a mouse-jockey lifestyle. This is a pretty new club and they have all the snazziest equipment. Each of the cardio-type machines (treadmills, stair climbers, ellipticals, stationary bikes, etc.) has its own TV screen which displays any of the local cable channels and a variety of music video channels which may or may not be licensed specifically to health clubs. It's possible that the music videos are just cable channels that I don't get, but there don't seem to be any commercials, so I doubt that's the case. Most mornings, I begin my time on the elliptical machine watching the tail end of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode on FX. When that's over, I click up to one of the video channels--whichever one is playing something I sort of like--and surf between the various channels if a video I don't care for is played. For some reason I don't recall, I settled on the "80's Pop" channel this morning. I think the last chorus of "Walking on Sunshine" by Katrina and the Waves was playing. Awful video, but the song saved my life once on a road trip through Kansas once. (I'm not going to explain that at this time.) The next video that came on was Rio, and I discovered how wrong I had been about this song.

The first thing that struck me was how good the bass line is. I attribute this to the fact that I was listening to the song through my iPod earbuds, and so was able to listen to it with the intended balance. But's a pretty good bassline. And while the subject matter of the video is itself a bit silly--painted women writhing about on a boat that Simon LeBon and the boys appear to be sailing--it was visually interesting enough at 7AM for me keep the video on. So I was enjoying the really good bass line and the visuals, and I hardly noticed the vocals. And that's when it struck me. This song is not intended to be listened to without the video to accompany it. When I heard it on the radio, the context was wrong, and so I hated the song. Juxtaposed with the video, the song becomes so much more than it is without it.

In every way, it is a perfect example of the style over substance that is typical of 80's pop music. In fact, the painted women writhing around on the deck for our pleasure, as well that of the members of Duran Duran are the epitome of 80's style. They look like paintings by Patrick Nagel. (Incedentally, Patrick Nagel, or someone who drew a lot like him did the cover the Rio album. I had forgotten that until I started to poke around Duran Duran's website while writing this.) Videos originally functioned as commercials to sell records. I think that this video exists to celebrate a decade and its excesses.

Perhaps it is best if the function of top 100 music is to speak only of surface. Most attempts at substance are really sort of substandard. Remember "We Are the World." Listen to the lyrics of that piece of tripe. When a song that really does have something to say comes along, it is only made more substantial by comparison. This point was driven home when the next video to play was Suzanne Vega's "Luka". Great song. Not a great video.

But Rio does have a pretty great bassline.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

This is my first post

and so it begins...

My friend Maht asked me a little while ago why I don't blog. He told me that he considered me a "proto-blogger" because before blogging was so easy and everyone was doing it, I was writing odd little manifestos on whatever subject happened to amuse me or annoy me on any given day, and sending them via email to anyone who wouldn't block my messages. It was a bit lo-tech, but it helped me pass time at the dreary, creativity sapping corporate job I happened to hold at the time. And I didn't know there was a better way out there. Anyhow, it amused me, and apparently amused my friends.

When I quit that job in January of 1999 and went back to school for a couple years, I was much too busy (and NOT in front of a computer) to write, so I dropped it. But I did miss it. And I've been waiting for an excuse, or a push to jump in. And I consider myself pushed.

What will I write about? I don't know...probably more of the same sort of semi-mad ramblings that I am prone to write. I may post a drawing or a quick sketch on those days that I don't feel like putting words together. Eventually, I hope to get back to school to pursue my Masters in Fine Arts degree. And when I do, I'm sure that I will probably chronicle that a bit. Art school is rife with source material for a curmudgeon such as I. I'll probably also use this space to chronicle my grand experiment in generosity, too. More on that later.

For now...I hope you are as amused by me as I am.