Since the human species appears to be careening headlong down the path of devolution, I thought it was a good time to engage with Devo and see if they got it right when they released Are We Not Men? almost forty years ago.
First, let’s clarify what we’re talking about. Devolution is the notion that a species can revert to more primitive forms over time. The flaw in the theory of devolution is that it presupposes that the intent of evolution is progress. Evolution has no intent—it just happens as species respond to environmental challenges. The belief in a purpose to evolution is closely tied to the belief that the human species represents the evolutionary peak, an anthropomorphic view oddly similar to the belief of creationists that a god created humans in his or her own image. Under that theory, human beings are god’s gift to the universe—and if that’s the case, god needs some training in gift-giving etiquette, as it is entirely rude to give gifts that are so vile and offensive.
In a strange twist that could have only come from the many still-to-be-corrected defects in the human brain, many religious wackos who styled themselves keepers of the wisdom attacked evolution by arguing for a form of devolution, based on the silly belief that a fictitious couple named Adam and Eve represented perfection until Eve fucked everything up by wanting to learn more than god was willing to dish out.
Now you know why Trump and Betsy DeVos are so intent on dumbing down the American populace, ESPECIALLY those pesky, inquisitive women.
By eating the apple, so the fairytale goes, Eve sent us down the path of devolution. Given that one of her kids murdered another, devolution got off to a roaring start. As the connection to Adam and Eve has dissipated over the centuries, we have naturally de-evolved into the imperfect beings we are today. Or so say the Evangelical Lunatics.
Anyway, most biologists think devolution is bullshit, but Devo really wasn’t all that concerned with the biological aspects of evolution. Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale saw a planet going madly backwards in the early 1970’s. They were students at one of the epicenters of the madness, Kent State University, when the National Guard gunned down four of their classmates. That madness was ignited by the madness of the Cambodia invasion, which came out of the madness of Vietnam that came out of the madness of the Cold War that came out of the madness of the atomic bomb . . . Mothersbaugh and Casale had lived their entire lives in a world that had gone mad. Devolution was as logical an explanation as any for the seemingly insatiable desire of the human race to destroy itself.
The theme of devolution that runs through Are We Not Men? is more of a creative device than a dogma. Devo doesn’t really take one side or another, but the more nuanced position that when it comes to knowledge of how we got here and why, we’re all as dumb as rocks, and we’d be a helluva lot better off if we’d just admit how fucking ignorant we are instead of elevating ourselves to honored status in the animal kingdom. Our ability to create fantasies far outpaces our ability to make genuine improvements to the human condition. Gerald Casale put it succinctly in a December 2003 interview with Songfacts:
That was kind of our position statement. It was our mission statement saying, ‘Hey look, humans are making up stories about why we’re here and how we got here and who we are and what our importance is and it’s all basically rubbish, it’s absurd. You don’t know what’s going on, and that’s OK. In fact, if you admit you don’t know what’s going on and you admit there are alternative explanations for things, then you’re already better off, and there’s a lot of things you won’t do because you’d quit believing in ridiculous things that drive you to actions that cause more pain and suffering in the world.’ It was kind of a Dada, self-effacing kind of statement, like, ‘Look, we’re all pinheads here on this planet together.'”
Curiosity never killed a cat or anything else for that matter. Curiosity is the quality most likely to ensure growth and survival.
So much for philosophy. Devo shared their philosophy through music, and music is what we’re here to discuss. Devo’s approach to music was as controversial as their denial of human progress. I’ve heard their music described as “robotic,” “android-like,” and “emotionless.” When Are We Not Men? came out, Rolling Stone opined, “There’s not an ounce of feeling anywhere . . . the music here is utterly impersonal.” Robert Christgau liked the album but classified it as “novelty music,” the backhand put-down par excellence.
What I hear is a very tight band with a clear sense of purpose. They don’t gush with emotion but their music has tremendous emotional impact, a clear sign of artistic discipline. You can’t listen to Devo and not appreciate the intensity they bring to a performance, so don’t try to tell me that these guys have no feeling. David Bowie and Brian Eno clearly saw the power and the potential, and engaged in sort of a ping-pong match on the production and mixing of Are We Not Men? Despite the conflicts with Eno and the late appearance of Bowie on the scene, the result is a very compelling album that sometimes makes me laugh and sometimes frightens me so much I want to get the fuck off this crazy-ass planet as soon as I can locate a transporter.
After a drumstick count-in, the first sounds you hear are chords eerily similar to the pattern that opened “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” but instead of jumping into the vocals immediately after the build, Devo uses a few measures of stop time to change chord patterns, signal the end of the stop time with a tension-enhancing rising slide and extend the instrumental introduction. Continuing the tease, the band delays the appearance of the first verse with a few extra measures of bass-heavy double-time drive. At this point, I am positively dripping with anticipation.
Then Mark Mothersbaugh steps up to the mike and sends me into a state of pure ecstasy:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
Whether it’s the result of the terribly exciting introduction or the manic commitment in Mark’s voice, those opening lines make me shout, giggle and shift my ass into high gear. The opening to “Uncontrollable Urge” is one of my absolute favorite opening passages, a masterpiece of tension and release—a truly thrilling experience.
Getting back to Mark, well . . . he can’t help himself, you know, with that uncontrollable urge and all. Most interpretations link the urge to masturbation, and you can certainly interpret the lyrics through that lens (“Got an urge, got a surge and it’s outta control/Got an urge I want to purge ’cause I’m losing control”). Then again, he describes the urge as something relatively civilized and refined—“It’s got style, it’s got class”—and that would eliminate male masturbation with all its sticky mess. Only women can jack off with class and discretion! My take is the uncontrollable urge is generic, a common condition in a puritanic society that represses many urges, whether sexual or those that are simply unpleasant to people who don’t have a life and don’t want anyone else to have one.
