(Note: This is yet another blog post recycled from the old website, but I felt a need to dredge it up thanks to a video posted by my friend Daniel Swensen…seriously just go watch that really quick then come back here…)
Anyone who knows me will be well aware of my undying love of the 80’s weirdo mutant musical act Devo. Despite being known primarily (only?) for their strangely successful hit ‘Whip It’, Devo’s entire career – which continues to this day – was one of incredibly trenchant subversion.
Mark Mothersbaugh and his cohorts were no mere one-hit-wonder pop group; they were provocateurs of the first rank….serious-minded artists who used humor and wry intelligence to cast memetic molotov cocktails into American culture by way of the 80’s defining cultural artifact – the pop song. Mothersbaugh himself was and continues to be fascinated by the concept of mutation – the idea that unexpected change occurs within every system, no matter how rigidly controlled.
Devo exemplifies this concept – on the surface they look and sound like any number of oddball synth-pop bands of the era. The fact that they flew under the radar so well is actually a testament to how successfully they subverted the zeitgeist in which they thrived. Perfectly capable of churning out seemingly disposable, yet incredibly catchy, three-minute pop songs, Devo’s catalog is actually a full-on assault on the shallowness and banality of American culture.
Look at ‘Freedom of Choice’, for instance:
The opening lyrics suggest a world of endless possiblity…hey, you’ve got Freedom of Choice! You can do whatever you want!
A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said that life was free
Sank, swam, go down with the ship
But use your freedom of choice
I’ll say it again in the land of the free
Use your freedom of choice
Your freedom of choice
But it quickly descends into a cautionary tale about an uncomfortable truth of human nature: having Freedom is a burden…a burden most of us don’t really want.
In ancient Rome
There was a poem
About a dog
Who found two bones
He picked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead
Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want
There’s a good chance most people who heard this song never gave the lyrics much thought, and sometimes that’s the danger in subversive art…when you get so good at the form that the function goes unnoticed. In some ways that may be Devo’s biggest crime…they were so goddamn good at writing pop music that most people just accepted what they did at face value.
Here’s another example – a bit more on the nose, but no less incisive.
Censorship sucks, m’kay? And by the way, you’re all fucking perverts – you just won’t admit to it.
Of course, this brings me around to the absolute zenith of Devo’s creative work, ‘Beautiful World’.
‘Beautiful World’ is perfectly written to mirror a pop song in structure and tone, but at every possible turn it subverts the very concept of a pop song – skewering the shallowness and pointless, useless cathartic-light sentiments typically sold as comfort or depth. It even has a hilariously perfunctory guitar solo 3/4 of the way through prefaced by Mothersbaugh intoning lamely (as one does in a pointless pop tune):
Hey you with the new clothes on
You can shake it to me all night long
I mean, here…just watch.
That bit at the end? ‘It’s a beautiful world. …for you. But not for me…’ That’s fucking savage – an absolutely perfect knife between the ribs of lame ‘It’s Morning in America‘ faux-optimism and in every way to the entirety of American popular culture.
And yet, they gain almost no recognition from the general public for this. Which, perhaps, does more to prove their point than any single message they could shove under anyone’s nose.
…but hey, look. Here’s a neat little artifact that might serve as a good coda to this weird reminiscence. In 1982 Devo was drafted to take part in a televised live performance – the hitch being that it was an experiment in 3D television. And, while the show was really fun the technical requirements and hoops Devo were required to jump through to participate were apparently pretty galling…so annoying, in fact, that the band chose to call out the program’s producers during their closing number…’Beautiful World’. Mothersbaugh, having adopted his Booji Boy stage persona, belts out the song with freakish gusto then proceeds to give the program runners a nice tongue lashing…all while maintaining his Booji Boy falsetto. It’s a wonderful example of watching some of the music world’s All Time Champion pranksters take a choice opportunity to bite the hand that feeds on live television.
…and, oddly…sometimes it really is a beautiful world…
The clip in question (which I shared on G+ last night sans context).
…and here’s the full performance, featuring opening act Wall of Voodoo.
Your humble narrator…and an energy dome.