Devo's "Something For Everybody," out today, is the geek band's first studio album in 20 years, and it's like a blast of 80s nihilism. After a decade of emo murk in pop, Devo's brand of apocalyptic insincerity is refreshing.
The conceit behind the new album is that Devo has become so commercialized that they are now only making music that has been "focus grouped" and sponsored by brands. America has become so de-evolved that there's no point in protesting it anymore. Devo is just going to embrace it, and produce a perfect pop album for money. Like their 1980s work, the music on "Something For Everybody" is a satire of the mind-numbing drudgery of everyday life. But Devo doesn't care if your life sucks - in fact, if you're choking on the American Dream, it's probably because you deserve it.
Songs like "Fresh" are all about the awesomeness of commercial brands and doing meaningless work.
The thing is, Devo isn't exactly subtle about the sarcastic message they're sending. Lurking in the fake sunshiney blankness of a song like "Fresh," or "What We Do" (below) is a frantic anxiety, mirrored in the twitchy synths on songs like "Mind Games." They may be robotic workers, but they're also freaking out about it.
Devo makes fun of commercial culture by embodying it. In this way, they are probably best understood as the unexpected precursor to acts like Lady Gaga - right down to the weird headgear. Lady Gaga also makes fun of fame-obsessed pop culture by embodying it and taking it to an extreme. Maybe Lady Gaga's popularity is a sign that Devo's time has come again. We've come full circle, past the sincerity of popular acts like Wilco, and returned to an aesthetic of theatrical sarcasm.
Back in 1970s, Devo emerged from a collision between punk and techno sensibilities. As a group of nerds from Ohio, their cultural touchstone wasn't working-class rage like punk acts from the UK - instead, it was suburban America, a world where consumerism and pop culture verged on propaganda. Early Devo's style was spastic and angry. They filled their music with references to commercial jingles and science fiction. They acted like robots on stage, called themselves mutants, and explained to anyone who would listen that the world was "de-evolving" into violence, apathy, and marketing.
The problem was that they criticized commercial culture in a way that was catchy and marketable. And so this group of five twitchy young men who wanted to make fun of mainstream culture became the new mainstream.
I can remember vividly when it happened. The song Whip It, Devo's big crossover hit, became popular when I was in the sixth grade. We heard it so often on the radio in my little suburban California town that it went from weird teen anthem to annoying pop pablum. By the time I was in seventh grade, it was as despised as disco. When the DJ put on Whip It at a school dance, we chanted "DEVO SUCKS!" at the top of our lungs for at least a minute until he relented and put on Adam and the Ants instead.
Devo would have loved being at that dance. There was nothing they wanted more than for people to reject pop culture. They claimed in interviews that Whip It went mainstream because people misunderstood its message. Though it was supposed to be a parody of the work ethic, people thought it was about S&M.
Given that the Whip It video shows Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh whipping the clothes off a startled-looking model, it's easy to see why audiences were confused. But that was always Devo's charm - they liked to fuck with your mind. If they did something you liked, they'd turn around and tell you that it was wrong to like it. They were punk nerds, and being adored was not part of their agenda.
About halfway through this great live show from 1980, you can see a perfect distillation of Devo's stance. In a skit, they're approached by a very sincere woman who calls them "so techno, so 80s," and then pitches them an idea for a country-western song. They stand stiffly, staring at her from under their plastic masks. Mothersbaugh finally says, in a robot voice, "You are a warm and beautiful human. That is really how I feel."
How does this kind of act work on "Something for Everybody," whose sound is exactly like the band's previous work?
Now that they're visibly middle-aged, there's an authenticity to Devo's protest against drudgery that they lacked when they were hot little twenty-somethings screeching about conformity. When they sing "Later Is Now," they mean it. They are, as one of them jokingly put it on NPR, "geriatrics." They're growing old in a world where mindless work is still regarded as everyone's super nifty destiny, and they've done a fair amount of highly commercial work themselves (Mothersbaugh, for example, works scoring TV and movies in Hollywood now).
The Devo boys have seen de-evolution in action, and they've returned angrier and nerdier than ever. That's what makes "Something For Everybody" terrific - it's catchy and mean-spirited like the best Devo songs always have been. Buy it at your local Wal-mart or Starbucks if you can. And when you do, smile robotically and say, "These songs make me feel so good when I'm working, and when I go to the gym!" That's the Devo spirit.
Top photo by Michael Pilmer.