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Devo's Crisis of Late Capitalism

Devo's Crisis of Late Capitalism

How the pioneers of irony sold out without selling out.

My favourite Devo song is probably "That's Good," from 1982's Oh, No! It's Devo. I have several mp3 files of "That's Good" on my computer. These range from the album version to live performances of the song to a dispassionate, synth-only MIDI version. And an instrumental one that's mostly harmonica, with some horns I can't identify because I don't know enough about music. A video of the band performing the song live on Letterman is cached safely in my web browser's history for speedy recall. "That's Good" is, I think, the most sincere Devo song.

I like the band Devo very much. I own a bunch of their albums and celebrate the bulk of their catalogue. I have paid to see them perform live before and I await, eagerly, their upcoming outdoor performance at Toronto's Yonge and Dundas Square during this year's North by Northeast music festival. In fact, seeing not just any band, but the band Devo perform at the intersect of two of downtown Toronto's main arteries, boxed in by the Eaton Centre, a Hard Rock Café, and an AMC multiplex that is somehow well-trafficked enough to support both a Jack Astor's roadhouse-style restaurant and a Milestone's (basically just a Jack Astor's for people who think themselves too good to eat at a Jack Astor's) seems like one of those absolutely serendipitous pairings of artist and venue. Like seeing the Grateful Dead play the pyramids. Or hearing Black Sabbath rip out all of Master of Reality while you're churning through a godawful mushroom trip. I can't wait.

That said, it's only with reservation that I call "That's Good" the most sincere Devo song. Because you should be careful to ascribe sincerity to any group of endlessly hyphenated post-punk-synth-pop-twitch-rockers whose career has been marked by ever thickening layers of snark, irony, prankishness and contempt towards popular music, its industry and its listeners, and whose snowballingly complicated stage uniforms have reflected these self-styled transmutations of alienation. It's pretty much always been the case, but Devo circa 2011, equal parts nostalgia act and marginally relevant touring punk pioneers, seems more than ever to just be a corporate identity. Like something out of one of Phillip K. Dick's future-shocked dystopias.

"That's Good," though, celebrates the flattening sameness of contemporary, so-called "late capitalist" civilization that all of their other songs seem to roundly reject with sneering cheek. "Everybody," sings Devo vocalist/de facto bandleader Mark Mothersbaugh. "It's a good thing/ Everybody wants a good thing." And later: "Everybody's just like you, it's true/ Everybody wants a good thing too." The message is naively, sweetly simple: everybody wants a good thing, i.e. everyone wants to be happy and content in that totally minimal, basic way. And that's a good thing.

It's the kind of thing Woody Allen's been trying to float out there for years, but always ends up drowned in his indulgent neuroses. But Devo—no less indulgent, nor neurotic—turn it into a sing-a-long anthem. Kind of like a campfire "Kumbaya" for the Casio generation. But it's not some bit of third encore acoustic balladry or something. It lands almost smack in the middle of Oh, No! It's Devo, wedged between the bomb-dropping anthem "Explosions" (the hook, simply: "We like/ Oh yeah/ Explosions") and "Patterns," which is a pretty okay song, but well below the Talking Heads' "The Big Country" in terms of Spirographing  modern life as sheer geometry. Set to the kind of tinny martial electro-drumbeat that's had nervous critics label the band "fascists" (creepily reflected in Mothersbaugh's stage manner during the Letterman set, in which he rhythmically offers a kind of spastic, reversed Hitler salute in time with the synthetic handclaps), "That's Good" would be utterly un-Devo, were it not so totally Devo.

I either hope or don't hope that Devo play "That's Good" this weekend at Yonge and Dundas Square. I mean obviously I'd like to hear it, right? But I'm not quite sure. The anxiety I'd feel—if, indeed, I'd feel any hearing one of my favourite bands play one of my favourite songs—is difficult to get a bead on. Because as excited as I am to see them perform, it's also obvious to me that circa 2011 Devo's cheek and snark and scattered stabs at sincerity have hardened into the callouses of out-and-out cynicism. Certainly, Devo has always traded in what Christgau has called the "minimalist funk of blatant entertainment." But now their faux-emptiness has been evacuated, leaving only the emptiness. The band-as-brand shtick no longer plays at all like a righteous gag effected by the postest of punk's post post-modern men. It's just business as usual. And, as usual, it's business.

