Friday, May 31, 2013

Devolution of Music Part 4: Hear No Devo, See No Devo

On May 4, 1970, a certain student named Jerry Casale attended a protest at Kent State University in Ohio. It was a large gathering on the campus commons by people and students protesting the attempt by President Nixon to expand the war in Vietnam to include the sending of troops into Cambodia, without the approval of the U.S. congress. This group of students had previously opposed the perceived 'invasion' of their campus by police and army recruiters. They also had watched the assassination of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert F. Kennedy, all while their friends may have been drafted and the war expanded. They gathered to protest what Nixon was doing, because it was a violation of the constitution and a twisting of law that would affect their generation and their nation for years to come. They came to make a statement, but also to show that they knew what was happening and knew it was wrong, and they were going to oppose the expansion of a wrongful, disastrous war, because it was the right thing to do. They were going to oppose war with peace. They were met by national guardsmen, most of whom were much the same age as the students in the commons, and those soldiers lifted their M-1 rifles and fired upon the crowd, as they had been ordered to do, and they proceeded to kill four students and maim or injure many more.
   When the 'dust settled' around the incident,  the police and national guard blamed the students and a Gallup public opinion poll actually suggested that people thought that the students were responsible for what happened, that they 'deserved' to get shot. This idea that it could be the students' fault for getting killed and injured is absolutely ridiculous, and there is no evidence to support it. Yet, somehow, despite the fact that there were four dead bodies and numerous injured, all of them unarmed students, and hundreds of witnesses, including many photographs, the majority of respondents to a phone poll in 1970 apparently were more than willing to believe that "radical" students on college campuses threatened the war effort, and some young, dutiful national guardsmen were frightened (not ordered) into firing upon the crowd.
   And this is where the line has to be drawn. The 4th reason why devolution is happening and continues to happen, is that you, we, most of us, perhaps all of us are deluding ourselves into thinking that it is not happening. The truth is that the evidence is all around us. You do not see it, because you do not WANT to see it.
 On May 4, 1970, at Kent state university, the knowledgeable, caring, and peaceful protest of individuals genuinely expressing concern for themselves and their fellow citizens and friends were met with stupid brute force and mindless violence. The National Guard ordered and carried out the killing of four students. Neither Jerry Casale, nor anyone else, could see it any other way, because there is no other way to see it.
    Jerry Casale, along with his brother Bob Casale, went on to join his friend at Kent State University; Mark Mothersbaugh, and they were co-founders of a 'rock' group named Devo. This rock group made De-evolution part of its name, image, music and message.
    Devo did not start out with a super-talented guitar-player, a visionary songwriter, or a great vocalist/frontman in their band. Neither did they seek out such virtuosos to fill out their band roster. Instead, they took the attitude that they were making art and with art, sometimes less is more. In an attempt to illustrate the devolution of society they have made use of all the reasons, problems and excuses for devolution. They certainly used technology and copying. They covered songs by Jimi Hendrix and others, including what may be the strangest cover of 'Satisfaction' ever done. They made great use of synthesizers, but sometimes they even used fake technology like their 'energy-dome' hats, which were just props that the band claimed had the power to recycle human energy. Devo sometimes employed odd-timings in some of their songs, but they also used the basic structure of a typical pop song in order to express ideas that did not entirely befit a pop song. More surprisingly, some Devo songs portrayed the corporatization of society rather than the 'rebel' image that seemed indicative of most other rock bands.
    Devo, if the band has to be categorized, is either grouped with the punk bands that they shared club gigs with in their early career (Yes Devo played at CBGBs), or they are viewed as one of the first 'techno/new wave' bands for their use of synthesizers in the early '80s. Far from relying on technology to do things for them, however, Devo has to be considered one of the most do-it-yourself bands that has ever been. Devo used their human skills and ingenuity to make their own costumes, videos, fan-accessories, and even modified their own instruments for their purpose. They did all of this long before the MTV video era and even before the music-video was considered an accepted format of music promotion.
   But perhaps Devo was a little too sharp at one aspect of their career: Their message. They were such ardent and powerful messengers for devolution, they underestimated the importance of this fourth category; the incredible power of people to disbelieve and disregard what they don't understand or simply to ignore and 'not see' what is right in front of them.
   In this way, it might be one of the band's earliest songs that has foretold their future. 'Mongoloid' is about a man who has one chromosome too many (in P.C. language, called 'Down Syndrome') but because 'he wore a hat and had a job and brought home the bacon', no one ever realizes that he is a mongoloid. Needless to say, the song is not resolved and the mongoloid is never discovered. Perhaps, for this reason, it might be considered that Devo's 'Mongoloid' might be less devolved than the rest of us. It's the Mongoloid who sees the world as it really is, not the supposedly 'normal' people.
  Devo's biggest hit song ever was strangely just another example of people hearing what they wanted to hear instead of what is actually being expressed to them. If you read the lyrics aloud, calmly and rationally, from a sheet of music and without the sounds of whip-cracks in the background, the lyrics to 'Whip it' seem more like a corporate-style pep-talk; the sort of things that might be said at one of those 'team building exercises' that businesses occasionally use to encourage employee comraderie and loyalty. But rather than accept the lyrics of 'Whip it' as they truly are, most fans of the song chose to read deeper sexual meaning into it, likely thinking of S&M connotations. The band, then realizing they suddenly had a big hit and why, appropriately made a video that is a strange combination of imagery: Ma and Pa homesteading and apple pie Americana mixed with the band dressed in black attire and all taking place on some midwest farm where casual 'whipping' is both acceptable and fun. Devo may have been trying to reflect what the audience was thinking by showing a ridiculous version of how the song was misinterpreted. Perhaps the audience, already too far devolved, didn't get the irony or the message.They simply saw the video, thought it looked about right, and sang or danced along until it ended.
