It was 1980. The ‘60s were definitely over. Then-president Jimmy Carter had spent the past few years deregulating everything but the kitchen sink. With Ronald Reagan about to win the White House, the sink was now on notice. An era of unchecked corporate power was on the rise.
Around the same time, a band of artistic misfits from Akron, Ohio who had spent the past seven years kicking around the underground made it big with their song “Whip It.” This was no t-shirt and blue jeans rock band. They wore neon Hazmat suits and weird futuristic dome hats. They gyrated onstage like feral robots. And the single sounded like a pepped-up supercomputer that had somehow run off the rails and gained an acerbic sense of humor. They were also among a handful of acts that set the bar for the rising New Wave movement.
Now, Devo is back with a new album, their first in 20 years. And far from sounding dated or passe, Something for Everybody sees their inimitable brand of neo-dystopian synth-pop more relevant than ever.
Take, for example, exhibit A: the video for lead single “What We Do.” It starts out, appropriately enough, with a quote from FOX News’ Shepard Smith regarding the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, then launches into a hard, driving industrialized orgy of noise. Just about the only thing that sounds even vaguely organic is the heavily distorted guitar work! The massive volume of images might be hard to dissect–the band performing in their jumpsuits, footage of BP CEO Tony Hayward, Obama wearing the iconic “energy dome” hat–but any mistake of their significance is largely dispelled by Mark Mothersbaugh’s snarky automaton lyrics:
What we do is what we do
Just different names, it’s nothing new
What we do is what we do
‘Cuz what we do is what we do
Gaming, praying, believing, maintaining,
Texting, electing, rejecting, infecting
No doubt about it, this is some subversive stuff. And it’s precisely why Something For Everybody gets the unexpected honor of being quintessential Devo.
For the group, this kind of biting spoof on everyday consumer culture is–as the lyrics declare–nothing new. In fact, it’s practically in their artistic DNA. Casual listeners who may be quick to lump them in with the vast amount of empty-headed ‘80s pop acts might be shocked to know that founding members Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were student activists at Kent State on that fateful day in 1970 when the National Guard showed up to gun down four protesters.
Casale was friends with two of the victims–Allison Krause and Jeffrey Miller. The experience would have the affect of driving both he and Mothersbaugh away from activism forever–at least in the conventional sense. Devo was conceived of as a “postmodern protest band,” born as much out of demoralization as lingering hatred for capital’s continued cultural stranglehold. In their view, the hacks that ran society were “devolved,” and the music was written with them in mind. Though they rarely hid their ability to write a great pop hook, their overly slick, synth-laden sound emulated the kind of music that might emerge if corporate America had finally succeeded in conquering our hearts and minds.
In this light, it’s not hard to see what made them such a hit in the early ‘80s. Wedged between the sneer of punk and Reagan’s vapid smile, Devo’s wickedly sardonic brand of social commentary found a niche. Songs like “Whip It” and “That’s Good” seemed to be the kind of consumer-addled reply that corporate boardrooms secretly wished for. If Reagan and Thatcher proclaimed “the future is now,” Devo answered back with a straight face “yes it is; let’s all admire it in the afterglow of the coming nuclear holocaust.”
While Devo’s original formation may have been a symptom of deep pessimism in the face of right-wing reaction, their return to the studio can just as easily be seen as a consequence of the pendulum swinging back. Though the group were more or less buried beneath countless soundalike pop acts cranked out by the music industry during the ‘80s, they have retained a reverence among swathes of underground indie experimentalists. Their influence can be heard from the fervent electronicism of Royksopp to the avant-noise of Ladytron.
“We were real ahead of our time,” says Casale, “and our music seems contemporary now.” In fact, several critics have lauded Something for Everybody as not just a great comeback album, but Devo’s greatest work ever! It’s little wonder why in this era where nothing the rich have to say can possibly be taken seriously.
Opening track “Fresh” plays like a commercial jingle on steroids. Tinny guitar riffs slice through herky-jerky keyboard parts as Mothersbaugh revels the fake glory of consumerism. To hammer the point home, the members of Devo actually held focus groups on the album’s content, and were able to arrive at typically laughable conclusions such as “‘Fresh’ relieves aches and pains,” or “3 out of 5 people would hold ‘Fresh’ with their feet for more than 3 minutes.”
The rest of the album brilliantly follows this same line of lambast. Songs like “Don’t Shoot (I’m a Man)” and “Cameo” are aimed squarely at the cult of celebrity and media. “Mind Games” and “Please Baby Please” shamelessly commodify everything from the modern sex act to the human brain itself.
Perhaps the most ominous (albeit joyously so) track on Something is “Human Rocket,” which could just as easily be seen as a denunciation of groupthink as an anti-war statement:
I am a human rocket on a mission of deployment
I’ve been cocked and loaded, ready for the culmination
I am a human missile, guided by a secret agenda
That commands my every thought and deed and wills me on my way
If any criticism can be leveled against the album, it’s that Casale and Mothersbaugh’s unshakable cynicism remains intact. Devo have created such an airtight world of corporate greed and mindless proles that Orwell himself might cringe. For his part, Casale seems as convinced as ever that humanity itself is inexorably headed down the drain.
In an otherwise excellent interview on the recent Gulf oil spill, he told CauseCast.org that “there’s not enough smart people left. De-evolution is real. What’s happened is proportionate to the increase in population, you didn’t have the same proportionate increase in intelligent people.” And while placing the blame for the spill squarely on the shoulders of BP, Halliburton and the rest, he sees no real way to hold them accountable.
And yet, the resurgence of Devo themselves appears to disprove Casale’s own assertions. Thirty years ago, the window for acts like them was closing. Now, a new generation of fans seem ready to nod their heads and laugh along.
Mothersbaugh and Casale’s own hopes for radical change may be relatively grim. That there is at the same time such a wide opening for their unique and hilariously poignant critique of capitalism is reason to be hopeful. After all, if there really is no hope, then what’s the point of making music in the first place?