Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sunday Music: Devo

Devo. "Love Without Anger." 1981. From New Traditionalists.

"Why believe in things that make it tough on you?"

Devo is one of those bands almost everyone knows (largely thanks to "Whip It") but few know much about. They have the same sort of cleverness to their act that make TMBG so endearing to geeks and The Decemberists either adorable or intolerable. On the surface, their shtick was based around advertisement depictions of American life, retro-futurism, reductionist lyrics, and cheesy synthesizers, but the act was always more than a gimmick. At the core, Devo has always been a performance art criticism of the "everything is ok, please keep shopping" reaction to the evils of the modern world. In the particular case of their founding, in reaction to Kent State.

Complete with their own corporate anthem, Devo's public persona was used to parody the consumerist lifestyle and at other times to deliver indictments with all the suppressed anger of young John Lydon. Devo's political messages were too often buried under unfamiliar geek references (early computer culture, The Church of the Subgenius), minimalist lyrics, and as much camp The B-52s' wardrobe department. Yet, aside from its usefulness as a means of keeping the act entertaining, the gimmicky nature of their proto-culture jamming was in the end their most effective form of critique.

A few months back, the problem of sincerity in music was debated over in The Onion's AV Club forms. The point was being made that Ryan Adams' bizarre, attention grabbing public persona was in many ways more sincere than other songwriters of our time. Steve Hyden argued that we don't actually want sincerity. While discussing the dourness in early TMBG lyrics in the Gigantic documentary, John Linnell made a point that its often more moving to hear someone hide their feelings than to bear them all in publicly and openly. Sincere or not, Devo's ability to take their fear, anger, and depression and turn it into a comic theory of humankind's devolution is where their art lies.

Other classics: Freedom of Choice, Beautiful World, and the sarcastically anti-evolutionary Jocko Homo. Also: Weird Al's spot-on parody/tribute Dare to Be Stupid.

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