"What we do, is what we do / It's all the same, there's nothing new," belts Mothersbaugh on the opening track to Devo's latest record, Something for Everybody. Even though the song rhymes "textin'" with "electin'" it strikes me as humourless and, even, nasty. Something for Everybody, released June 15 of last year, is the band's first proper studio album since 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps (an album about as silly and lousy as it sounds). In the two whole decades between Noodle Maps and Something, Devo's come fully through the hourglass, so to speak, selling themselves off piecemeal to varying interests, with varying degrees of productivity. Following a 1991 breakup, Mothersbaugh divested his energy into Mutato Muzika, a production company that provided music to films (most notably Wes Anderson's, but also Happy Gilmore and Dead Man on Campus) and television programs like Pee-Wee's Playhouse and numerous Klasky-Csupo animated programs (Rugrats, Santo Bugito), which share something with the jerky, squiggly-line aesthetics of Devo.

In 1996, Devo released a CD-ROM adventure game. Later still, they re-recorded a version of "Whip It" for a Swiffer commercial (the one where a baby strapped to Swiffer-brand cleaning pads is whooshed around on a floor, a wincingly perverse play on the song's original S&M overtones) and a version of "Beautiful World" for a Target commercial. In 2006, the group would lend their music and weird pop cultural cachet to Devo 2.0 (AKA DEV2.0) a quintet of singing, dancing child-actors who performed family-friendly versions of Devo songs (so the anxious anthem "Uncontrollable Urge" becomes a song about binging on junk food) for Walt Disney Records. If you're a band that's basically built on and defined by your panicky relationship with capitalism, there's really no way justify moves like this. But of course they have, stating that Devo 2.0 is just proof of the hazy "de-volution" model (basically just the grand theory of civilization's dumbening) that the band has been evangelizing since the seventies. It's here that Devo's nastiness betrays something even worse: laziness.

In a June 2010 interview, the band's bassist/synth player Vincent Cassale likened Devo to the house band on the Titanic, "playing familiar tunes that make us feel better as we all go down together." If it were 1981, when Devo was first sniping about "freedom from choice" and keeping the jittery pulse of cultural neurosis, the description might seem cute. Even apposite. But now, with their Disney dealings and focussed-grouped-to-death records and cash-in tours and licensed slip-on sneakers ("Soon you'll be able to March On wearing the same reflective shoes DEVO wears on stage," goads the copy at clubdevo.com), there's no doubt that Devo is steering the ship as much as anyone else. And worse, they think they're above it. Like any once-relevant thing that loses its edge and then begins cannibalizing itself in a shark-jumping bid to remain pertinent (The Simpsons, Vice magazine, etc.), they think their progressively high-minded altitudes of self-awareness, stacking up like those flowerpot hats, disentangles them from all the processes they lampoon. It's as smug and flippant as saying, "Fuck it, man. I'm shopping at Wal-Mart because the shit's cheaper," as if knowing that you shouldn't be doing something matters at all when you're still doing it. It's complacency as a knowing kind of inflated self-assuredness. Sincerity's burlesque.

So this then is why I probably don't want to hear Devo play "That's Good" when they storm the stage at Yonge and Dundas square, flanked by all that abrasive advertising for whatever 3-D movie is in theatres that week and whatever other commercial upholstery: because I don't want this nasty, haute-nouveau mutation of sincerity to intersect with the real deal. Maybe it's just self-delusion on my part, expecting Devo to have evolved into anything but a corporatized parody of corporate parody. You should probably be careful expecting a base level of integrity from a group of boomers who wear silver jump suits on stage and shriek about mongoloids and slapping yer mammy and what a wiggly world it is. (It's also not a wiggly world, apparently. It's straight up and down.)

But if they do play "That's Good"—and they probably won't, I think, but if they do—and you see me there smiling stupidly and marching in place and limply half-Hitler saluting in time with the chirpy drumbeat, just know that I am, despite my best efforts and no matter how conflicted, an out-and-out liar just like everybody else.

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