One thing is certain—in “Uncontrollable Urge,” Devo establishes themselves as one helluva band. The song shifts tempo several times, alternating double-time drive with straight-time bash and dropping to half-speed in the opening lines of the chorus. The frequent drum fills from Alan Myers that signal an upcoming rhythmic shift keep you on the edge of your seat, but when you step back and consider what just happened, you realize that this is a goddamned tight band with an outstanding command of rhythm. The call-and-response in the chorus dissolves into cascade of harmonic background vocals that are really quite striking, giving the song a nice melodic touch. Still, I repeatedly find myself waiting for the next rendition of “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” so I can feel that ecstasy all over again. “Uncontrollable Urge” is a manically addictive experience.
Next up is Devo’s cover of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” Those accustomed to either the iconic Stones’ version or the Otis Redding cover probably experienced shock and outrage when they heard Devo’s herky-jerky translation of the rock-soul classic. The beat patterns in Devo’s version sound like the music that might accompany the falling ball in a Rube Goldberg contraption—mechanical sounds built in a factory in an attempt to mimic human rhythm, perhaps something a band of robots might create. Mark Mothersbaugh’s lead vocal follows suit—awkward, stiff, almost Data-like (she said in a nod to TNG fans). After dismissing the “android-like” criticism of Devo in the introduction to this review, you may think I’ve gone total blonde and am guilty of contradicting my own argument. Pas si! I think Devo’s take is not only brilliant, but adds a dimension completely absent from the more popular renditions.
Look. Do you really believe that Mick Fucking Jagger “can’t get no satisfaction?” Of course not. The guy had his choice of hundreds of women at every stop on the tour. Do you really believe he experienced the existential angst of the average Joe trapped in a shit job, oppressed by overwhelming pressure to conform with the norm? Fuck, no! I think the Jagger-Richard composition as performed by The Stones is a brilliant social critique, but Devo’s version tells the story from the point of view of devolved modern man—the loser with zero sense of rhythm and not one ounce of soul who really can’t get no satisfaction because he has no idea who the fuck he is or what he’s supposed to be. The guy who starts blathering “baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby baby . . .” when he’s confronted with a real live woman. The guy who tries to be hip and fails miserably because he’s completely out of his league in the messy, uncertain world of romantic connection. Devo’s rendition has the virtue of demonstrating the real damage caused not by a lack of satisfaction but the complete inability to understand what could truly satisfy—all this guy knows is what he’s been told . . . there is no there there.
Continuing the theme of mindless conformity, the Gerald Casale-Mark Mothersbaugh composition “Praying Hands” manages to link several variations of unthinking, unquestioned compliance, demonstrating the fundamental silliness of the conformist mindset as manifested in parental advice, personal hygiene, sexual expectations and religious ritual. That’s poetic fucking economy, people! The music is modernistic Gilbert & Sullivan, with conformist mottos delivered in semi-operatic style:
Wash your hands three times a day
Always do what your mom and dad say
Brush your teeth in the following way
Wash your hands three times a day
On closer inspection, some of the conformist advice described in the song holds up with experience—if you don’t brush your teeth in the proper way, you’re virtually guaranteeing a root canal in your future. The point isn’t that all conformist advice is automatically bad, but what is bad is the failure to question the alleged wisdom and validate its usefulness through experience.
Religious ritual clearly fails the test, for the results are based on something called “faith,” the silliest concept ever invented by human beings. The “praying hands” in the song are described as more useful for masturbation than prayer—even if “you got praying hands,” the truth is “they pray for no man.” Casale and Mothersbaugh then cleverly connect religious and sexual rituals, exposing the absurdity that mindless rituals can lead to either spiritual bliss or sexual satisfaction. The instructions that follow in the bridge tell you, “Okay, relax and assume the position/Go into doggie submission,” lines that can be interpreted as a description of learning how to fuck with The Joy of Sex open to the backdoor bliss page, or an echo of the rituals in a Catholic mass (stand, sit, kneel, roll over, play dead). I thought of the themes in “Praying Hands” when considering the sickeningly repetitive chorus of religious blather after the mass shootings in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” Yeah, putting your hands together will really make a fucking difference. Since mass shootings in the United States take place with appalling regularity, you would have thought god or Jesus or someone up there would have intervened by now with all that fucking praying sent in their direction.
In the spirit of questioning everything, I visited the Live Science website to answer the question, “Spock, what are the odds that I could get wiped out by a piece of space junk falling from the sky?” Here’s what I learned:
According to Mark Matney, a scientist in the Orbital Debris Program Office at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, the odds that any of the 7 billion people on Earth will be struck by a piece of the soon-to-fall satellite is 1 in 3,200. “The odds that youwill be hit … are 1 in several trillion,” Matney said. “So, quite low for any particular person.”
Compared to a once-in-a-lifetime lightning strike (1 in 12,000), getting eaten by a shark (1 in 11.5 million) or being killed by a vending machine (1 in 112 million), I like my chances when it comes to avoiding death-by-space-junk.