  Misinterpretations aside, most of us didn't get the real message. Most of the population are still as unaware of devolution as we are of the mongoloids or even the real meaning of 'Whip it'. We've even dismissed the band themselves, the true messengers of devolution, by simply thinking that it was all just part of the band's 'gimmick'. We still don't see it, though it's put right in front of us.
  But devolution was and is happening all around us. Gimmick or no gimmick, as the band's career progressed from the seventies into the nineties, they watched along with the rest as the trend continued downward. Jerry Casale was quoted in 1996 saying: "Here we are, 4 years from the year 2000, with more information than ever, more technology than ever, and the expression of art, music, dance is getting worse. I see less creativity, less diversity.  One performance by Jimi Hendrix...Elvis Presley...The Who...David Bowie blows away a hundred of anything you can see today." Now, seventeen years later, with the grunge-era of music long gone, Jerry Casale would likely say that ratio is much higher, perhaps two-hundred, perhaps three hundred, perhaps more.
  What also might be noticed in the thirty-plus years since Devo's founding, is that they appear to be becoming the change that they once sought in the world around them. Having re-formed the band after a long hiatus in the late nineties and through the early 2000's, the band is enjoying a resurgence. Their shows are drawing large crowds again. Their status and skill as a live music act has risen, not because they are much better musicians after thirty years of practice, but more likely because every other live act seems to be comparatively worse. After playing a very successful show at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver 2010, Devo has released a new album of songs and has resumed touring to some surprising success, including a return to playing Lollapallooza on the main stage.
      But is it really that surprising? During their formative years, their early gigs at CBGBs and Kansas-City club in New York, and even their first tour of Europe, Devo's live show and musical skills could only be called average at best. But that was compared to a much more highly skilled group of peers, all competing for the same punk/new wave audience of the late 1970's and early 80's. In this century, however, all of that formidable competition for audience is gone. The Ramones, The Clash, Talking Heads, Elvis Costello and several others are either split-up or retired or deceased or simply moved on to other things. Most of today's touring bands just aren't that good live; they can't play solos, jam and improvise, or come up with great guitar riffs, or even solid melodies. Most rely on muscle-guitar and simple keyboard arpeggios. Many more rely on technology, sometimes for drums & bass, but also using 'auto-tune' even when their vocals don't have such a range that would seem to warrant it. Some even seem to avoid difficult songs when playing live, or they may sing along with pre-recorded tracks. The worst use extensive stage effects, numerous hired dancers and backup musicians, and loads of expensive costumes and large stage props. When compared to Nickelback, Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons or even Muse, Devo suddenly seems quite reasonably skilled as musicians. When compared to Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, Devo's costumes and stage antics seem tame and appropriate. Has Devo gotten better? Maybe. But it's more likely that the rest have gotten worse.
    The hard truth is, whether you want to see it or not, since May 4, 1970, our sense of society and community, our reasoning ability, our musical ability and musical skills have all been diminished. Protest songs about real-time events, like 'Ohio' by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, seem like a curious thing of the past. Even the first Rage Against the Machine album is more than 20 years old now, and few new artists seem to care enough to write a real protest song and fewer still want to hear one. You are far more likely to see a false sense of rebellion, a marketing ploy, a true gimmick, to sell music, than real opposition to authority or a real expression of devolution. 
   A market driven society/system has long claimed to produce the best, to make the cream rise to the top. The truth is that most of what is produced is shit, and that shit is made to seem better by increasing the quantity, falsifying the value with advertising, making the product cheaper, or lowering the standards for quality rather than improving the product. But the bar has been lowered too far and for too long and people are starting to notice...this shit is really starting to stink.
  Maybe you disagree because you don't think it matters that one or two or a hundred bands are simply terrible. Maybe it doesn't matter that what you hear on the radio/TV/internet is repeating what you heard ten, twenty even thirty years ago. Maybe we're just in some kind of a musical recession and we'll get out of this with the help of technology or innovation or something, just like we always did before. You want to believe that it's just a matter of time before it gets better.  But it isn't getting better, it's getting worse.
 To see it, all you have to do is look. You won't like what you see. You'll see corruption and stupidity and behaviour that is more resembling an animal than a thinking human being. But I suggest to you that the truth is that you probably won't look. And if you do, you won't look for too long, because deep down you don't want to believe it. You don't want to believe that society is decaying. You don't want to believe we're becoming more simple, stupid and animalistic. You don't want to believe that the national guard could just shoot and kill four people on a campus in 1970. No. You want to believe things aren't so bad. You want to believe we're smart and trying hard and improving. You want to believe we all want the same things and are essentially good...and that's good! Isn't it?

And Finally:
Devolution of Music Part 5: What to Do/ How to Stop Devolution

Pt 1: Technology
Pt 2: Copying!
Pt 3: Real Innovation is Difficult