Sometimes I think the little girls don’t understand a damn thing.Robert Christgau reviewing Duran Duran’s Decade in 1989
From Duran Duran to 5 Seconds Of Summer and BTS, having legions of female fans has often been used as a reason to diminish the work of an artist. Male critics, like Christgau, were quick to tie the excitement of the Duran Duran’s fan base around their waist like a (valentine) stone in the 1980s in hopes they might sink from popular culture. Critics missed the point from the get-go, as they often do. Duran Duran were a rock-n-roll band that a lot of teenage girls happened to love but that was never the point. All these years later, I fall-back on my teenage love of Duran Duran whenever I feel I might be treading dangerously close to the “insufferable prick” territory I was taught to inhabit as a male music fan.
While I have never been deeply into Rush or Steely Dan (I love both to some extent), my favorite band, Cowboy Junkies, is a band that welcomes critical thinking. As someone who has spent the last three decades over-analyzing every aspect of their work (I once wrote a college paper on the influence of Southern Gothic literature on their music), I often attended their shows with a sense of seriousness that even fellow fans found annoying. Collect every CD single, make notes of each set list, show up early for soundcheck? Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Basically, I was the type of guy who probably hated Duran Duran and their female fans in the 1980s. However, I WAS one of those hysterical fans in the 80s and grew up on MTV where gender was presented in far more fluid terms. I highlighted my hair, was into fashion, and found Boy George interesting all while playing sports and learning to hunt like a proper teen boy (note: I never shot at any animals but I liked taking trips with my dad because he let me eat pizza every meal). I never learned to hate Duran Duran even while fulfilling the compulsory masculinity rites of youth.
If I’ve learned anything as a Duran Duran fan, it’s that gender does not have anything to do with how “serious” a music fan is or whether a fan “really understands” a band’s art. I see just as many male fans at a Cowboy Junkies show trying to chat up Margo Timmins as I see women trying to catch John Taylor’s eye during a show. We all have different reasons for going to a concert but the shared excitement of a large crowd creates a unique energy that enhances whatever the experience is that we came for. I sing along, sometimes shed a tear, and even dance during a show in a way that I wouldn’t feel permitted to as a middle-aged male outside the safe environment of a dark arena. I wonder if that isn’t a bit like how teenage girls felt at a Duran Duran show in 1984. It’s a safe place to raise your voice and let your emotions loose after being told that isn’t proper in every other aspect of life.
Going back to Cowboy Junkies, I have been to over 100 concerts so I’ve learned to read the audience and band on any given night. Even a “serious” band like them feeds of the energy of a crowd. When they find a reserved audience who politely clap after each song, the show doesn’t take-off quite in the same way as with an audience shouting appreciation after a wild mandolin solo (yes, Cowboy Junkies have wild mandolin solos). I love the feeling of a band and a crowd pushing each other to a higher place. Teenage girls have always been the best at it but Duran Duran were never after that specific audience. However, the audience helped drive Duran Duran shows to a higher level and still can.
Looking at the early Duran Duran videos, they are presented through the male gaze almost entirely. The beautiful models weren’t there to entice teenage girls. If anything, they were creating ridiculous expectations of beauty that were more harmful than fun. Much like James Bond and Indiana Jones films, the videos were a form of escapism with some sexist attitudes mixed in. It was hard for a teenage male to resist and I was hooked for life even after I learned to deconstruct what it was that lured me into being a Duranie. It didn’t matter by then as the songs still sound great and a few deep breaths of nostalgia is always good for an aging body.
But looking back, I still wonder why all my male friends weren’t into Duran Duran like they were into James Bond. After all, they both get to be heroes adored by beautiful women. I was terrified to speak to girls as a boy but wearing a faux-Member’s Only jacket with Duran Duran pins was an instant ice-breaker at the mall. I didn’t understand anything about the opposite sex but we could at least discuss our favorite songs off Rio before I would get nervous, start mumbling and try to escape.
