I was reminded today of a book I wanted to write a quick recommendation for, especially as I have stuff to do in just a few minutes that means I can’t spend a lot of time blogging. I just finished reading Rob Sheffield’s 80s memoir-through-music Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut, and it’s a real delight. He’s a great, evocative writer who really captures how pop music plays a role in its fans’ lives. But more than that, I loved the book because Sheffield is a music critic who really, truly grapples with something a lot of male critics want to avoid, which is the role gender plays in fandom. Sheffield is a man who loves women, truly loves them in the sense of loving them where they’re at, not wanting them to be something they’re not. Occasionally he dives into gender essentialism that I don’t particularly love, but I forgive it because his insights from where he’s standing are well worth it.
This is doubly so when it comes to the 80s. Sheffield reminded me of something that I think is quickly being forgotten in the wave of nostalgia for that era—New Wave wasn’t as universally beloved as nostalgia products would have you believe. Synth-heavy music was disdained as not real music, fans were derided as lightweights, and New Wavers’ playfulness with fashion (and therefore with gender) created a lot of blowback and anxiety. Without beating you over the head with it, Sheffield introduces the idea that much of the hostility was due to straight male anxieties about women making demands and having desires of their own and gay people coming out of the closet bit by bit. In other words, some of the same forces that drove over the top hostility to disco. He singles out Duran Duran as a perfect example of a band who drew way more haterade than they really deserved, and comically draws out a theory that it’s because Duran Duran was basically a girl’s band. And girls weren’t supposed to make bands. And yet, there they were.
It’s an interesting theory, one backed up strongly by much of writing, art, and music of the time. Take, for instance, Dire Straits’ megahit “Money for Nothing”. Surely you remember how misogynist and homophobic the lyrics were!
See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire
Despite being an uppity little “faggot”, the villain in this song get his chicks “for free”, as if women are a commodity to be purchased. Sheffield notes that Straits was capturing a popular sentiment at the time. He describes many straight men being angry and unsettled by New Wave, eager to dismiss their talents and especially their fans. Sheffield has interesting passages suggesting that New Wave was unsettling not just because of the gender-bending aspects, but because young women ate it up and wanted to dance and party for their own pleasure, and not just strictly to entertain men. All together, this provokes massive anxieties, ones that come out with the word “faggot” attached.
Interesting point. Before I take off, I want to pose this thought: New Wave-bashing has a modern form in hipster-bashing. Hipsters are decried, above all other things, for having a playful approach to fashion and a tendency to do things for the hell of it instead of for some supposedly greater, unnamed purpose. New Wavers were dissed for being uppity, hipsters for thinking they’re so cool. Nowadays, you’re a lot less likely to hear “faggot” tossed at a hipster for having a goofy sense of fashion, but the disdain is there all the same. Interestingly, hipster bashing soared as said hipsters started to embrace….New Wave music. Now there’s a lot more playfulness and synths than there were, say, in the 90s, and the amount of vitriol being expressed increased as the keyboards on stage did. Do you think it’s springing from the same anxieties as New Wave bashing, or is this some new beast that is somehow not as bad in terms of mean-spiritedness.