Last night, Duran Duran took the stage at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, another stop on their tour for last year’s Paper Gods. Duran Duran’s latest release is of that late-career-album species that seems to be looking back at various elements of an artist’s lifetime while trying to situate and move it all forward in the present. That’s a tricky thing for any act who’s been around for decades, but it’s especially complicated for Duran Duran, because Duran Duran and the ’80s are inextricably intertwined. That issue — if you consider it an issue at all — isn’t quite solved by Duran Duran touring with Shamir and Chic (“Featuring Nile Rodgers,” which always struck me as weird billing), or featuring guest spots from artists like Mr. Hudson, Kiesza, Janelle Monáe, and John Frusciante on an album whose cover is a series of iconic images from the band’s own past. If you’re someone like me — someone whose favorite music is from the ’80s but would also like to pretend I’m not living in the past every day — it at least does something weird to your head to find yourself seeing these guys in 2016.
It’s even weirder to see Duran Duran in a Brooklyn arena in 2016. Even in our times of reunions and nostalgia tours and revivals, Duran Duran remain hard to pin down. In their heyday, they were stratospherically successful, garnering the label “the Fab Five” from the British press due to the Beatlemania-esque fervor surrounding their ascension. Yet they were also denigrated. At one point in history, Duran Duran were sidelined as a boy band or an industry inside job, not “serious” artists. This was unfair to a band that had a sharper cultural eye than they were given credit for, and who crashed genres together in an inventive and influential way. Over time, their standing may have shifted a bit in their favor, but they are still one of the more unique and confusing instances of ’80s legacy acts currently on the road.
The thing with Duran Duran is that, when it comes down to it, they are essentially a brilliant singles band — known first and foremost for a string of immortal ’80s hits, and a few elegiac epilogues in the early ’90s with stuff like “Come Undone” and “Ordinary World.” But they’re not a band that’s overly celebrated for the breadth of their work, and while they’ve been name-checked plenty, they aren’t an artist that appears to have been reclaimed and/or re-established as a substantial and revered indie influence. (In terms of this century’s retro revivals, you can trace elements from New Order, Tears For Fears, OMD, or Human League more obviously than you can with Duran Duran.) On paper, that’d make them a nostalgia act through and through — destined to continue touring a greatest hits set with a few new songs sprinkled in for however much longer their career continues. Even when it comes to diehard fans who are following each Duran Duran record, are there people hoping they actually don’t play all the hits, that they mix it up more? Duran Duran have certainly always come across as musicians who thought of themselves as being in touch with the times, and they’ve done an admirable job of adapting to the pop sensibilities of several different eras while often finding a way to incorporate new sounds and ideas into the Duran Duran ethos rather than awkwardly remaking it entirely, or half-heartedly repeating where they’d been. When I spoke with Nick Rhodes last year, I got the sense that these were guys who were paying attention to what was going on around them, and wanted to stay engaged; he didn’t strike me as a guy content with a career that was rooted in playing “Hungry Like The Wolf” and “Rio” for the millionth time.
And yet, that’s what they have to be. Because there are a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who go to see them now because they want to hear the songs of their youth, and to catch a fleeting glimpse at that time period again. There are people like me, who grew up on these hits being in the atmosphere and missed the ’80s and only got a chance to see Duran Duran in the mid-’10s. Sure, I wonder what it’d be like if they could play a fan favorite like “The Chauffeur” or a deeper cut in an arena, but when it comes down to it, my only disappointment about seeing them last night in Brooklyn is that they didn’t play “The Reflex.” I like most of the new songs they played, and I think they fit in well with the older material, and I think the band has had an interesting lifeline that deserves a degree of critical respect — but ultimately, I just want to hear all the classics.