Which I believe is the point of “Space Junk.” As Joe Strummer so memorably demonstrated in “London Calling,” it seems like the media’s job is to scare the living shit out of us. Fear increases TV ratings because the genetic imprint of Homo sapiens contains centuries of memories of disasters that befell individual members of the species. Our dumb ancestors also made some really stupid conclusions about what constituted danger (superficial differences in appearance, for example), so in addition to the real reasons for fear, we have learned to respond to the slightest hint of danger with paranoid overreaction (google “9/11” for a contemporary example). Over a background of rather happy-go-lucky music, the lead character describes how his girlfriend (Sally) was walking down the alley when WHAM—she was wiped out by a piece of space junk. Rather than bothering to grieve for his lover, he turns weird and spends all of his time researching incidents where humanoids found themselves splattered by falling space debris. In a stirring passage where the music darkens with increasingly intense beats and edgy riffs, he recites several spots around the world that have been victimized by former orbital garbage. This part is a hoot, especially when he shifts to nasal twang for “Tex-ass” and “Kans-ass.” We leave the character a victim of his own paranoia, frozen by the contradictions spinning inside his head:
And now I’m mad about space junk
I’m all burned out about space junk
Walk and talk about space junk
It smashed my baby’s head, space junk
And now my Sally’s dead, space junk
“Mongoloid” apparently led to a minor controversy with a London-based teacher’s organization when a combination of superficial listening and misapplied political correctness led them to accuse Devo of making fun of people with Down Syndrome. There’s certainly no evidence of disrespect in the lyrics, and when you translate the song’s meaning within the context of a musical work built on the theme of devolution, the charge becomes even more ridiculous. Gerald Casale met with the teachers and recalled, “I convinced them that I was not making fun of Mongoloids but rather making fun of ‘normal’ people who do make fun of Mongoloids!” The teachers accepted his explanation and life moved on.
The song is terribly catchy, with the loose supporting vocals encouraging the listener to join in. Musically, the foundation is built on Casale’s always-spot-on bass and enhanced to the nth degree by a disciplined but extraordinarily effective use of the mini-moog in providing swoops and bends that feel like the musical equivalent of a fun house mirror. That feeling of distorted reality is crucial to understanding the point the song is trying to make: that we have dumbed down our culture to the point where a person with the average IQ of 50 could master the essentials—and for the “normals” to poke fun at those folks who were unlucky enough to wind up with an extra chromosome is the height of humanoid arrogance.
The album’s centerpiece is “Jocko Homo.” The Wiki Devo fan site provides us with the essential context:
- The title is taken from a 32-page anti-evolution tract published in 1924 by F. W. Alden called Jocko-Homo Heavenbound. (“Jocko Homo” being a now obsolete euphemism for “man ape”.)
- The inspiration for the song came directly from the movie Island Of Lost Souls, which is based around the “Island Of Doctor Moreau” story, in which animals are forced into advanced evolution and then begin de-evolving. In an attempt to maintain order and humanity, the doctor cracks a whip and barks “Are we not men!?” to some unruly subjects.
Now we’ll turn to Mr. Casale for the artistic intent:
We were kind of poetically explaining what it meant to be Devo, and what de-evolution was. We didn’t see any evidence that man was the result of some never-ending linear progress and everything was getting better. When we were growing up, the magazines would show the world in 1999, and it’d be this beautiful, futuristic, domed city with everybody going around in jets and space-cars. Everybody was fed and everybody was groomed and everybody seemed to have tons of money. It’s such a joke, what really happened was: the planet got more and more overrun by population, greater gaps between the rich and the poor, more new diseases, decimation of the environment. It seemed like even though people were getting more ‘free’ information from television and newspapers, they were actually less informed, less thoughtful, and acting dumber. So we saw de-evolution. The fact that a bad actor could be elected president was more proof to us. Things have just gone downhill from there. We didn’t really want it to all be true, instead it looks like de-evolution was clearly real. In retrospect, compared to what’s going on today, Reagan looks like a serious guy.
And at that time, Trump was just a twinkle in some Nazi pedophile’s eye.
The Gilbert & Sullivan analogy certainly applies to “Jocko Homo,” an outlandish theatrical piece that works exceptionally well live. The musical structure is essentially a chromatic twist on F#minor featuring half-step declines in the interval riff before resolving on the truncated F#-G#-A dominant figure. Minor chords and their diminished partners always create a sense of eeriness, and the stiffness of the execution adds to the sense of displacement. This other-worldly environment is the perfect setting for a science-fiction tale where a defective, easily-manipulated species like Homo sapiens, encouraged by an insane leader, conform to the notion of inferiority:
We’re pinheads now
We are not whole
We’re pinheads all
Q: Are we not men?
A: We are Devo
Q: Are we not men?
Q: Are we not pins?
A: We are Devo
Q: Why is there Donald Trump? A: We are DEVO.
“Too Much Paranoias” expands on the consumerist themes in “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” within a manic context of dissonance heightened by the disturbing siren-like guitar riff from Bob Mothersbaugh that peaks on the evil flatted sixth. Most of the imagery concerns the contemporary war between McDonalds (if you want a special order, please step to the side and wait half-an-hour) and Burger King (“have it your way”), the latter providing the last thing a devolved consumer wants—a choice! Devo explores this theme in full on Freedom of Choice, but the sheer terror of having to deal with newly-invented debilitating conditions like static cling is beautifully captured here. The dissonant, decaying instrumental break sounds like a brain gone haywire in response to both increasing complexity and the ability of advertisers to plant phony needs like Big Mac attacks into your psyche.
