Devo Paris 1978

I don’t think Devo have got the cred they deserve. From what I can remember Greil Marcus doesn’t mention them in his fatuous history of punk. Simon Reynolds devotes a few pages to them in Rip it Up and Star Again but he doesn’t take their whole spiel seriously. I reckon Devo’s theory of Devolution and their bonkers potato mythology are as coherent and critical as punk got. Hell, they got the 80s before the the 80s. And as negative anthropology and theories of mass culture goes its more entertaining and more immanent than Dialectic of Enlightenment. So if people are publishing tripe like Philosophy and Sons of Anarchy someone someone might as well write something on Devo:


About HR

Deep in the adjunct crackhole.
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6 Responses to Devo Paris 1978

  1. I dunno, I thought Reynolds situating them within the context of the reaction to Kent State was rather cogent. The whole sensibility behind Devo is deeply nihilist, but it’s the nihilism of disillusioned leftists.

    I also love the tension and contradiction that exists within the music itself. Like, doing a dehumanized, dystopian, robotic version of “Satisfaction” is kind of smart, but also the obvious contrarian thing. But then they turn around and do straight up, ass-kickin’ rock ‘n’ roll songs, like “Uncontrollable Urge”. It’s like there’s a constant tug-of-war with the Devo project itself.

    On the other hand, Devo is also one of the earliest examples I can think of — Steely Dan being the other one — of a sort of “having it both ways” in terms of critique: like, the “hipper”, more informed parts of the audience can enjoy it with a sense of — not of ironic distance, because people genuinely love Devo — but a sense of being in on the joke, of knowing what it’s all really about, while other people can just dig the catchy electro-punk tunes.

    I distrust things like that in the culture, because it seems like an act of meta-self-cannibalism of the culture industry, where critique itself is just another market segment.

    I felt this sense of disillusionment the most strongly with The Sopranos. I loved The Sopranos initially, I thought it was one of the most critical television shows ever (this was before The Wire came along), like such a thorough attack on the psychology of the bourgeois subject, the division between citoyen and bourgeois, sociopathy as the non plus ultra of capitalist subjectivity.

    But in my daily proverbial “water cooler” interactions, I noticed a lot of co-workers just dug the show, not just as a entertaining gangster epic, but also in an AFFIRMATIVE way, like, admiring the protagonist, rooting for him to prevail, and digging all the sumptuous Italian cuisine or getting off on the suburban New Jersey homes. And it occurred, this was not the result of a misinterpretation on my part or their, but rather, the show is just ambiguous enough to serve both market segments, to allow the suburban professional-managerial classes to “identity” with Tony in an affirmative way, while allowing all the smart, critical, anti-capitalist intellectuals to pat themselves on the back for getting what a critical, daring show it was.

    • HR says:

      I agree that Reynolds does a good job of contextualizing Devo. The point I tried to convey was that I don’t think he– or any of the books on punk– have given a serious theoretical account of devolution and their bonkers mythology of potatoes, booji boy etc. Certainly a large extent of it is nihilistic and as Reynolds points out parts of it are regressive and misogynist but the same can be said for other punk bands that are lauded for being heirs to situationism, Rimbaud etc.

      You make interesting points about how some critique works as the meta-self canabalism of the culture industry. And I definitely agree about The Sopranos being ambiguous and open to interpretation. I’d also say the same can be said for The Wire, especially if you look at it retrospectively from the perspective Treme.

      But I wonder if there might be some difference between these shows and Devo whose ambiguity seems to be more rooted in the fact that they wrote traditionally catchy pop tunes while trying to articulate some sort of bizarre nihilist message. To my mind this points more to a question I have thought a bit about in relation to things like riot grrl which consciously tried to use the same sort of traditional song structures in a subversive and transformative way. Maybe i’ve been reading too much Adorno lately but it seems to me the ambiguity is in how subversive these traditional song structures can be so that even if you intend to cultivate some sort of message with your tunes your bound to have people who just like it because its catchy. So in this case maybe its not ambiguity of intent, maybe its rooted in the multiple appeal of the form.

      Dunno if that made much sense. Feeling rather nihilistic myself from correcting too many typos and putting up with the worst summer weather i’ve known.

      Not really familiar with Steely Dan, how did they do it?

      • Steely Dan lyrically was all about seedy, Burroughsian mini-portraits of the dark underbelly of American society, combined with extremely catchy, slickly produced Lite-Jazz/Pop music.

        Pretty much the best essayistic exploration I know of their work is by the science fiction writer William Gibson, and I can empathize with his experience of (unsucessfully) trying to convince all of one’s fellow punk fans why this seemingly innocuous Jazz-Pop group is one of the most subversive cultural institutions around:

      • P.S. I should add that I don’t think I’ve ever met another leftist who likes Steely Dan. I think that amount of nihilistic bile is basically unpalatable to people who have an abiding faith in the perfectibility of humankind. I suspect that’s also why most leftists prefer Allen Ginsberg to William Burroughs.

        One has to have gone through a Bakuninist phase to understand that destruction can also be a creative force…

      • HR says:

        That’s funny I no idea they had a seedy dark side. Apart from some hearing people claim they like Steely Dan for (post)ironic reasons, my only previous experience of them is that my supervisor–who is a Habermasian–confessed that when growing up in north london he preferred listening to steely dan to hanging out with Wire because their songs were more complicated. It seemed appropriate to me. But now I am interested.

        Found this by the way Casale comes across as the the sorta 60s progressive i grew up with, much more earnest than i would have imagined.

  2. Yikes, so many typos. Sorry. Coffee time.

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