Was it Ever Really About the Music?

Is live better?

Over the weekend, someone posed an interesting hypothetical on Twitter that I feel could use a bit more than 200 characters.

I think most people who have seen Duran Duran live, particularly during the last 15 years or so, recognize a difference between how they play live versus the studio recording. Depending upon the song, a lot of times, the live version has a bit more heaviness, or a rock feel going for it. Maybe there’s more guitar up front, or a bit more bass. I mean, it’s hard to ignore all that going on right in front of you.

Maybe that’s just me. I’ll admit it, once Dom and John are directly in front of me – a nuclear bomb really could go off, and I might not notice anyway. So be it. I’m through caring about what people might think when they read this.

I digress.

Hypothetically…

What if the band had stuck to the style they seem to use when playing live these days? What if they’d recorded their music that way? Would their music had been more popular with the critics?

I thought the question was interesting for a number of reasons, but essentially we’ll never know for sure. It’s completely hypothetical. The band would never want to address a question like this themselves because it requires rethinking their entire career. I wouldn’t do it if I were them, which is exactly why I’m happy to tear into it today!

Is it about the music?

I think there are two separate issues here to discuss. The first is the music itself. Most recently, I tend to enjoy the live versions of their songs as much as I do the album versions, if not more so. That said, it is a completely different experience. Albums are mixed very differently from a live show. Tracks are brought forward or pushed back. Thought is given to not a venue space, but for speakers, for radio, for a full-listening experience. Live is very different.

Even so, would they have had different fans if their music had sounded a bit heavier? It’s impossible to know. Even so, let’s just consider the exercise for the fun of it. What IF? The Kershenbaum mixes of “Rio”, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, “Hold Back the Rain”, “My Own Way” and “Lonely in Your Nightmare” were supposed to address the issue of American radio preferences of a heavier guitar presence. While that change did get them radio play here in America, it didn’t change their audience.

I think overall, it is a lovely fantasy to believe that had the band handed their music over the way they play it live now, that critics would have accepted them. Unfortunately, reality tells me that it is too simple of an answer. For one, America isn’t the only country in the world. Even if we pretend that critics from all over may have preferred it that way, we can’t say that other audiences around the world would have agreed. In Italy for example, they like the disco influence. Japan is similar in that aspect. Would they have taken to the band as well with less of that? I don’t know. It’s impossible to guess.

Or is it about the branding?

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly – just because the music may have been heavier – it doesn’t address the issue of Duran Duran’s image and branding. We can’t ignore the androgynous ruffled shirts, makeup, dyed hair, or even the military uniform period. While I can’t say the same held true for other countries, I can attest this was indeed a challenge in America at the time. The first time John came to America, I can’t forget that a border agent referred to him as a “faggot”, for instance.

I love my country, but the USA has never been the place to push the envelope. Throughout rock music history in particular, for every leap forward taken – culture pushes back the revolutionary tide. I can (and will) go into this more over the coming weeks, but for now – I’ll just say that for every 80’s rock star that came onto the scene in lipstick and eyeliner, we had a group like the Parents Music Resource Center that fought to slap censorship “warning” labels on CD’s and vinyls in a direct counter measure.

I just don’t know that a heavier guitar would have helped them – although yes, I know there were a great many hair bands of the 80s that wore makeup and leather that had nearly the opposite image. Even so, many of those bands were not the darlings of critics, and I dry heave at the thought of Duran Duran as a 1980’s hair band.

Or, is it about the fan base?

So, dry heaving and hair bands aside for now – let’s say for arguments sake, that other countries didn’t mind the eyeliner. I’m pretty sure they didn’t, in fact. There’s one thing that many critics did mind though. Here in the US, the UK and beyond, Duran Duran marketed themselves to teen magazines and became pinups. While appearing in a magazine wasn’t awful, critics were able to completely dismiss the band once teenagers, primarily girls, began pasting those posters on their walls. It was a rapid downhill slide into dismissal from there.

History proves that this has been an ongoing problem from at least the beginnings of rock and roll. During the late 1950’s, the early rock and roll stars began to vanish. Elvis was replaced by Fabian after he (Elvis) was drafted into the military, audiences traded Buddy Holly for Frankie Valle after Buddy began having legal trouble. Parents and others breathed a sigh of relief when this happened for a number of reasons. Early rock and roll was seen as music for a rough, delinquent audience. It had been based on R&B music – black music – and racial divides were very present in 1950’s America. Artists like Fabian, Frankie Valle, Ricky Nelson, and so on were white, clean cut, and the image that Eisenhower-America wanted at the time.

Called “schlock rock”, the teen idol music displaced the “harder” edged, R&B-based rock that had been on the radio earlier. Then in the latter part of the 60’s, just as Folk Rock took hold, critics began touting the value in “serious” rock as an art form. The teen idols from the 50’s faded away, and pop music became it’s own category, known for non-serious, “definitely not art”, “fabricated” and “manufactured” music for the masses. Serious, knowledgable, scholarly music fans would never listen to such a thing. I’ll give you two guesses as to who did listen though, and the first doesn’t count! As a result, music critics either hated pop, or dismissed it altogether. This set the tone for decades to come, and not just in the USA.

The music wasn’t half of it

Duran Duran had a tough fight on more than one front. It wasn’t just about their music. In fact, I could make a pretty convincing argument that their music was the least of their problems. A teenage youth fan base at best, teeny-bop girl fan base at “worst”, along with accusations that they relied solely on their looks in order to market themselves via music videos, pinups, etc, hurt them far more than their music ever did. After all, they completely reinvented themselves with each new album! Once the critics were able to sink their teeth into the band by citing their fan base as reason to dismiss them, there was no argument left to be made, as far as critics were concerned. They never needed to take any of their music seriously, and that continued through the 80s, onto the 90s, and so on. Even today, most critics immediately dismiss Duran Duran purely because of the image and memory they have of them during the 80s, whether based on fact, imagination, reputation, or jealousy.

That’s fine. We’ll take them as they’ve always been.

-R

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