This month on NBC’s The Voice, seventeen-year-old Josh West performed Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World” and received a four-chair ovation from the show’s celebrity hosts. Judge Gwen Stefani gushed about her love for the song after the contestant nailed its soaring melody with his operatic rock voice. The following day, Duran Duran’s original 1992 recording of “Ordinary World” entered the U.S. iTunes Top 100.
While it’s not unusual for old songs to reappear on the charts after being featured on TV, the re-emergence of “Ordinary World” in 2017 is different. Over the past two decades, the hit’s message about striving for stability and strength amid devastation and turmoil has continued to connect with a wide range of both listeners and artists, including the late Luciano Pavarotti, crooner Paul Anka, and Christian rock band Red, among many others. Now, the song is reaching a younger generation—and serving as an unexpected anthem of resistance in the post-truth era.
Joy Williams, 34, thought about “Ordinary World” often during last year’s election season. After struggling with the divisiveness consuming America, the singer for Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars decided to revisit her own recording of the song. She previously placed her haunting piano-and-vocal version in a 2014 episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but released it widely on Jan. 20 in hopes of bringing people together after the inauguration of Donald Trump. Williams’s sparse interpretation of the power ballad quickly racked up millions of streams and made its way into the Spotify Viral 50.
“The inauguration stirred up many emotions for all of us, no matter our political affiliations,” she says. “There is a humility about ‘Ordinary World’ that is profound to me—a reminder to bravely look forward, even in the midst of all the terrifying ‘New.’”
“Ordinary World” first began its climb into the Billboard Top 40 in January 1993, the same week Bill Clinton was inaugurated as POTUS—a juxtaposition which makes the song’s recent resurgence all the more prescient. Duran Duran singer Simon Le Bon, 58, says he and the band (including then-guitarist Warren Cuccurullo, original bassist John Taylor and keyboardist Nick Rhodes) penned the tune in 1992 as a tribute to a friend who died from a heroin overdose in 1986. “I’m not a big believer in the supernatural,” says Le Bon. “But six years after [my friend’s death], I started to feel a weight inside me. ‘Ordinary World’ was the act of letting that go.”
The song’s first stanza describes the desire to find normalcy after the shock and grief of loss, but today the sentiments might also apply to coping with a pall of uncertainty after November 2016: “Came in from a rainy Thursday on the avenue/ Thought I heard you talking softly / I turned on the lights, the TV, and the radio / Still I can’t escape the ghost of you / What has happened to it all? / Crazy some say / Where is the life that I recognize? / Gone away.”
Le Bon’s lyrics reflected the optimistic, globalist themes of the early 1990s and dealt defiantly with the unsettling world events of the era. “We wrote ‘Ordinary World’ while the first Gulf War was on,” he remembers. “The lines, ‘Papers in the roadside tell of suffering and greed/ feared today, forgot tomorrow / Here beside the news of holy war and holy need / ours is just a little sorrowed talk’ put everything in perspective. It makes you realize that a story about two people is just a tiny part of this huge story which is called humanity. This was true in 1992, and I think it’s still true.”
Times have changed since “Ordinary World” debuted, but Duran Duran’s musical statement about persistence has not. Williams says she first heard the song on the radio at age 10, when her family moved from California to Michigan. The words means as much to her now as they did during childhood. “I remember the sound weaving from my sister’s new bedroom, through all the cardboard boxes in our unfamiliar home,” she says. “It was the reminder not to cry for yesterday, for what was. I went back to that song many times, both while growing up and as an adult.”
Songwriter Cary Brothers was a college student when “Ordinary World” first hit the airwaves 24 years ago. He was impressed that the pop group known for “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Girls on Film” pivoted with a serious composition wielding universal truths. “Duran Duran had been the 1980s fun machine, dressed in white suits on exotic beaches in their videos,” he says. “Then along came the older, wiser band with ‘Ordinary World.’ They kept their incredible songwriting but also faced up to mortality, aging and global change.” Brothers also recorded “Ordinary World” (in 2012) and believes it provides an antidote to current headlines about scandals, fake news, famine and refugee crises. “There’s a great sense of anxiety in America right now,” he says. “No one has any idea what happens next, so a song about survival is bound to resonate. For some people, it might be uplifting, and for others, it’s just a moment of relief from the chaos.”
After more than two decades of performing “Ordinary World,” Le Bon says the song holds a special place in Duran Duran’s repertoire. As the band makes its way across the U.S. this spring for the latest leg of its Paper Godstour, there’s no doubt seeking solace in the ordinary during such extraordinary times is a message that will resound. “All we have to do is be true to the music,” Le Bon says. “And let the song do the work.”
Courtesy Paste magazine