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BOOK REVIEW

Finding meaning in ’80s pop music

By Alex Spanko
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2010

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Rob Sheffield’s debut memoir, “Love Is a Mix Tape,’’ is a tough act to follow. The Milton-bred rock journalist didn’t hit a sour note in that heartbreaking ode to his first wife, Renee Crist, who died young and left him with years of music-infused memories over which to grieve.

That’s not to say that Sheffield’s latest, “Talking to Girls About Duran Duran,’’ isn’t packed with the same subtle wit, charm, and encyclopedic knowledge of ’80s music that made him such an endearing and sympathetic narrator the first time around. But without any real backbone to support the weight of his broad pop-culture proclamations, “Duran Duran’’ comes off as an unfocused collection of musings, as sunny and disposable as the ’80s “pop trash’’ to which he devotes so much time.

Sheffield’s essays trace a meandering path through his ’80s adolescence in suburban Boston, starting with his first dance in 1980 to his music-driven courtship with Renee at the end of the decade. Along the way, he riffs on love, his predictably large and fussy Irish Catholic family, and his surprisingly fervent childhood religious beliefs all through the lens of the pop songs that defined his lonely teenage days.

“Being a pop fan is a lot like Catholic devotion: lots of ritual, lots of ceremony, lots of private oblations as we genuflect before our sacred spaces,’’ Sheffield writes, shortly before naming Human League frontman Phil Oakey and Prince as people who inspired him to think more deeply about religion.

Like fellow “low culture’’ essayist Chuck Klosterman, Sheffield stakes his book on brash blanket statements, stretching amateur pop logic as far as it can go to claim that one’s taste in Hall and Oates songs speaks volumes about oneself, or that one can unlock the mystery of women simply by following the title’s advice. And while Sheffield sometimes ties himself into rhetorical knots to prove his point, it’s all part of the fun.

His lengthy ruminations on long-forgotten new wave acts like Haysi Fantayzee and the Fixx are fascinating, if only to provide a glimpse into the mind of a man who earnestly finds meaning in bands that fell off the face of the planet by 1985. He claims the former band, a British pop trio best known for the minor 1983 hit “Shiny Shiny,’’ was no goofier than the Police: “The difference is that the Police were a rock band, while Haysi Fantayzee was a pop group, so Sting’s ideas about Jung and Nabokov were taken more seriously than whatever drivel Haysi Fantayzee were rapping about.’’

He refers to a “Kajagoogoo ethos.’’ He sits alone in a dorm room and asks Morrissey for dating advice. He goes to a Debbie Gibson show with a cool rocker chick and blows a chance to make a move on her while watching Cher videos on MTV.

Sheffield gets away with it all because he’s in on the joke. He knows he’s writing about the lowest, most vapid rung of bygone popular culture, and that only makes him want to dissect it more.

Perhaps the best summary of Sheffield’s own ethos comes during a discussion of prefab cartoon bands like the Archies and Josie and the Pussycats: “All these fake bands gave me a preference for pop stars who rejected the pose of naturalism, the pose of really-meaning-it.’’

Maybe Sheffield doesn’t really mean it when he says there’s something to learn in listening to women talk about a cheesy ’80s band. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Watching him try is sweet, breezy fun while it lasts. Haysi Fantayzee would be proud.

Alex Spanko is a freelance writer. He can be reached at alexspanko@gmail.com.

TALKING TO GIRLS ABOUT DURAN DURAN:

One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut

By Rob Sheffield

Dutton, 288 pp., $25.95