By contrast, the opening passage to “Gut Feeling/Slap Your Mama” sounds surprisingly conventional: a cleanly-picked arpeggiated guitar pattern with an accessible Em-G-C-A-D pattern. That pattern repeats itself throughout “Gut Feeling,” eventually enhanced by full instrumentation and gradual acceleration in tempo. As an expression of partner rejection, the opening lines “Something about the way you taste/Makes me wanna clear my throat” is certainly more original than “you broke my heart in two,” but beyond that the song doesn’t really go anywhere—and the insertion of “Slap Your Mama” at the end seems superfluous (eventually Devo dropped the appendage in live performances). In the context of the themes on Are We Not Men?, the theme of “Gut Feeling” feels too small to bother with.
According to the Wiki Devo piece on “Come Back Jonee,” the song is about “John F. Kennedy, using the metaphor of a dead rock musician.” The primary evidence is a picture of JFK on the cover of the single version. Well, they’ve built JFK conspiracies on more evidence than that, but still, I struggle with the image of the most elegant of all presidents jumping into a Datsun. Certainly the lines “You gotta love ’em and leave ’em/Sometimes you deceive ’em” could be a reference to JFK’s many dalliances, but I think the stronger connection involves linking JFK to Buddy Holly or other rock stars who died too young. Actually, I think the song’s a lot funnier if interpreted as the story of a wannabe musician who gets squashed by a semi, but I do have a wicked sense of humor. Musically, the song is an absolute hoot, integrating strong rock drive with corny hillbilly guitar strumming that makes me laugh every time I hear it. The faux female singers begging for “Jonee, Jonee” in the fade are a bonus delight.
“Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin’)” doesn’t add much to the album except to remind us that Casale is a great bass player and Devo put a lot of work into their arrangements. I do like the album closer, “Shrivel Up,” a “cool-rock” piece accented by reverb-heavy guitar that stretches the meaning of “god-given fact” to include consumerist wisdom from White Castle (“it’s a god-given fact you gotta buy ’em by the sack”) and the sad inevitability that all dicks must shrivel up (whether in response to cold, hemorrhoids or recent ejaculation). Casale’s vocal is delivered in the creepy-nice-guy voice of a commercial announcer, the guy who wants to come across as your friend but really thinks you’re a dumb piece of shit. The most chilling lines appear at the start of the closing verse:
It’s at the top of the list
That you can’t get pissed
It’s rule number one: living right isn’t fun
Living right isn’t fun
I can’t believe this record came out in the 1970’s, long before the appearance of anger management classes and health nazis. Both are conformist responses from people who are unable to handle strong emotions and are terrified of people who do naughty things like smoke cigarettes and have kinky sex (yes, I’m taking this personally). Living right ISN’T FUN, and if you’re not angry about Donald Trump, racism, sexism and the decline in the quality of music, there’s something seriously fucking wrong with YOU.
Although Devo was dismissed at the time by those who heard their music as a passing fad and saw their outrageous get-ups and choreography as evidence of temporary insanity, Are We Not Menis a timeless album about vital issues that still concern us today. What the fuck is going on with the human race, anyway? For every step forward, we seem to take two giant steps backward; for all our extensive networks of communication we still can’t communicate; and for all our advanced knowledge we still can’t figure out how to eliminate poverty or come up with an economic system that doesn’t require people to work at jobs they abhor. And why is the human race filled with so many people who never want to make progress? While progress may not be the pre-determined outcome of evolution, human beings have both the consciousness and free will to make the world a better place, and it’s damned mystifying why we would choose not do so so.
The only possible explanation is . . . WE ARE DEVO!
Devo’s second album, Duty Now for the Future, isn’t half as weak as critics have argued, and some of the songs are Devo classics. I especially like “Triumph of the Will,” and deeply resent all the morons who turned a very funny song about a de-evolved male’s discomfort with hard-ons and sexual stickiness into some kind of evidence that Devo were peddling Nazism. What the fuck, people? If anything, they were emphasizing the de-evolved human’s fear of anything that seems disorderly or out-of-place . . . like sex, women, immigrants, black people, etc. Mothersbaugh and Casale were writing about the latent fascism in the American male! They were trying to alert you of the dangers of a dumbed-down populace! Now look what you’ve done—you’ve given the world Trump! I repeat—what the fuck, people?
No, the material on Duty Now for the Future isn’t the problem. The album suffers from production and engineering techniques that essentially pasteurize the music, sapping it of most of the energy and sonic variation. It’s like I’m hearing Devo through a wall or with a pillow wrapped around my head. I’ve tried fiddling with EQ levels to get more out of the record, but it’s really challenging when the producer did everything he could to eliminate the highs and the lows. Devo without urgency is no Devo at all, and I wish they’d urgently kicked Ken Scott into the back alley and found a producer who grasped what Devo was all about.
There is no such problem on Freedom of Choice. The sense of urgency is palpable, a result of twelve uptempo tunes that all clock in at 45-single length delivered with discipline and energy. The mix is clean and clear without sacrificing one iota of driving bass, and the band is as tight as tight can be, nailing all the rhythmic variations without appearing to break a sweat. The riffs are extraordinarily memorable and consistently uplifting, and though every band on the planet was by now throwing synthesizers into the mix, no one came close to Devo in turning them into integral and effective rock instruments. Sometimes the guitars are guitars, sometimes they’re not, but whether you’re hearing synth or string, the music on Freedom of Choice fucking rocks.
