Did you know that “Electric Barbarella” is Duran Duran’s 29th single? It was the first official single from Medazzaland, and although some cite otherwise, it has been touted as the first song available for digital purchase and download from the internet. This move did not make Duran Duran any friends in the retail world. American retailers saw this as infringing on their territory, and either refused to stock the album, or provided no promotion of the record. (okay….compact disc)
The lack of promotion didn’t end there. The original music video directed by Ellen von Unwerth involves the band purchasing a robot sex doll, and needed to be censored before MTV and VH1 could include on their rotation. By the time the censored video was delivered, the song had fallen from the charts. Momentum and timing is everything, isn’t it?
Let’s get to it!
Okay, here we are. Electric Barbarella. The song is certainly a toe-tapper, and for this particular album, I find that category of song to be in rather short supply. Musically, I don’t think the band gets any better, unless they had a bass player. I think we all know who is missing on this track.
While I feel that the song still suffers from some overproduction; oddly, it isn’t a wall-of-noise. The tune has a very strong melody line, which I think helps to cut through a lot of the effects. Sometimes, songs of this era tend to weight very heavily on effect, and not enough in melody. Those songs tend to feel more experimental, meandering along until they just come to a merciful end. That isn’t Electric Barbarella. It has a great feel from the very beginning, building to a crescendo, it peaks, and then it settles back down. From a sound and song building standpoint, it doesn’t get better than that.
Honestly, when I think of the often used phrase “wrapped in chrome” it is this song that comes to mind for me. Sure, the words “ultra-chrome, latex and steel” might have something to do with that, but it’s also the feel of the song. The sound is shiny, slick, and comes from a band that seems to know exactly who they are. Whimsical without being ridiculous, I love the call and response that happens between the guitar and Simon, and the sequence loop from the synthesizer seems to behave as half of the rhythm section, which feels sorely lacking at times. A little more bass could have given the song a stronger foundation, alas…John’s work isn’t on this track. Then of course, there’s the rest of the guitar in the background. Experimental in nature, meant to be more of a background effect for texture, the background guitar is 100% late 90s Duran Duran, in much the same way we’d categorize the power struggle between keyboards and guitar in the early to mid 80s Duran Duran.
Lyrically, the song is exactly as one might expect. Cheeky without being crude, it isn’t a surprise that the song is satirical. The story is of a man who is in love with a fake woman – whether sex robot as in the video, or otherwise. While I’m sure one could point to the video story board and say that the lyrics describe the video, I dare suggest that maybe, just perhaps, the song meaning is a little less obvious. Could it be about fake people in general? What about the fake proclivities of being a celebrity or rock star? Nothing about this band has ever been what is directly on the surface, and I suspect that this song is no different. Otherwise, well, I’m just stuck on why the world needed a song about somebody with a sex robot. Who really knows?
This song feels like a Duran Duran track, yes? It is exactly what people might expect when hearing a Duran track, especially one with the title Electric Barbarella. Medazzaland is an interesting album in that so many tracks mark a new direction filled with more experimentation, often found with Warren’s guitars here and later on with the TV Mania project that was born around this time. Yet, at the same time, it isn’t all about the future as there are moments that call back, that pay homage to their past. The album cover, for instance, is such that it features a newly distorted image of the Rio album. Then, there is this song with a reference to Bararella as many/most Duran fans know the story of how the band name came about with a character of the same name in the 1968 sexy, sci-fi movie starring Jane Fonda. Many also are aware that there was a club called Barbarellas in the band’s hometown of Birmingham. In fact, there is a song about that on the Devils album, another Duran side project. So, this song certainly adds another reference, another connection to the band’s origins and history. Once I heard the title, I wanted to like this song as the name just screamed Duran.
Beyond the name itself, there is a lot about the song that feels very Duran Duran. It is definitely a track that makes you want to dance. Actually, that is putting it mildly. It is hard *not* to move along to the song as it is that catchy and definitely can act as an ear worm, getting in one’s head with little chance of it letting go. This, of course, is enhanced by Simon’s vocals which feel familiar while being clear, helping to get those lyrics stuck in the brain. That all feels very Duran to me. Likewise, there is a lot of effects within the song that reminds of that sort of science fiction, futuristic feeling of many Duran songs throughout their career. Plus, the word “electric” is part of the title for a reason. It is about technology and the power it has. That isn’t to say that there is only keyboards as guitars make their presence known quite a bit, too. I note that these are not like the guitars of early Duran, though, as they add to the sense of modern technology and experimentation that seems to form the foundation of this single and much of the album. It is no wonder that this song became the first available track to download based on its premise and musicality. It fits.
So there is a lot about this song that fits in the Duran catalog and that Duranies would like. I remember seeing the band perform it on the Rosie O’Donnell show when it came out. Literally the first thing out of my mouth was, “That is classic Duran Duran!” So much of the time, it feels like we are listening to Duran songs that showcase a slightly new direction or includes something different or unique than previous albums. That is not the case here. It feels basically like what so many think of when they think Duran Duran. So, why can’t I love it? Maybe, it has to do with the loss of John Taylor or the lack of bass throughout the song. Perhaps, I struggle to get passed the lyrics, the topic, even if I know that the song might not really be about buying a sex robot. I know that I quickly saw the video at the same time that the song was becoming known to me so I struggle to separate the two. (I’m not a fan of the video.) Could it be that I didn’t really want this 1997 version of Duran Duran to try to be like they were back in the 1980s? It might also be a combination of all of the above.
While there is a lot here to like, there is a part of me that cannot get passed some part of the song to really love it. Maybe, it feels too contrived, like they were trying too hard, and 1980s Duran would have thought that was no good at all.