I have been a fan of Duran Duran since elementary school in the 1980s. This was not the same kind of fandom I’d observe from the girls in my classroom who would put pictures of their favorite band member on the cover of their Trapper Keeper binders as cut out from teenage fan magazines, while they debated which one they thought was the “cutest”. I remember most of them going gaga over Simon LeBon, but whatever. I thought the guys of Duran Duran were the epitome of cool.
My family didn’t have cable television when I was growing up. In fact, when my family had lived abroad in Liberia for a year, the friends we had rented our house to while we were overseas had a wall outlet for cable installed in our living room. I can see in my mind’s eye as vividly as something I had seen just last month what it was like to be standing there, watching as my mother took a knife and sawed through and completely severed the newish cable connector cord sticking out of the wall. Not only did she not want us to have cable service, she wanted to make sure it wasn’t ever going to happen even if we kids had been able to get through to Dad.
What this meant was that it was only at my friends’ houses that I’d be able to watch Double Dare on Nickelodeon or music videos on MTV. (This was in the years when adult-oriented VH1 was considered largely unwatchable by youths.) Three of my best friends in the neighborhood around our fifth grade year were Fred, Rachel, and Raul. I don’t remember Fred’s or Rachel’s families having cable, but Raul’s did. I remember riding my Raleigh ten-speed bicycle the two neighborhood blocks to Raul’s house, a distance that seemed much longer then to a kid than it actually was, and us hanging out while we would watch music videos. Raul was my homie, with both of us being first-generation Americans, in part or fully.
The mid-1980s, and specifically 1984, have long seemed to me like some sort of pinnacle for pop music in general, and the videos from this time were pretty much all memorable. From Michael Jackson’s light-up sidewalk in the video for “Billie Jean”, to Madonna’s interracial romance and brief modeling gig in the video for the bouncy “Borderline”, to Tina Turner’s iconic fishnets and leather mini-skirt (I had thought then that she was a new artist!), to anything Cyndi Lauper acted out, I would be positively transfixed while watching music videos at Raul’s house. I can even remember him sometimes trying to say something to me while I was watching, and I’d respond along the lines of, “Shut up for a minute…I’m trying to watch this.” Thinking about it now, I’m actually surprised he never asked me to leave. It’s possible that he did and I simply didn’t hear him, lost as I was in the magic of what I was watching and hearing in their TV room in the basement.
To be clear, I did not use Raul just to watch cable. He and I discussed this (amid gut laughter) a couple of summers ago, which was the last time he and I got to hang out. It’s just that the music of that time, the personal styles of the artists, and the images in their videos all left an indelible impression on me and instilled a hunger for all I could absorb. Duran Duran was a big part of that. “The Reflex” was one of the very first music videos I had ever seen. While that video was mainly of a concert performance and not all that memorable, it was the “gateway drug” to the rest of their canon of hits and videos, my favorite of which was probably “Hungry Like The Wolf”.
They had been out of the limelight for about four years before the release of one of many of their career “comeback” albums, 2004’s Astronaut, which was special in that it was a reunion of all five original members: Simon LeBon, Nick Rhodes, Andy Taylor, John Taylor, and Roger Taylor (none of whom were related). The first single, “(Reach Up For The) Sunrise”, seemed like a thrilling update of their ’80s new wave sound. One track from that album that I had on repeat for a while, however, was not released as a single: “Taste The Summer”. Maybe it was also because that time of my life seemed really exciting, as I had somewhat recently relocated to Chicago within a couple years of this album’s release. “Taste The Summer” found itself on multiple mix-CDs (remember those?) I would make both for myself and my friends. It’s still my jam.
The Pontiac Solstice holds more than a few parallels in my mind to this chapter of Duran Duran’s recording history. When it first arrived in 2005 as an ’06 model, I thought it was positively stunning. This two-seater is the kind of car I had often told myself I might be able to own once I no longer needed the utility of a hatchback or even a back seat, both of which were indispensable during my college years. I had taken notice when Pontiac’s image had seemed to start to flounder around the mid-’90s with criticism of its widespread use of plastic body cladding, which was considered tacky. To me, this feature was one of Pontiac’s calling cards and one of its most identifiable traits to a kid who grew up in the ’80s, along with its split front grille. It was like criticizing Kenny G. for having too much hair, or criticizing George Hamilton for being too tan. This seemed like an unfair criticism of an easy target and obvious identity trait.
Like the reunion of Duran Duran’s original lineup, the introduction of the Solstice seemed to solidify that Pontiac was here to stay, and its arrival also sparked hope in me that more exciting products were on the way. Pontiac had long been one of my favorite divisions of GM, as well a favorite make in its own right, marketed as it was toward youth with the proclamation that they built “excitement”! It didn’t even matter so much to me that this model’s cousin, the Sky, was for sale over at Saturn. The two cars looked differentiated enough from each other to have identities as separate from one another as could be the case for two cars based on the same GM Kappa platform. In fact, the other two variants, the Opel GT and Daewoo G2X, looked just like the Saturn Sky, while the Pontiac Solstice had the most unique appearance with styling not shared with the other cars. Its name also seemed like a stroke of genius, with thoughts of the summer solstice jelling perfectly with the appearance of this sleek, two-seat convertible.
It wasn’t long before reviews surfaced that were less than stellar, for both the Solstice and Astronaut. After what had seemed like strong initial interest in the United States for Duran Duran’s eleventh studio album, which was their first top-20 hit on the Billboard 200 album chart (No. 17) in over a decade, and after the relatively low chart peak of “Sunrise” on the Hot 100 singles chart (No. 89), the album sort of came and went. It didn’t even go RIAA Gold in the U.S., selling only around 260,000 copies in the U.S., to date.
The Pontiac was cited as being a bit too large and heavy to instill the kind of spirited driving that other vehicles of its type, like the Mazda MX-5 Miata, were capable of. With a curb weight of about 2,900 pounds, it was powered by a 2.4L four-cylinder engine with 173 horsepower. By contrast, the same-year Miata weighed about 400 pounds less and gave up very little in horsepower, with 166 hp coming from its 2.0L four-cylinder.
Curiously, the two cars were almost exactly the same length (157.2″ long for the Solstice, with the Miata being just 0.1″ longer), but the Solstice was significantly wider at 71.3″ versus the Miata’s 67.7″ width. Perhaps this could be a metaphor for the 2004-era physical shape of LeBon and, say, Brandon Flowers of The Killers, who were also on the radio at the time of the release of Astronaut. Sales figures of the Solstice and the MX-5 Miata were similar over the same period from between 2005 and 2010: 65,700 for the Pontiac, versus 67,000 for the Mazda.
Just like Pontiac would vanish after 2010, the original five-person lineup of Duran Duran would disband (again) after Astronaut, and while I do have and enjoy their 2010 release All You Need Is Now, it’s no Astronaut. Nostalgia plays a large role in the enjoyment of both popular music and automobiles, so I fully understand how my like of both the artistry of this band and also this Pontiac may be tied to who, where, and what I was when I had first discovered them. Those things are special and have value, in and of themselves, but I can say that I also genuinely like both car and album as taken on their own merits. The latter-day efforts of Duran Duran and Pontiac may not have set the world on fire, but they certainly left enough of a positive impression on me to inspire me to write this paean to both. With Memorial Day in the U.S. and with it, the unofficial start of the warmest season coming up in less than a week, may you taste summer 2021 like it will never end.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Sunday, November 1, 2015.