Still Dancing on the Valentine
On loving Duran Duran and being cool
Ed. Note: I originally wrote this essay in April 2014, when Duran Duran’s song “The Reflex” turned 30, and read it aloud at an open mic event in Sacramento. It has been edited for clarity and consistency.
I run my hands over the cover of the new Duran Duran album, outlining each of their faces. All five members are wearing black; Nick Rhodes, my favorite band member, is clad in a shiny ebony suit, his once-blond hair now cherry red, his lips a bright crimson. I flip the album over, read the track listings one by one.
I bought Seven and the Ragged Tiger soon after the first single “Union of the Snake” was released, hypnotized by its opening synthesized beats, rebelling against my mother who never wanted to hear the word “snake” uttered aloud as it gave her nightmares. “But it’s Duran Duran,” I tell her, handing over ten dollars and some change to the stony faced cashier at Waxie Maxie’s in the mall. “They are so cool, Mom.” She rolls her eyes at me.
On the inside sleeve, the lyrics are printed in tiny block letters. I squint to read them, singing along as the record plays on my turntable. The lyrics are strange, but Duran Duran lyrics always are, stringing words like rain and stairway and tar plains together in phrases I don’t understand. I continue to sing along and decide the band members are totally gorgeous in their custom suits and gelled hair. They are New Romantics looking for a TV sound, just like they sing in “Planet Earth” on their first album. Their lyrics are cool, even if they don’t make sense.
It wasn’t long after the “Hungry Like the Wolf” video started playing on a continuous loop on “Friday Night Videos” and MTV that my friends Kay*, Desi*, and I divvied up Duran Duran for ourselves. Back then, there was no such thing as polyamory for junior high school girls with celebrity crushes. You had to pick a band member to love, and you had to pick wisely, otherwise you would be mocked for years. Kay chooses Simon Le Bon, the lead singer with swagger. Desi chooses John Taylor, the square-jawed bassist. I choose keyboardist Nick Rhodes. I have made the wrong choice.
“He is SO GAY,” Kay says. “He wears so much makeup!”
“They all wear makeup!” I reply.
“Not like he does,” she says. “He’s got blush on and everything! He wears more makeup than you do!”
This was, in fact, true. I didn’t wear foundation or eyeliner, but I had a few different Cover Girl eyeshadow compacts and mascara in blue and purple. Once we got to high school, I occasionally applied temporary blue highlights to my permed hair - just on the sides where my hair poofed out from my ears. We all attended an evangelical Christian day academy and I didn’t want to attract unfavorable attention from my teachers or the principal. I still wanted to be cool, though - the word we all used, but its meaning was elusive and ever-changing. What was cool one day was uncool the next, and it was hard to keep track. Suspenders worn up in eighth grade weren’t worn at all in ninth. Backpacks were one-strapped or not used at all. Jeans were stone washed, then acid washed. Staying cool was time consuming.
But Duran Duran would always be cool. They wore whatever they wanted to, whether it was black eyeliner or pastel-colored linen blazers with matching pants. The women in their videos were casually exotic, their supermodel bodies draped in cerulean blue silk or painted in tribal colors. Their gaze into the camera oozed glamour and cool. The closest I could hope to get to that level of cool was through listening to their songs while lying on the grass-green carpet of my bedroom, head between the speakers, my cat rubbing against my feet. With my eyes closed and headphones on, I could be anyone, anywhere: the girl on the pink princess phone in the “Rio” video, flirting with Simon; the backup singer in a vintage soldier jacket; the Durannie standing at the front of the stage, screaming at the sight of John in tight leather pants. It didn’t matter that I picked the androgynous Nick to adore. All that mattered was the music, and the music was cool.
I take down the very uncool Ricky Schroeder poster and replace it with one of Seven and the Ragged Tiger. I listen when my mother asks me to put tiny globs of green sticky stuff on the back corners of the poster before I nail it in place but ignore her pleas to not put tape directly on the walls. Soon the wall next to my bed is covered in fan magazine photos of the Fab Five, Simon, Nick, John, Andy and Roger all staring at me as I dance to “The Reflex,” singing as if I’m the one dancing on the valentine and they are the ones rushing the stage to grab at my legs. They do not judge me or my moves or the wash of my jeans. To them, I am cool, too.