Friday, September 17, 2010

Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!

Are We Not Men? We Are Devo!
By Jefferson Cowie
Jefferson Cowie is associate professor at Cornell University. This is excerpted from his new book, Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (The New Press), due out this week.

Before Francis Fukuyama declared the “End of History,” before Thomas Frank chronicled The Conquest of Cool, even before Jean Baudrillard determined the futility of dissent, a group of spasmodic oddballs from Ohio tried to make the case that history as we knew it was already over. "Of all the bands who came from the underground and made it in the mainstream," declared Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, “Devo were the most challenging and subversive of all." If a statement like that about a New Wave novelty act has credibility it is because Devo came early to a question now common: is dissent still possible in the world of postmodern capitalism?

As the industrial base of northeast Ohio crumbled in the mid-seventies, the region’s vibrant music scene coughed up a performance unit that was part rock and roll, part postindustrial ideology, part performance art, and all cultural vivisection. Devo’s performance style was synchronized and playful, recycled and apocalyptic, ‘toonish and nerdy—an American aesthetic for kids whose path to art school was already over-determined. Named after “de-evolution,” human kind’s regression toward some backward state, the band’s music was, as they liked to say, “the important sound of things falling apart.”

Devo may be most famous for wearing goofy red “power domes” and chanting “Whip It” in the early eighties, but the band’s early work struggled with a more profound problem: “Are we not men?” In the song “Jocko Homo” (named after an obscure 1920s religious pamphlet), as performed in their pioneering short film, “The Truth about De-Evolution,” front man Mark Mothersbaugh asks the question while spastically dancing in front of a medical class filled with writhing, rioting students. The other band members nasally respond from behind their nylon-stocking masks, “We are Devo!”

Oddly, their question did not focus on masculinity—something their surreal performances quite consciously rejected in the days of formulaic cock rock. Devo’s real issue was whether humankind could adapt its way out of the cultural abyss of the 1970s. Devo appropriated the question from the 1933 sci-fi horror film Island of the Lost Souls (itself adapted from H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau) where scientific experiments to turn animals into humans on a remote island had gone awry. There the doctor created horrific man-beasts. One of them, played by Bela Lugosi, asks, “Are we not men?” The creatures eventually storm the doctor’s compound and perform a savage bloodbath of revenge.

For Devo, the common horde of their hometown, Akron, resembled the evolutionary disasters of the Island of the Lost Souls. “Those mutants were fucked with,” the band explained. “They looked like people from Akron.” By the 1970s, the city’s decline had given it a “hellish, depressing patina” and the people’s “spirits were depressed; they were desperate….In other words, they were just ready to go over the edge at any moment.” The shuttered landscape, where the tire industry’s glory days once meant sweeping up black rubber dust from townspeople’s front porches, served as the backdrop to their innovative video creations. The scene fit “in with the early twentieth-century art movements—Expressionism, Dada and others that were influenced by those kinds of environments in Germany and England,” explained band member Jerry Casale. “We had our very own backyard version of it. A rubber version.”

Yet buried in the city’s growing rubble was a completely different history: that of Akron’s role as the birthplace of the working-class hero. There, in the midst of the Great Depression, dramatic sit down strikes, mass pickets, and guerrilla warfare against the rubber tire magnates of the 1930s made the tirebuilders “the first to fight their way to freedom,” in the words of one chronicler at the time. The Akron workers’ struggles blazed the path for the rest of industrial America to join the leap forward in labor organizing and then the blue-collar prosperity of the postwar golden age.

By the 1970s, Devo could find no traces of such working-class nobility—just militancy regressing to corporate stasis, blue collar fading to grey, “Solidarity Forever” disappearing into the “Devo Corporate Anthem.” Working-class activism spawned consumerism, and consumption generated apathy. Industrial and consumer cultures turned out to be as vacuous as the empty tire factories and boarded-up buildings of their hometown. “Look we are spuds,” explained one of the band members. “We’re very average looking, normal gene pool. In Akron, it’s the Goodyear Museum and the Soapbox Derby and McDonald’s and women in hair rollers beating their kids in supermarkets. We were products of it and used it.” The band neither criticized nor shied away from the socio-economic failures of the seventies; instead, they took it as fact, and embraced the decline.

Another taproot of Devo’s subversive energy was equally local: the vibrant art scene at Kent State University and the horrific shooting of four student protestors by the Ohio National Guard. “I would not have started the idea of Devo unless [the shootings] had happened,” explained Jerry Casale. The shooting “was just the defining moment. Until then I might’ve left my hair long and been a hippie. When you start to see the real way everything works, and the insidious nature of power, corruption, injustice, brute force, you realize it’s just all primate behavior.”

By the seventies, the autonomous position of critique was gone; there was nothing outside of the system—no leverage, no purchase, no vantage point. If it was subversion, as Cobain claimed, it was subversion without agency, critique without remedy. At the same moment that Bruce Springsteen tried to keep the fires of proletarian romance alive and The Clash urged a “White Riot” of working-class agency, Devo simply tossed in the towel. The concept of “real humans” was a moniker of a bygone era and resistance an “outmoded and obsolete” artifact. “In a healthy capitalistic world, rebellion is just something else to market,” Mothersbaugh explained.

If surrender to the system is philosophy, Devo proves that it truly leads nowhere. Devo’s brilliant performance went too easily the way of Disneyfication (in the form of a later kids show, Dev2.0). Clearly we need a better answer to the question that shaped Devo’s work. Are we not humans? Are we not capable of driving our own future? We better learn to be or, as Devo put it, “We’re pinheads all.”

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