During a recent Google search to determine whether I was hearing things, or if Duran Duran really had sung about glory holes (they had, metaphorically, on a track from the 2011 album All You Need Is Now), I stumbled on a 2013 interview that keyboardist Nick Rhodes did with Rolling Stone. In it, journalist Barry Walters asks “This isn’t intended as a criticism, but there’s never been an artier band more successfully marketed to teen and pre-teen girls than Duran Duran. How did you reconcile that?”
It’s the kind of question that can only exist because rockist criticism has such a deep, longstanding mistrust and misunderstanding of young female fans. Music that girls like is written off as simplistic and bad. If it can’t be dismissed that easily, then the girls are written off as too simplistic and bad to appreciate what they’re really listening to. As someone who used to be a teen and pre-teen girl—and who grew up to be a woman who earnestly Googles things like “Duran Duran” and “glory hole” over the course of an average day—I find the logic behind it preposterous. Girls are strange, quite often in the most creative ways. Especially when their interests seem innocent on the surface. They put their Barbies through elaborate sacrificial rituals and weave their ostensibly clean-cut idols into gleefully lurid fanficition. They don’t love weird, artsy pop stars despite their aesthetic inclinations. They love these musicians because they get them. Why would anyone need to reconcile that type of devotion with their work?
Girls are strange, quite often in the most creative ways. They don’t love weird, artsy pop stars despite their aesthetic inclinations. They love these musicians because they get them. Why would anyone need to reconcile that type of devotion with their work?
Rhodes, whose almost four decade-long career shows little to no ambivalence about what his audience might want or can handle (the interview is in support of TV Mania, a side project with former Duran Warren Cuccurullo that mixes beats with extensive samples from television shows) doesn’t seem that sold on the premise behind the question, either. “Well, I suppose by looking back at the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Doors and other bands that made a lot of music that wasn’t necessarily engineered to be screamed at,” he answers. “It’s very easy to be analytical and say it lost us some of our ‘rock cred,’ but I care so much more about songs and how things sound and the shows we put on, so we never really paused to think about it much because we were too busy doing the things that we wanted to do. The fact our audience enabled us to do that, I’m hugely grateful. I get why it was strange: Believe me, the first time we played ‘The Chauffeur’ [Rio‘s droning, synth-heavy final track] and people were screaming and we couldn’t hear what we playing, it was surreal. But you get used to these things. When I took my daughter to concerts when she was younger and there was a lot of excitement in the audience, it creates a different vibe that you don’t get if you just have a load of men in T-shirts shaking their fists in the air.”
Sure, Duran Duran achieved massive global popularity in the ‘80s in part because they were fantastically pretty men who made fantastically catchy music, but that doesn’t mean that female fans only embraced the band’s fantastically weird oeuvre on a superficial level. There’s nothing about their Liliana Cavani and Jean Cocteau-referencing music videos, their songs that might be about literal amorous encounters with robots and leopards, their art goth side project, or their collaboration with David Lynch, for instance, that couldn’t or wouldn’t speak to young women the same way that their artistry once appealed to Andy Warhol. And then there’s Arena (An Absurd Notion).
A 1985 concert film/sci-fi concept video hybrid directed by longtime Duran collaborator Russell Mulcahy, Arena (An Absurd Notion) is a work perhaps best and most succinctly described by its own parenthesis. Even Morgan Richter, whom I consider the Duranie’s answer to Roger Ebert (in that she also has a knack for expressing her profound understanding of her subject with smart but accessible writing) resorts to a frequently asked question format in an effort to explain it in her book Duranalysis: Essays on the Duran Duran Experience.
Durand Durand, the villain from the 1968 sci-fi cult classic Barbarella (played by Milo O’Shea, who reprises his role as the band’s slightly misheard namesake), crash lands on earth and thinks that legions of fans across the world are chanting his name. When he discovers that these people are, in fact, cheering for Duran Duran (“Revolting. They idolize them!” he groans in disgust. “But do they know who the real Durand Durand is?”), he starts to plot against the band by kidnapping and torturing their fans during a show from their Sing Blue Silver tour. There are some robots who appear to be created with fan destruction in mind, but they get distracted by lust and have sex in a pile of green goo instead. A tiger/woman hybrid crawls around in the arena for a while, menacing the excited young fans. Singer Simon Le Bon is briefly transported to some ruins and menaced for a while during “Hungry Like The Wolf.” There’s a large break in the middle where the entire band is imprisoned and tortured for an extended version of the video for “The Wild Boys,” which was at one point supposed to the title track for an adaptation of the William S. Burroughs novel of the same name that Mulcahy wanted to make. Eventually, a plucky group of fans figure out that something is amiss, break into Durand’s lair under the arena (?) and, after much rollerskating-oriented combat and breaking out of cages, face off against the villain. Durand launches a fireball at them. They deflect it with a giant poster for the 1983 album Seven and the Ragged Tiger, and Durand collapses in the flames, moaning that he “only wanted to be loved!” Then everyone celebrates to “Rio” while Durand’s minions get kicked around in balloons that look like Rover from The Prisoner.
Arena (An Absurd Notion) is definitely an intriguing work of pop art. I would go so far as to call it peerless, but I don’t know if I mean that in the sense that no other musical artist has reached this level of aesthetic achievement, or because no one else has ever even felt the urge to combine concert films with directors’ homoerotic passion projects and outlandish homages to their namesakes. Perhaps it’s both.
Or, as Richter puts it: “At times, Arena seems less like a concert film and more like a cry for help; watching Arena in all its bizarre incoherence will tax the patience of all but the most fervent Duran Duran fan. Still, though, at its core, there’s something compulsively fascinating about it.”
Buried somewhere in whatever else Arena attempts to be is a stunningly accurate prediction of the current fandom culture and the backlash that still lands primarily against the passions of girls.
If you happen to watch Arena today, though, the film starts to feel almost as eerily prescient as so many of its fellow mid-80s sci-fi nightmare visions were. A man shows up, out of nowhere, and sees a group of predominantly young women enjoying something. He immediately determines that they are wrong for doing so and goes to great–and occasionally violent–lengths to correct them. The fans band together to push back and, fueled by their devotion and armed with symbols of their objects of affection, completely destroy the man. The man falls apart, seeing himself as the victim of this uncalled-for outrage.
Buried somewhere in whatever else Arena attempts to be is a stunningly accurate prediction of the current fandom culture and the backlash that still lands primarily against the passions of girls. Or maybe it was a reflection of the derision that Duran Duran’s fans–and, by extension, the band themselves–were facing at the time, exaggerated to dystopian sci-fi proportions. And then online culture, which further united the ranks of fangirls but also exacerbated the amount of abuse thrown at them, eventually caught up with this monstrous vision. Whatever the case, this might be why the film still resonates just as much as it infuriates over thirty years after its release.
Fandom has never been and will never be powerless to fight back. If Arena is any indication, it can also set things on fire.
There’s always some asshole who will tell anyone who’s not a t-shirt-clad, fist-pumping dude that they’re wrong and that their Duran Duran equivalent is empty trash. There’s always going to be some journalist who spends five minutes asking the objects of these obsessions how they reconciled their young, predominantly female fans’ admiration with their work, even while said devotees commit decades to analyzing it. But, on the other hand, fandom has never been and will never be powerless to fight back. If Arena is any indication, it can also set things on fire.