Review: Rob Sheffield's inner Sheena

Womanly man
By AMY FINCH  |  August 31, 2010

CRITICAL Did teenage garbage men in the ’80s really argue about Billy Joel lyrics?

It was probably a common impulse, wanting to save Rob Sheffield. That is, after reading his heartbreaking 2007 memoir, Love Is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss One Song at a Time, in which the long-time Rolling Stone writer finds the perfect girl, fellow music critic Renée Crist — only to watch her die one Sunday afternoon when her heart stops as she stands up from her desk. Sheffield structured Love Is a Mix Tape around 15 tapes to trace their relationship's course.

Who wouldn't want to save this sad, shy, music-passionate boy, who was so proud to tell the world how much he'd worshipped a girl. And who did so against a soundtrack loaded with the likes of Big Star, Pavement, Hank Williams, and Fuzzy. It felt as if Sheffield had to pin down the eight-year stretch during which Renée was in his life so he wouldn't forget a single detail about her, or the songs they both loved, or the ways in which he changed through knowing her.

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut | By Rob Sheffield | 288 pages | Dutton | $25.95

The motivation behindTalking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man's Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut is more nebulous. Again, he uses songs to mark his progress from music-crazed doofus boy toward tentative maturity. But he's turned to life's fluffier concerns, like growing up in '80s Milton looking at the mullet of Rick Springfield on General Hospital, or the tits of Adrienne Barbeau in Swamp Thing. Or, most of all, watching MTV, which had to put something on the air 24/7 and made do "with all sorts of abnormal music." Otherwise known as new wave: "If it's a song about shoes, pants or hair, it's new wave. If they have a funny name, it's new wave. If the singer's German, it's new wave, unless it's the Scorpions."

Talking to Girls is funny and entertaining, and Sheffield doesn't make you hold your breath hoping for a joke-free paragraph, the way Steve Almond tended to do in Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. He's still a charming writer, but the book can be rambling and labored, a bunch of essays filled with hyperbolic declarations custom fit to get a certain breed of music fan riled. The Human League "truly embodied the anyone-can-do-it spirit of this music — in fact, the hardly-anyone-can't-do-it spirit." Paul McCartney was "the loose cannon, the danger Beatle, the X in the fab equation." So there, you non-dainty types who might yell something about the Ramones and John Lennon.

Not that Sheffield is dainty, but he does admit to having been "fascinated by pop stars who were garish and saucy, awakening the slatternly Valley girl in my soul." And given the proper karaoke setting, he's likely to "step into the stilettos of Sheena [Easton] or Chaka [Khan]."

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