Duran Duran: More Than Just Pretty Faces!

For girls of a certain age, Duran Duran was when we learned we had hormones. There was endless discussion over the phone or in carefully folded notes passed surreptitiously in class or at slumber parties about which one was the most gorgeous: most popular were Simon Lebon and John Taylor, with some in favor of Nick Rhodes, and the occasional Roger Taylor fan, but poor Andy Taylor was usually left out of the discussion. And who didn’t love them? Handsome men in videos shot in exotic locales with singable melodies and catchy refrains. But recently, while unpacking after a move, I began to watch not only old and new videos of their songs, but also listen to and watch interviews with three of the four original members (Andy Taylor departed long ago, and Roger is usually stumm.) And I was quite surprised to discover their true artistry, and how profoundly intelligent and talented the band members are. Perhaps this has been Duran Duran’s curse–their good looks and supermodel-filled videos have detracted from their musicianship and their powers as artists.

If you listen to interviews with Simon, he discusses listening to classical music in his childhood, being a choir boy, and how he had the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “Gloria” on his wall–these are not unsophisticated, vapid tastes of a pop singer. He was also trained in drama while university student in Birmingham, and one can see his complete commitment to performance in any video or concert footage. The ways in which he moves, emphasizes words, and sings his heart out are really quite remarkable. If you close your eyes and don’t think about how it looks, you really hear an expressive, powerful voice. Articulate, sociable, and charismatic, Simon Le Bon is the consummate lead singer. But his poetic side comes through in his lyrics, which are often mysterious and opaque. 

Nick is a living tribute to that most English of traditions: the dandy. Heavily inspired by glam rock and David Bowie, he was friends with Andy Warhol and is to this day quite the artist and art aficionado. Watch his personal tour of the V&A Museum–there is a level of sophistication in his knowledge of art that is quite astounding. While he no longer looks like his 80s androgynous colorful-haired persona, having morphed instead into a well-heeled handsome English gentleman who looks like a London gallery owner, there is something still so striking and intriguing about him. And let’s not forget that he is quite the genius musician. Think about all the sonic universes he creates in each of during Duran’s songs, which are very synth-heavy. Nicknamed “The Controller,” Rhodes has an incredible ear–listen to the complexities of any Duran Duran song and how the variety of parts and harmonies fit together.

John Taylor, underneath his hair and aging rock star good looks, is fundamentally an incredible bassist. If you listen to Duran Duran’s music, it is bass-heavy, and in my opinion, this is a sign of musical sophistication. Taylor is not simply playing 1-4-5-1 but playing interesting patterns with funky rhythms. Watch his videos on bass lines of the band’s songs: not only does he play beautifully, but he also communicates what he is doing very clearly. Not to mention, he spoke at a UCLA Engineering symposium on the 40th Anniversary of the Internet.

Roger Taylor is sadly getting the short shrift here, but this is not to say that he isn’t a formidable drummer (and one must notice that he has aged quite well, perhaps the best of any members.) Andy was also an equal contributor, though he is left the band, and he provided backing vocals in addition to guitar. Nile Rodgers has been not only a welcome addition as a sometimes-guitarist, but also a longtime supporter and producer of the band. Which brings me to another point: Duran Duran has always been influenced by black music. Not just with the presence of Rodgers, but with Black backup singers and bass-driven, music to dance to. They got their start in a Birmingham club, and so their first experiences as a band were to play live to audiences who could dance if they wanted to.

Duran Duran’s musical talents are sometimes outshined by their embracing of the visual. Fashion, videos, performance, theatrical concerts were all a huge part of their work. Think back to that oh-so-80s, cheerful graphic cover of Rio: an image that defines a generation. But we must understand that their love of the image was part of their style, and style is a part of artistry. (Check out the video for “Pressure Off” from a few years ago–it is nothing short of stunning and chic!) It is sad that many critics disparaged them and saw them as superficial pop stars who only held appeal to teenage girls. 40 years later, Duran Duran has proved them wrong. It is worth revisiting their body of work as an adult, and understanding what intelligent, lasting, and phenomenal artists they are. And of course, good-looking ones. 