It feels like a cheap attitude to take toward an artist, whether as a critic going to a show or simply as a person who’s been impacted by this band’s music and has some emotional connection to it. It feels like you should owe them more than politely waiting through recent stuff that’s pretty good, and that they’re clearly passionate about, while you’re really counting the minutes until the next “Notorious” or “Wild Boys” makes an appearance. I don’t know; it’s a murky question: What responsibility is there between a pop fan and a pop artist decades down the line? And for their part, Duran Duran are still consummate performers. “We are here for your pleasure tonight, and we’ve got a few tricks up our sleeves,” Simon Le Bon, ever the charismatic frontman, said after they finished playing “A View To A Kill.” He then promised a show of “politics-free entertainment,” with “no bad clothes” and “no bullshit” but “just pure fun.” (Ironically enough, after that aside, the band played “Come Undone,” which, yes, is recognizable and gorgeous and one of their best songs but I don’t know if that’s one I’d call fun, exactly. It’s pretty heartbreaking, actually.)
Anyway: the simple answer to it all is that Le Bon’s promise was one that Duran Duran easily filled, even if you were sitting there over-thinking things like I was. Aside from Le Bon’s voice sounding a little rough around the edges, he’s aged remarkably well. The dude’s closing in on 60 and is up there in white pants dancing and belting out these songs in a way that’s nearly identical to when he was in his 20s. They’re the kind of band that promises you a show, that has some stake in the idea of pop music providing uplift, and they deliver. They brought Nile Rodgers out for “Notorious” and “Pressure Off,” one of the Paper Gods songs that sits particularly well alongside their older singles, and Kiesza for “Last Night In The City.” They pair “Paper Gods” and “Wild Boys” together in the front of the set, which is a shockingly very good way to open a show — the twistingly half-atmospheric, half-anthemic new track placed alongside an old favorite that’s almost one long chant to get everyone amped up. Poignant moments were mixed in, like when Le Bon introduced “Save A Prayer” by explaining the increased weight the song has taken on for them — having duetted with the Eagles Of Death Metal, who covered the song, on British TV shortly before the Bataclan attack in November, Duran Duran now play it as a tribute to those who died in Paris last year. Partway through “Planet Earth,” they segued into “Space Oddity” in tribute to Bowie. “Ordinary World” is always heavy. But it never wandered too far from being a gleeful pop show, the kind of place where Duran Duran might bring Lindsay Lohan (congrats) onstage to perform her spoken word interlude on Paper Gods’ “Danceophobia,” and you feel as if you’re watching a few decades of pop culture eating itself.
There are certain older artists you have to see because they are legends, certain ones you have to see because they find themselves in a stunning late-career renaissance, certain ones you have to see because they never stopped being good and they feel just as of-the-moment as ever. I’m not sure a band in Duran Duran’s category fits any of these molds. For me, at least, I went because I wanted to experience a Duran Duran show. If there were plenty of people indulging their nostalgia last night, and maybe a few trying to parse their nostalgia, the experience of being in your mid-20s at a Duran Duran show in 2016 (and being one of the youngest people there) is one of confronting your own received nostalgia. It sort of felt like crashing a party, even though I have my own connections to these songs. I get the sense Duran Duran are self-aware enough that they attempt to balance all of that — they’re a band willing to be more experimental than we might realize, but they’re also showmen who very much care about the mainstream and album sales and giving the people what they want. “Pretty nice night,” Le Bon said toward the end. “What else are you gonna do on a Tuesday?” I didn’t have a good answer to that question. In moments like that, sometimes it’s easier to shake the baggage and not dwell on what is nostalgic or not or whether nostalgia is even a bad thing. It’s easier to get swept up in the undying “Girls On Film” or “Rio” and realize it doesn’t really matter how you process it all: It’s still happening in 2016, and it still sounds good in 2016.
“The Wild Boys”
?”Hungry Like The Wolf”
?”A View To A Kill”?
“Last Night In The City” (w/ Kiesza)?
“What Are the Chances?”?
“Notorious” (w/ Nile Rodgers)?
“Pressure Off” (w/ Nile Rodgers)
?”Planet Earth”/”Space Oddity” (David Bowie Cover)
“I Don’t Want Your Love”?
“White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It)” (Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel Cover)?”
“(Reach Up For The) Sunrise”/”New Moon On Monday”?
“Danceophobia” (w/ Lindsay Lohan)
?”Too Much Information”?
“Girls On Film”
“Save A Prayer”?