Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Devo Take a Stand

As art-schoolers who make the most of their affliction, Devo came up with the best videos in the music, and the half-hour of shorts screened before their Halloween concert at Radio City dispelled my residual hostility to the band. Not that I suddenly trusted them--videos are no basis for trust. But the visual aids rendered the three major songs on New Traditionalists a little more explicit, a comfort with a band that's been almost fetishistically noncommittal. Most videos are neutral at best, and some are so witless they distract from the aural construct they're supposed to illustrate, but Devo's clarify their lyrical intent, underlining nuances you only hoped were there and suggesting wild new possibilities . In "Through Being Cool" a sexually and racially integrated platoon of "young alien types" do in fact "eliminate the ninnies and the twits," though rather than the bone-crunching tactics the lyric prescribes they utilize a ray gun that reduces two discoids into a Clifford Still blur, transforms three joggers into old people, and blows two old people away altogether. In the video of "Love Without Anger" ("Isn't love at all") two humans in chicken suits bill and coo after fighting over pecking order and two showroom dummies get down after she's kicked him in the crotch and he's (literally) knocked her head off. And in "Beautiful World," the mild closing disclaimer "But not for me" is amplified into a panoply of newsreel horrors--famine, armed conflict, mushroom cloud, the works.

None of which may sound very comforting, especially if your distaste for violence extends to war toys and Saturday-morning cartoons. And for sure it doesn't sound very profound, either, though the montage does synthesize pop imagery both received and invented with an awkward grace that even jolted the tired old A-bomb out of its totemic torpor. But ever since their indie single of 1977, Akron's gift to El Lay has been a puzzle, and if anything their success is part of that puzzle; my own wishful predictions notwithstanding, few "new wave" bands have made it bigger here--Blondie and the Pretenders and the Police, of course, but not the Clash or Elvis Costello or Talking Heads. I really would love to know just what their fans think of them. And so I'm grateful for any kind of elucidation.

The problem isn't really all that obscure, I know. The Devo Philosophy is no less coherent than the Playboy Philosophy, opposing the most commonplace boho-modernist no-nos--conformity, technocracy, etc. And if what they're for is harder to pin down, isn't that always the way? In the latest dispatches from their spokesman General Boy, distributed to journalists as well as fan-club members, the call for "devolution" has given way to talk of "positive mutation," both of which come down to the same vague thing, the underlying theme and chief commercial appeal of post-hippie sci-fi all the way to Doris Lessing--namely that weirdos (just like you kids holed up in your bedrooms reading and listening) will save the world (or at least yourselves). But it's always been hard to tell whether Devo thought the world (or the weirdos) worth saving; like Frank Zappa, another provincial aesthete who waited too long to go to the big city, they purvey a sour satire in which audience is sometimes indistinguishable from target. This is a band which has always reveled in contradictions. Deploring conformity, they wear uniforms and hustle more groupie gear than anybody since Kiss. Skeptical of technology, they're on their way to an all-keyboard look and favor sets that closely resemble Gary Numan's. And what could be more conformist-technological than the robot moves they've always mocked so assiduously? The culmination was their pop breakthrough, "Whip It," a mechanical funkoid novelty that actually achieve some currency among young black record buyers, perhaps because they believed that Devo (cf. Kraftwerk) were what white people were really like, making the spuds in the worksuits counterparts of the toothless bluesmen for whom earnest college boys once scoured the porches of Mississippi.

Devo are very opportunistic, and in the past I've disliked them heartily for it; when they tell interviewers that the only nuclear benefit worth their time would blow up the installations, all I get is a strong whiff of bullshit. But with last year's Freedom of Choice I learned to enjoy them as a joke band, and now, with New Traditionalists, I'm beginning to think they could be something more. New Traditionalists isn't as consistent an album as Freedom of Choice; the three songs I've named are their most substantial ever, but the filler is really filler, halfway between the eccentric contrasts of phrasing and register that used to make their music go and the simple rock and roll ditties they're aspiring toward. And their live presentation lacked the detail and humor of their videos; as showmanship, affectlessness can only go so far, though they do take it most of the way there. But in the wake of Reagan and the Moral Majority (both of whom General Boy takes on, though not by name) they've had the good sense to drop some of their arch, antiliberal, antihumanist pose, and I'm impressed. Sung by Phil Ochs with an acoustic guitar, "Beautiful World" would be recognizable as an ironic but unambiguous protest song. They closed the show with it. And the audience--white, collegiate, nondescript except for those in Devo get-ups or Halloween garb--understood what it was about.

At least I hope they did, and so do Devo, I think. The only time lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh opened his mouth for anything but lyrics the entire night was during a brief 'tween-encore speech in his General Boy costume. "It's a long time since we've been to New York and we were wondering just what you spuds would be like. And now we know. And we just gotta say, we love you. And it's a beautiful world."

We love you, eh? I still don't trust them.

Village Voice, 1981