As for themes, about half the songs explore masculinity in a de-evolved culture while the other half look at various absurdities in American and first-world societies. All are linked by the overriding theme of choice and its consequence of responsibility, a concept so profound that it eludes the vast majority of Americans, who largely believe choice is what you do when deciding between a Snickers and a Milky Way. As Sartre informed us, existence precedes essence, meaning that the choices we make shape who we are and, unfortunately, how we expect other people to behave. This creates millions of choice-collisions on a daily basis as we try to interact with other members of the species, whether in the struggle for survival or in the struggle to get laid. The one aspect of Sartrean philosophy I desperately wish Americans could grasp is that not making a choice is itself a choice, and comes with the same level responsibility as an affirmative choice. Americans love to brag about their freedom to choose among a cornucopia of consumer goods but often deny the existence of choices available to them in interactions with others and with society, blaming the lack of choice on tradition (I have to act like a man/woman), on the need for survival (I have to kiss the boss’ ass to save my job) or on their station in life (there’s nothing I can do about the system). And when all else fails, you can always fall back on god, who has the distinct advantage of working in ways so mysterious that anyone can interpret her teachings to suit their personal biases.
The phrase “I had no choice” is the most pathetic and untruthful statement a human being can make.
And voilà, our first song deals with . . . choices! At first listen, the herky-jerky synthesized riff that opens “Girl U Want” seems suspended in time and space, with any connection to conventional rhythm a distant fantasy. This is actually a brilliant piece of arrangement, for when the foundational bass-drum rhythm kicks in, the riff fits just like that goddamned weird piece of a jigsaw puzzle that can’t possibly belong anywhere in the picture. Eventually, the riff turns into a solid bit of counterpoint to the vocal, echoing the internal back-and-forth of the hero as he considers the possibility of hooking up with the awe-inspiring dream girl. Gerald Casale likened the girl to the sirens who lured sailors to their death; I would point out that “death” can be a metaphor for orgasm, as in the phrase “la petite mort” (tiny death), so the hero’s impending doom may not be all that unpleasant. What he’s struggling with is surrendering a piece of his god-given masculine authority to an enchantress. Dude! Give it the fuck up!
Look at you with your mouth watering
Look at you with your mind spinnin’
Why don’t we just admit it’s all over
She’s just the girl you want
Women do have the power, and if we could only figure out a way to neutralize the violent urges of the penis holders while maintaining sufficient levels of testosterone to keep life interesting, we could forget all about de-evolution and step right into paradise! “Girl U Want” is a catchy, irresistible opener that is so damned good that Robert Palmer’s badly-executed cover did nothing to diminish the power of the original.
The theme of disorder in relationships continues in “It’s Not Right,” where the male narrator struggles with the mind-boggling concept that a woman has as much of a right to sample other partners as the oat-sowing male does. Most of the lyrics depict the classic masculine whine heard in many a blues number about the unfaithful slut, but unlike the genuine struggle with the dark impulse of jealousy you hear in John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, this loser is simply following the script, trying vainly to feel the way he’s been conditioned to feel when a woman steps out of the kitchen in search of erotic experience:
I love you darlin’, it’s a cryin’ shame
The way you run around like you’re in a big game
I’m so unhappy I could cry every time I think about you
That “boo hoo” gives him away as a complete phony: he really doesn’t give a shit about her, but the threat she represents to male entitlement. The marvelous arrangement reflects the psychological struggle, centering around two separate rhythmic patterns for verse and chorus (1-2, 3-4—pow-pow-pow and 1-2, pow-pow-pow), with the pow-pow-pow serving as the urge to act that winds up stuck in a loop. The synthesizer is used cleverly in a call-and-response pattern, expressing occasional bursts of panic and more frequent expressions of rising anxiety (the upward swoop) that all end with a CRASH, indicating either a burst bubble or burst blood vessel in a brain that simply cannot compute defiance of tradition.
Speaking of mis-wired brains, I don’t know what the hell was going on in the 1980’s, but it’s hard to find another decade where so many songs were misinterpreted en masse by the listening public. “Every Breath You Take” became an anthem of love and commitment despite lyrics that clearly identified the narrator as a stalker with a poisonous obsession. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” was about female assertiveness in relationships, not domestic violence. And then there’s “Whip It,” which 90% of the population translated as an ode to either BDSM or the male ritual of whipping one’s skippy. I may be a certified BDSM pervert and a dumb blonde, but I never thought “Whip It” had anything to do with getting one’s rocks off, either while clad in leather or when watching porn flicks with one hand on the gearshift.
While “Whip It” may have inadvertently uncovered kinky fantasies lurking in the American soul, the main cause of misinterpretation is that Americans have no sense of their own cultural history. The United States has always normalized violence as a method of problem-solving, as demonstrated in the fascination with movies about The Wild West, where guns are nearly always used to tie up the plot line. Boxing was a hugely popular sport in the first half of the 20th Century, and the language and norms of boxing were incorporated in many a Hollywood film, even in films where boxing wasn’t the prime topic (From Here to Eternity, for example). You’ll even see references to boxing as a conflict resolution technique in many a film’s throwaway dialogue, like “I oughtta sock you in the jaw.” And even when the jaw in question was in fact socked, the amateur pugilists would walk away after the bout without filing assault-and-battery charges—it was normal for men to get into scrapes every now and then. With Hollywood and radio amplifying the language of boxing to a rapt audience of film and fight fans, the lessons of boxing morphed into life lessons, like: “Sometimes in life, you’re gonna take it on the chin.” “You’ve gotta figure out a way to lick the blues.” “Son, when you’ve been whipped (or whupped), you gotta get up off the canvas and fight back.”
I don’t think there was a way out for Devo on this one. If they’d titled the song “Lick It,” cunnilingus would have been on everyone’s mind (not a bad thing), and for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint, “Whup It” simply doesn’t get the job done.