David Bowie: A Tribute to the Legend

What can be said about David Bowie that hasn’t been said already? Chameleon, gender-bender, androgyne, king of reinvention, alien, 70s star, English gentleman, icon–the list goes on. I discovered David Bowie’s music only in his English gentleman-pop star phase, and only as an adult did I get to know his earlier works. This, however, does not diminish my appreciation for the man and his artistry. It seems necessary that as an artist, I needed to pay tribute to him. After much thought, it did not seem possible to write any sort of objective essay on the man. Then it became clear: David Bowie requires a subjective response. (Readers may enjoy another such subjective response in the form of a poem by writer Anya Krushelnitskaya at http://imperfectimpostor.com/2016/01/14/bowie-died/)

Then the question became, What can an artist learn from David Bowie? What made him so unique?

-Live in different places. Bowie grew up in London, but in Los Angeles, Berlin, New York, etc. One cannot help but be influenced by the culture in various cities when one is an artist. It creates a cross-pollination that one cannot otherwise have. He also worked with musicians and artists from different places around the world, and later married Somali supermodel Iman. So his aesthetic was a global one.

-Create your own aesthetic. A rather contradictory thing to say, given the last statement above. But being the true artist he was–he went to art school–he created a sound and personalities like nobody else. There was or is no one quite like David Bowie. Originality was his mode of being.

-Reinvention. “Chameleon” is a word one frequently hears about David Bowie. No two albums were the same, for they were often concept albums based on characters. Being able to inhabit different identities is something a writer does, for each story or novel is its own personality. Reinvention allows the artist to explore different avenues, ideas, personalities, styles, etc. It is the greatest gift a creative person can have.

-Maintain a certain modicum of mystery. The artist we know is David Bowie was really David Jones. Those who know him have commented on a certain amount of unknowableness, that one could not quite grasp his motives or his contradictory words and actions. Was he gay? Sexually ambiguous? Really just a shy family man who put on personas on stage? We don’t need to know. We only need to see his art.

-Have integrity and no ego. Many colleagues of his have commented on his ability to leave his ego at the door and be open to working with various musicians. This is a must for anyone who collaborates with others in the arts.

-Great art is beyond gender. Bowie’s androgynous characters and personal style (one need only see a photo of him with his first wife and newborn son, in which he looks rather like the mother of the child, with his long hair and tender hold of the baby) pushed the limits of sexuality and conventional gender roles. Was he a beautiful man? A handsome woman? Drag queen? Alien? Or a slim, elegant, masculine Englishman married to a beautiful African model? Perhaps none of this matters when you have such brilliantly poignant songs as “Space Oddity” or the catchy danceability of “Modern Love.”

-A degree of popular success doesn’t hurt. “Let’s Dance” was a Billboard Number 1 hit. As almost every artist knows, it is difficult to be financially successful in this career, so perhaps commercial triumphs can allow an artist to have the means to work in more obscure avenues.

-Cross-pollinate in a variety of artistic genres. David Bowie was a pioneer in performance art, videos, a singer, a champion of costume design, an actor, and so much more. A great artist is someone who can be creative in a variety of media, who can synthesize them and come up with a language of his or her own.

-David Bowie was uniquely English. Perhaps one could say that there is no eccentric quite like an English eccentric! Why the island nation seems to have a proliferation of oddballs and unconventional individuals is certainly of interest. It is a society that values, to a degree, a certain sense of homogeneity and tradition — look at the terraced house architecture everywhere throughout Britain, the presence of monarchy, or the use of school uniforms for example — and community values that we lack in America, and so perhaps creative rebellion is one of the few outlets a person can have. The English sense of fantasy and imagination (a subject worthy of a future post) is renowned the world over, as seen in Harry Potter novels and Alice in Wonderland and Monty Python. The Swinging Sixties were perhaps one of England’s most creatively fertile periods, encouraging a “letting loose” of social mores and previously held habits. In any case, David Bowie is one of the best examples of English creativity.

There was never anyone like David Bowie, nor will there ever be anyone like him. He is a great example for future artists to study, but not to emulate. Would Bowie really have wanted clones?