Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Big Lookback: "Loving Women and Duran Duran"

From the ARTicles blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, a Sept. 20, 2010 review of Rob Sheffield's Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.

The recent elevation of Duran Duran to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came as more of a disappointment than a surprise but far less of a disappointment than you might think. I mean, not my kind of band but OK with me. Rather than picking the most deserving five, my strategy as a Hall of Fame voter is to support only longshot artists I love, which last year meant the New York Dolls period and this year meant the Dolls and A Tribe Called Quest, both of whom were left behind by the eminently Hall of Fame-worthy Eminem (voted in on his first ballot), plus Judas Priest (never had the stomach to review them), Pat Benatar ("sodden with try-anything once ambition"), Lionel Richie (who as of Michaelangelo Matos's '80s book I remember as both boring and ridiculous), and the pop-as-grand-hoot Eurythmics ("Like Elvis Presley singing live from Las Vegas," as they once put it), who are also okay with me--but no more than Duran Duran.

There are several reasons for this. One is a 100-plus-strong Spotify playlist called "My 80's" compiled by my daughter, who was born in 1985, meaning the list is a research job she's been working on since she started studying MTV on her own as a kid. I love this list, which is tuneful and raucous with many punkish moments but bears down on a lot of music I've never paid much mind, including four Eurythmics tracks, one Benatar, no Richie or Priest, and Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" and "Notorious," which sound fine surrounding Tears for Fears, Janet Jackson, and Bryan Adams (all of whom also sound fine). I was also softened up by the Moldy Peaches' "D.2. Boyfriend," which begins "When I was in middle school/I had a group of friends/We wore jean jackets and sunglasses/And listened to Duran Duran" before going on to explain without resentment or regret how because there were six girls and only five D.2.'s, Kimya Dawson couldn't pretend to have her own "Duran Duran boyfriend," thus teaching her to value her own difference. And a third is Rob Sheffield's Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.

You probably knew Sheffield even before he gifted me a guest post here for my 80th birthday. As a longtime Rolling Stone columnist he could well be the best-known rock critic in the country, and is also justly renowned for at least two of his five books: 2017's visionary Dreaming the Beatles, which argues that crucial to the world-changing achievement of that incomparably great band was their appeal to the female fans we hear adding a high end to every concert performance we can get our ears on, and 2007's wrenching Love Is a Mix Tape, his longsuffering response to the 1997 death of his first wife, rock critic Renee Crist. Although after years of inconsolable mourning he'd remarried, a struggle with a happy ending he finally managed to recount in 2013's Turn Around Bright Eyes, immediately post-2007 Sheffield could only follow up the best-selling Love Is a Mix Tape with a prequel: 2010's Talking to Girls About Duran Duran.

Since Sheffield and I are friends and he's at least as vocal admirer of my work as I am of his, journalistic propriety prevented me from reviewing it in Barnes & Noble Review, where I had a monthly gig by then. But I did have another outlet at my disposal, a nonpaying one: the ARTicles blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, of which I was an officer of I forget what rank as well as one of the blog's biggest workhorses for the the entirety of its 2008-2011 run. All of what I wrote there was arts journalism specific, and since Sheffield was nothing if not an arts journalist and I wasn't making any money off my unbiased enthusiasm, I figured that gave me the right to talk up Talking to Girls About Duran Duran there. It's got plenty of Duran Duran in it, but also much more. In fact, as a memoir of a male's protofeminist adolescence, it has no equal I'm aware of, including the high school chapter of my own Going Into the City. There really ought to be more of them.

I have no business writing about Rob Sheffield, but through the magic of Full Disclosure, I can. There are people you know, and then there are people who can quote a Jim Carroll review you wrote decades ago while you're discussing Patti Smith's memoir in your book group. Sheffield is in the latter category. Don't believe another thing I say about him. But be warned that your cynicism, like most cynicism, comes at a price that will resist valuation.

Sheffield is obviously a high-status fan. I don't mean the Rolling Stone columnist part--there have been lots of those. I mean he's the only rock critic ever to write a best-seller that wasn't a biography: 2007's Love Is a Mix Tape, his music-filled memoir of a marriage cut short in a minute in 1997, which is how long it took his wife, Renee Crist, to die of an embolism. Not long ago I talked to someone I respect who thought this wasn't a good book. It's a sign of how much I respect this person that I (and my wife) protested briefly and then just changed the subject. Warming up to write this, I scanned all 67 Amazon reviews and had horrible thoughts about anyone who gave it three stars or less. Four I guess I can understand--maybe the mixtape stuff (I prefer the one-word spelling) isn't always perfectly integrated. But the marriage, well--if you think Rob loved Renee too much, I feel sorry for you. The descriptions are so adoring, yet so unsentimental, and quite often so funny. Sheffield is very funny. Even when he begins the book by describing a sleepless night complete with coffee spent listening to a Renee-created mixtape he hadn't known he had, he's wry about his own obsessions and even Renee's foibles. I love my own wife publicly and passionately, but I can't imagine how he arrived at this tone. Maybe it's in the love--or in his talent.

Having written a best-seller (by which I mean reached the lower reaches of the Times extended list), Sheffield could do naught else but try to write another. And although I suppose he could have tried for a sequel about his second marriage, he wisely--in fact, since nothing as esoteric as wisdom was required, let's just call it sanely--did not. Instead he wrote what you could classify as a prequel. Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is a bildungsmemoir that dips back to his early adolescence, with each chapter keyed to an '80s musical artist. Some of these are renowned: Prince, Madonna, Chaka Khan, Replacements, Smiths. Others are obscure, ridiculed, or both: Human League, OMD, Haysi Fantayzee, New Kids, L'Trimm. And a crucial group falls in between: Culture Club, Hall & Oates, Tone Loc, Big Daddy Kane, Duran Duran themselves. Myself, I have little use for at least half these artists, as for instance Hall & Oates: "definitive proof that instinctive musicality insures no other human virtue." Oddly, my old fan kind of agrees with me on that point. But he likes Hall & Oates anyway.

That's one of the things this book is about--liking and even loving music of dubious ultimate import. But not in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Sheffield's way too smart for that saw, plus he a) grew up with this music, which means he knows it as no older or younger person can and b) has an astonishing critical ability to internalize and home in on musical details that make you wonder whether its import has been underrated. This is a guy who remembers hundreds if not thousands of song lyrics. I cannot make that claim (and in fact didn't remember that Jim Carroll review either). As a result, the book is full of small and large insights into artists large and small.

The critical part is ancillary. It's a memoir first of all--the memoir of an extreme nerd whose relationship to women in general is also extreme. Out of some suggested but never fully analyzed synthesis of insecurity and respect, Rob Sheffield was built to love Renee Crist the way few men ever love their wives--and also, I would assume, to love his wife Ally with comparable (but of course differently constituted) intensity. Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is about that structure of feeling. (FWIW, I never met Renee, though I edited her on the phone once; I've met Ally several times, but casually. Nor have I ever discussed these matters with Rob. So this is all inference, based on the books.) But it's also a work of criticism--quite possibly the best that will ever be written about the music of the '80s, which my fan Rob Sheffield thinks was the greatest of all musical decades and I don't.

And It Don't Stop, June 1, 2022