Gerald Casale’s use of the whip metaphor gave him a lot more latitude, allowing him to link the motivational message (“When a problem comes along, you must whip it”) to authoritarian symbolism (“Crack that whip”) and tough guy athleticism (“Now whip it into shape”). The absurdity of this simplistic, superficial solution to life’s challenges is hinted at in the opening verse with the reference to a child’s superstition (“Step on a crack/Break your momma’s back”), and if that wasn’t enough of a signal, Casale later inserts irrelevant advice to the happy homemaker (“Before the cream sits out too long/You must whip it.”) Geez, you’d think with all these clues LYING THERE IN PLAIN SIGHT that listeners would have figured out the song had nothing to do with sex, but I’ve learned that the myth that guides many Americans through their daily lives is Peter Pan: if you wish it, it will come true.
“Whip It” is yet another rich rhythmic tapestry, where a variety of sounds (drums, whips, bass, synth, guitar) and the occasional elongated measure magically combine to create one fabulous dance number. I also love that eerie little organ sound during the chorus, and whenever I hear it, I picture a small, round metallic object of alien origin buzzing through the air, its little lights blinking on and off to the rhythm. And as far as the controversy over the video is concerned, with Lily Tomlin going all-out feminist on Devo by refusing to host the Midnight Special unless Devo was cut from the show because oh my god that AWFUL MAN committed a violent act against one of our SISTERS . . . you know, some people really need to stop interpreting everything through whatever defensive lens they choose to use and grow the fuck up. Shit, woman, it looked more like a magic act than anything I’ve seen in a dungeon! The controversy does bring up a pet theory I’ve developed (but really haven’t had much time to verify) that the 1980’s was the decade where satire began to lose its power—and even worse, the thing being satirized became the thing to be celebrated. The most obvious example is the movie Wall Street, where Oliver Stone expected everyone to be disgusted with Gordon Gekko’s shocking mantra, “Greed is good,” and instead was shocked to see the phrase triumphantly adopted by greedy bastards everywhere.
“Snowball” is the Sisyphus myth translated to modern relationships, and we’ve all been in relationships where we keep trying, and trying and trying and for some reason we’re too fucking dumb to realize we’re repeating the time loop. The electronic patterns here feel more like computer output: cold, unfeeling, inevitable. I think it would have been really cool had Devo cut all the electronics and gone a cappella when the Sisyphus story line is interrupted by a recitation of the basics of human affection (“Eyes were made for looking/Hands were meant for holding/Hearts were meant for loving/Lips were meant for kissing”) but I suppose it would have been too much to ask of a de-evolved man to completely break the pattern.
“Ton O’ Love” features more strong rhythms, but here the focal point is Gerald Casale’s tone of voice. What I hear in his tone is a middle-aged white guy (let’s call him Fred) wearing a gray, off-the-rack business suit, chest pumped out to camouflage belly over belt, face marked by the enormous self-satisfaction of having led a privileged life, talking with his hands (one of which holds a pipe) to emphasize the vital importance of the wisdom he is dispensing to the younger white men who crowd around him—the neophytes hoping to pick up a few pointers to guide them on the road to success. Fred’s message is specifically tailored to buck up those wet-behind-the-ears types who struggle with the not-really-all-that-mysterious code of conduct of the “respectable class” in regards to the treatment of women:
When love takes a back seat to life
When a man runs away from his wife
That’s when you know
He’s in the world
To be in the world! To be somebody! To transform oneself into the man of action, rubbing elbows, buying a few rounds, cutting deals, speaking at the Rotary, hitting the links every Saturday! To be free of the repressive environment created by mothering, smothering females—just like Huck Finn! Fred further advises his listeners that female rebellion is common, it happens to every man sooner or later, it’s nothing personal and that the only solution to such a distasteful display is a full application of testosterone-driven, all-American force:
Take your turn
Now make your move
And crush that doubt
With a ton o’ love
All I have to do is shower the broad with candy, flowers, kisses and aggressive, non-consensual sex? Sounds like a plan! But wait . . . women sure do bitch a lot, Fred. What’s that all about?
When woman takes a back seat to man
She has to tell him where to go if she can
And she decides
To wear his ring
Heh, heh, chuckle, chuckle. They’re the back seat drivers who like to think they’re in control. I get it. Pretty harmless—makes ’em feel important. But what about those guys who are still single? What advice do you have for us, Fred?
Find a girl with the face of a clock
Hands move forward ’til you can’t stop
She comes from above
With a ton o’ love
Yes! A woman who exists to help me press forward, never backward! The angel from above cheering me on to victory! My achievements are her achievements! We men sure are lucky to have creatures like that at our disposal! God bless America!
Now there’s a phrase that begs a question. What is this “America” that deserves blessing? I’ll bet you a gazillion dollars that if the question “What word do you associate most with America?” came up on Family Feud, answer #1 would be “freedom.” If you asked the average American what freedom means, though, you would likely find the answers contradictory and confusing. Ted Nugent would tell you it’s the freedom to have as many guns as you want to shoot down liberals. Liberals would say it’s freedom to protest against jerks like Ted Nugent. Religious types would likely cite freedom of religion first, though the more patriotic evangelicals would add several qualifiers to that statement to emphasize that such freedom is only available to Christians of a certain political bent. And though freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment, nearly everyone hates the press when they uncover disagreeable things. Since most Americans slept through history and civics classes (see report in The Atlantic), I think if Americans were really honest and someone asked them, “What does freedom really mean to you?” in a way that doesn’t call up the anxiety associated with the high school history test they forgot to study for, the more truthful answers would look something like this:
- The freedom to make money.