Having recently read Nothin’ But A Good Time, an oral history of glam metal, it is obvious that Poison’s success was a mixture of hard-work and their willingness to embrace their female fans. The more the women came out to see them, the more male fans they attracted because, let’s be honest, men are sharks and will go where the women are. But Duran Duran did not have that happen even though both bands were equally fond of hairspray, make-up, and a memorable chorus. I had one male friend growing up who loved Duran Duran as much as me. That was it. We both ended up working on music-related fields as adults, too.
Looking back, Duran Duran have never gone out of their way to win over a strictly female audience and have kept making the music they want to make. The critics started to come around over time and now most will begrudgingly admit that John Taylor’s bass lines are masterful and that Nick Rhodes can create an atmosphere within a pop song like few others all while the loyal fans keep buying tickets. While there were times the band might have felt unsteady about what Duran Duran was and how it was perceived, the longevity of their career has given them an unwavering confidence that permeates recent albums like All You Need Is Now.
So, if teenage girls are, or were, a reason you don’t like a band, you might want to ask yourself why. It’s not the band that is the problem. It’s the way we were taught gender. Once we recognize that and break out of that mode of thinking, we can hear music freely and embrace what we enjoy, not what we think we should enjoy (no offense early Pink Floyd). The same goes for the artists. Stop worrying about WHO is in the audience and embrace that someone IS in the audience. At the end of the day, it’s only rock-n-roll. Let’s not be so serious.
I loved many parts of this article. One thing I would point out for future thought and possible discussion:
“I often attended their shows with a sense of seriousness that even fellow fans found annoying. Collect every CD single, make notes of each set list, show up early for soundcheck? Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Basically, I was the type of guy who probably hated Duran Duran and their female fans in the 1980s”
Maybe you can help me to understand. Exactly why is it assumed that only male fans collect every single, make notes of each set list and show up early for soundcheck? Why is that? Is that really the case? Am I seriously THAT unusual??? (Maybe I am? I don’t know!) Why is that when I do those exact same things, or reach out to a male artist to offer my help and support – my motives are questioned; yet when a male does the same – motives are never in question. Even with female artists, I never see things openly discussed the way I do when its a female. It also makes so many assumptions about the capabilities of females. As if we’re unable to be critical thinkers, or not capable of recognizing good music. It is pretty bad when someone with a music degree and forty-some years of experience is dismissed in favor of someone who, quite frankly, is “self-taught” and knows not even the first-damn-thing about music. I could go on and on. It’s the assumptions that only a guy would collect CDs or vinyl, or that only a man would want to make setlist notes and things like that, being ever so critical, though – that bother me most.
Thank you for writing such a thoughtful and pointed blog, and for being my friend. That last part is most important! 🙂 -R
That “type of guy” I’m describing cannot fathom that women and men are equally dedicated as fans. It shows how entrenched attitudes about gender can be. I feel like MTV really opened my mind to a wider range of possibility with gender and allowed me to sidestep that pitfall. But, I always know that attitude exists in the same way I know that the male gaze in the videos was as harmful as it was cool to a young teen. Sorry for not expressing that as clearly as I could have. I was trying to show how I “should” have been the type of guy that doesn’t understand that fandom is not defined by gender.
I think I knew how you meant it…I’m just frustrated by how backward it all is, even in 2021. A female fan (like me, for instance), can’t express her joy or love for the music from a male artist…or really ANY artist these days, without it coming back to an assumption that sex is at the bottom of it all. It’s the same reason why Amanda and I have struggled to get anything on music fandom published. Publishers want the dirt. They want Amanda and I to tell the glorious backstage tales (that we don’t have), or admit that we’re just hoping to finally get our one night stand with the band. It’s pathetic, and at least for the two of us, it’s untrue. Going through that process though, made me see just how entrenched gender roles really are. It’s not just our fan community. It isn’t just the music critics that discounted fans like me. It’s the world.
You’re still the best, and I thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece. You were able to put things into words that I am just not currently able. -R
Really thought provoking post, and I’m smiling as I write this. I’d say that while it might have been regretful to you that you were not the guy that didn’t understand that fandom is not defined by gender,(at that time) you are clearly the guy who engages in deeper thought than many, and then modifies your opinion. I applaud that for so many reasons, and hopefully other males who read this who also dismiss the importance of the female fan will re asses their opinion.