When I was 14, in the mid-’80s, owning a Duran Duran record was as definitive a way for a boy to sabotage his claims of heterosexuality as wearing lavender bikini briefs in the locker room. Other fey icons of the moment, like Michael Jackson or Boy George, were marginally more acceptable to those of us being overheated in the homophobic crucible of teen male identity. But these Brits weren’t cuddly or non-threatening or gawkily freakish — they were sneeringly arrogant, and their exploits diddled our square-headed assumptions that men weren’t supposed to be prettier than the models they bedded.
More perturbingly to anyone whose testosterone was in flux, girls actually swooned to the confident swish of Duran Duran’s eyeliner. In retrospect, this was a far more cynical pitch of seduction than our current spate of boy groups; you’ve got to have a low opinion of your audience, after all, to expect them to buy the notion of England as a sexy, exotic locale. With their contrived decadence, the sickly sheen of their synths and dance rhythms that owed more to James Bond than James Brown, the quintet was as healthy a set of sex symbols for girls as porn stars are for boys.
The band that has released “Pop Trash” is hardly the stuff of Teen Beat centerfolds. With perfectly convoluted Duran logic, Nick Rhodes and Simon LeBon years ago jettisoned Andy and John Taylor (the duo misguided enough to think they were playing in a funk band all this time) in an attempt to leave teenybopdom behind them. In 1993, with the decidedly non-glam Warren Cuccurullo on guitars, they adapted to grunge anti-stardom with the dreadful ballad “Ordinary World,” a title confirming their commitment to unscrupulous hackdom. Pretentious, derivative, unlistenable — Duran Duran had been all of these. But ordinary? Simon, how could you?
One-dimensional fellows that they are, titles signify a lot in the Duran mythos. And so their latest shtick is again announced on the CD spine — “Pop Trash.” Duran Duran aren’t one-dimensional because they’re so severely talent-impaired, you see. They’re one-dimensional because they’re “Pop” — not like Celine Dion or Backstreet Boys — but in the true Warholian sense of the word. Similarly, “Trash” doesn’t mean they’re just spewing garbage into the marketplace — they’re again being true to the spirit of real gutter flash, again in the same Warholian sense.
All lies. “Pop Trash” is, in fact, a mediocre Britpop album. Where once the band passed off Bowie clichis as gourmet bubblegum, now they pass off chilled-out Phil Collins ballads as lounging Eurochic. And they may succeed yet again. “Someone Else Not Me,” with Rhodes’ synth banks impersonating cellos and LeBon imitating a human, mewls about “love that’s real/Like a flower to the bee” with an ambience that should fit right into the tedium of current mainstream radio programming. The song is so inoffensive and catchy, that you can hum it without realizing you’ve ever heard it. (There’s another version in translation, so our Spanish-speaking friends won’t feel slighted.)
But whether they score a hit or not, Duran Duran’s back cover photo tells all. There, this trio of aging rouis, robbed of all resonance by the wrinkling of time, postures on a white vinyl couch, the glare of the photograph unflattering to their jowls and their dated fashion sense alike. In their leopard prints and plunging necklines, Simon and Warren look like the kind of middle-age letches routinely ridiculed by healthy young clubgoers, while Nick looks like some remember-the-’80s “Saturday Night Live” parody. The fact that they haven’t ripened into a genuinely intriguing decadence just proves that they were never even real frauds to begin with.