- The freedom to protect my personal property—my stuff.
- The freedom to choose either ice cream or low-fat frozen yogurt, either an iPhone and a Galaxy, either a purchase or a lease, etcetera, etcetera.
- The freedom to deny other people their rights if they bother me.
- The freedom to deny other countries their rights if they try to mess with American business interests.
Americans cherish those freedoms, largely because they’re immune from experiencing the consequences of their choices. They have invented invisible, unknowable structures collectively referred to as “the system” to rationalize failure and shield them from much of the impact. Wars take place in faraway lands. Other people enforce the laws. I respectfully recommend changing the motto of the United States from “E Pluribus Unum” to “Not my problem unless you mess with my money, my guns or my Amazon account.”
“Freedom of Choice” is Devo’s lasting contribution to the notion of freedom in America, a strong and powerful message supported by strong and powerful music. The extended intro with its reverberating toms beating out the sound that resembles the rhythm of a runaway train foreshadows the intensity and unusual directness of the rest of the song. I love how they take the time to do a mini-overture before kicking into the verses, a choice that makes the musical theme all the more memorable. The call-and-response between synth and guitar sound that shapes the theme gives me the tingles, and the entire intro brims with the determination and confidence of people who have a vital message to deliver . . . and boy, do they! The vocals throughout the song are delivered with unusual power, in a defiant tone that dares you to take a long hard look in the mirror:
A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said that life was free
Sink, swim, 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
“A victim of collision on the open sea” is a more poetic version of “shooting oneself in the foot,” and in the historical period from Vietnam onwards, Americans have had more self-generated collisions than any country on the planet. “Nobody ever said that life was free” points out the absence of empathy in the American heart and the culture’s difficulty in forgiving mistakes or believing that misfortune could really be misfortune and not the victim’s own damned fault. And how about those choices? Sink? Swim? Go down with the ship? Cherish your fucking freedom, Americans! The message is reinforced with the introduction of a modified version of the paradox of Buridan’s Ass, the story of donkey who is equally hungry and thirsty and placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water: the donkey can’t make up his mind, so he dies of hunger and thirst. Philosophers of various stripes have argued that the paradox can be broken by the application of free will . . . and we’ll come back to that notion in a minute.
The second verse deals primarily with the acquisitive side of choice, the most important aspect of choice in a materialistic society. What’s really weird about how this form of freedom plays out is that it feels more like an addiction-driven choice than one based on conscious awareness (“Then if you got it, you don’t want it”). Having filled their two-car garages and attics with stuff, the ever-sensitive market responded to American needs with a flood of self-service storage facilities where you can store additional junk that you really don’t want anymore but giving it up would be like giving up your daily fix—unthinkable! Here the repetition of “use your freedom of choice” underscores the essential triviality of choice involving consumer goods. I mean, are those the freedoms Americans fought and died for? I doubt soldier Johnny’s last words were, “I gave my life fighting foreign enemies who wanted to deny me the inalienable right to choose between Tide and Cheer.” Sadly, those choices have been elevated in status because Americans have ignored the more vital choices and inaction has been rationalized as the smart play. Still, not making a choice counts as a choice, and the repetition of the chorus following the second verse drips with sarcasm:
Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom of choice!
The final rendition of that chorus takes us back to the essential question of free will. What makes “Freedom of Choice” a truly great piece of work is that it questions whether or not Americans want to exercise free will at all. The final version of the chorus changes one preposition, and that little change makes all the difference in the world:
Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want
Americans may protest mightily at what appears to be an absurd notion in the land of the free, but there’s plenty of evidence to back it up. Out of 32 democracies measured by the Pew Research Center, the United States ranks 26th in voter turnout. Think of the steelworkers who refused retraining because they stubbornly insisted they were and could only be steelworkers—they didn’t want to have to choose some other occupation, even if it meant a descent into poverty. Shortly after Trump’s ascendancy, Reuters announced that they had instructed their journalists to report on the United States in the same way they report on other authoritarian countries, a piece of news greeted with a massive yawn. Americans view nearly everything through the lens of self-interest, so if it’s not happening to me, what the fuck do I care? Americans could get rid of Trump in a week if they really wanted to through massive civil disobedience and a general strike, but instead they punt the choice to the Democrats (who do absolutely nothing but yap and beg for money), organize for an election that may never happen and will certainly be rigged (again), or pin their hopes on a dysfunctional legal system to nail a guy who has a lifetime of experience in all the delaying tactics the system has to offer. If you add the millions of non-voters to the Trump voters, guess what? You have a working majority more than willing to install an authoritarian regime that will completely relieve you of your responsibilities as a citizen, making sure you never have to trouble yourself with free will again.
Devo was so far ahead of their time.
Flipping over to side two, we encounter the slashing power chords that dominate the soundscape of “Gates of Steel,” a song based on a riff Mothersbaugh picked out of a jam session with Deborah Smith and Susan Schmidt of Akron band Chi-Pig, a promising group that never got the big break. The theoretical background comes from the book The Beginning Was the End by Oskar Kiss Maerth, where the author introduces the theory that Homo sapiens evolved from cannibalistic apes. The motivation to eat ape brains was, like most human motivations, grounded in the sex drive: one ape found that ape brains served as an aphrodisiac, so all the other apes wanted in on the fun. The downside of this evolutionary shift is that the long-term effect (according to Maersk) is a loss of connection with nature, which in turn explains the species’ willingness to pollute the air and water and send many other species into oblivion. The theory has no grounding in science, but it does fit in nicely with the de-evolution theme, and gruesomely echoes the ape transformation depicted in the opening passages of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where evolutionary progress is linked to the proto-human transformation from vegans to carnivores. The lyrical problem with “Gates of Steel” is that you’d have to know something about the theory to make sense of the words, so I advise listeners to avoid taxing their oversized brains on the lyrics and concentrate on the absolutely thrilling, driving music: “Gates of Steel” kicks serious ass, and it always excites me to the max.
“Cold War” is a lighter piece on relationships that compares the heterosexual struggle to the distorted negotiations that dominated the Cold War. The concerns are similar to those voiced in “Ton O’ Love,” with the male narrator completely unable to make sense of the internal war between natural male aggression and the need to avoid being a jerk if you’re going to get past second base:
Go, go fight fight, punch
Your way to happiness
Go, go light light, or
You’ll never be a big success
In the end, the narrator circles back to his starting negotiating position: “I owe you absolutely nothing.” How fucking intimate of you. Now get the fuck out of my bed. Oh, yeah—thanks for the techno-funky music.
Speaking of naive, debilitated men, the narrator in “Don’t You Know” wins the prize for worst romantic approach in history:
and don’t you know I got a thing that looks for you
don’t you know the way you make me feel about you
don’t you know I got a place that waits for you
don’t you know that I am always thinking of you
I got a rocket in my pocket
but I don’t know what to do
like a plug without a socket
I’m just waitin’ ’round for you
If you parse the lyrics, you’ll see that the narrator believes he has no responsibility for either his rocket or his feelings, which leads to the logical conclusion that if he is unable to get the woman to share her socket, she’s going to get the blame. I’d always reacted to this song as the story of a nerd with zero seduction skills who’d eventually fail in his quest and go back to the video game console, but after the murderous attack in Toronto by a card-carrying incel, the song takes on a much darker cast: “I’m involuntarily celibate because of YOU, woman, and you’ll fucking pay with your life.” Apparently, the same belief drives both the hyper-sexed and undersexed male: that women exist to spread their legs and they owe it to men to spread on demand. I remember thinking A Handmaid’s Tale was a silly book when I first read it, but now I’m not so sure.
“That’s Pep” employs a choppier rhythm dominated by sharp guitar cuts and a sinuous riff. Here Mark Mothersbaugh takes the athletic model of masculinity hinted at in “Whip It” and gives it a fuller treatment. Boxing imagery is scattered among various scraps of positive thinking aphorisms in a succinct summary of the empty thoughts that fill the decaying brains of men whose identities depend completely on their ability to conform to the standard issue. And when these losers go partying, they head over to “Mr. B’s Ballroom” with its big beers, big broads with big tits and big babies getting drunk, throwing up and bashing chairs over each other’s heads.
Human beings are fucking weird.
The music at Mr. B’s is suitably loose, and perfectly in sync with the lyrics (“Party time, turn the music up loud/Party time, lose your head in the crowd”). I love it when the voice of authority steps in and order the idiots to “Freeze!” because I really don’t want to hang out with these people anymore.
The closing piece appears to extend the study of de-evolution to humans across the planet, but the examples are largely American, indicating that “Planet Earth” was designed to shed light on American ethnocentrism rather than species-wide behavior. Americans have always been suspicious and distrustful of foreigners to varying degrees, and many still believe that the United States is the only country that really matters. “Planet Earth” presents this dynamic through the fascinating contrast of the cheery, enthusiastic dance music and an android-like vocal from Gerald Casale—one that comes across as the detached perspective of the alien anthropologist faithfully recording patterns of human activity:
I’ll probably stay
On planet earth
It’s a place to live your life
Where pleasure follows pain
People go insane
Fly around in planes
Pray that it won’t rain
Drive around in cars
Get drunk in local bars
Dream of being stars
Well I lived all my life on planet earth
Planet Earth sounds like one boring fucking place, and the narrator sounds less than enthusiastic about sticking around. If you interpret the song from a planetary perspective, he has no choice, since interstellar travel remains off the table for at least another century. But when you identify the guy as an inhabitant of the United States, you realize that his lack of enthusiasm is closely tied to his limited ability to deal with alternative choices. America is the center of the universe! It’s the greatest country on Earth! Why go anywhere else? The final report from our robotic observer underscores the essential theme of Freedom of Choice: people are terrified of freedom and prefer the safety of the cage to the exercise of free will.
I saw a man on a stage
Scream, “Put me back in my cage.”
I saw him hang by his tie
I saw enough to make me cry
Reading the reports from the United States of Trump make me want to cry every fucking day.
My ambivalent feelings about Freedom of Choice have nothing to do with the music, lyrics or Devo’s enthusiastic performance. It’s a fucking great record, and I love listening to it from beginning to end. The ambivalence comes from its unrelenting exposure of disturbing tendencies in the American psyche that had been gestating in relative darkness for some time, and are now coming into the light so vividly that even the most oblivious people can no longer ignore them. Consider me a pessimist, but I’ve seen nothing from the United States in the last year-and-a-half to believe that Americans are motivated to do anything more than bitch and hold a few rallies to express how unhappy they are. While that may be temporarily therapeutic, America is already well on its way to authoritarianism, and what’s driving it is the overwhelming desire of Americans to simplify their choices in a world too complex for them to grasp.
We good guys. You bad guys. Leave us alone or we blow you up. End of discussion. Now let me back in my cage.