The de-evolution of DEVO

I just found an interview with Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of Devo on the Channel 5 news in NYC circa October, 1981. This interview coincides with two shows at Radio City Music Hall and the immense popularity of their song “Whip It.” I don’t know about you, but this interview for me captures their utter discomfort with their overnight success.

The tone in this interview is consistent with some of their sharpest experimental music during the late 70s and early 80s that I think was part of (ore even helped shape) a punk reaction to the Reagan 80s. They also did a ton of fascinating stuff with video well before this medium became popular with MTV.

So, all that said, what the hell happened to these guys? From their Wikipedia article it seems they have totally forgotten any sense of their “performative principles” of the late 70s and 80s. Now it’s all about planning their own “I love me” Devo Hollywood movie, selling their popular song for a Swiffer commercial, and collaborating with Disney for a little Dev2.o.

What kills me about all this that I love Devo’s intense and focused critique of American consumer culture during the late 70s and early 80s. How can they willingly turn it into the garbage for money? This kind of waste is why the star system we built for music and movies has created more harm than good. For even a band with a intensely creative vision and an intelligent message early on –given enough attention and success–become junkies of their own importance and ultimately become ghosts of the former selves. It’s a crying shame!

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13 Responses to The de-evolution of DEVO

  1. In the initial interview clip, Casale describes Devo’s music as a “musical laxative for a contipated society,” which is just beautiful.

    Which also makes it so much more painful to watch the last two videos, which both feel stuck somewhere around the colon.

    It hurts. Especially the Disney crap.



  2. Scott Leslie says:

    ok, that Devo2.0 stuff is truly disturbing, but maybe it’s possible that they realized if they just let Disney do this its very absurdity would fulfill their subversive agenda without having to do anything themselves. I’m going to keep telling myself that because the alternatives are too depressing to contemplate.

  3. jimgroom says:

    Eternal optimism has its limits, and Devo allowing their best albums to be paraded around by Olsen twin clones is the limit for me. And using a modified version of “Whip It” (produced by the Men Who Make the Music themselves) to sell floor cleaner: Q:Are we not sell-outs?! A: We are Devo!

  4. Mikhail says:

    Maybe I have become jaded and cynical, but I have stopped expecting consistency, steadfastness and adherence to principle from my idols. This is sad but I don’t think it’s unexpected — ok, sure, maybe the degree to which Devo has moved off the course they charted in the 70s and 80s is somewhat surprising but the fact that they have seems to be the way things go. What gets me is not so much that they have devolved, as you say, but that virtually nothing remains in the cultural memory of the genius that was Devo. Viva la bava.

  5. jimgroom says:

    Taking the high road, heh Mikhail. Maybe you’re right, I mean things could be worse I guess, we could live in Rapture constantly in need of Adam.

    Actually, Devo selling Uncontrollable Urge to Disney is pretty close to a culture rapture of sorts, n ow that I think of it. And I find it hard to sustain a discussion of the genius of the Devo of the 70s and 80s with our current knowledge of where the New Traditionalist would end up.

    It almost makes it hard to argue for them, but let me ask you this. Are there any bands, writers, filmmakers, etc. who kinda navigated this road of stardom and maintaining basic human principles that you respect? For this way of the world bullshit dries me crazy as a philosophy, we have no expectations for “greatness” anymore. It ultimatley ends up being synonymous with a paycheck.

    Here is a brainstorming list of artists who navigated success and their art with dignity (the operative word in relationship to Devo’s sell-out is definitely dignity!):

    Joan Jett (I am on a huge Joan Jett kick right now, so this may be surprising at first glance coming from me, but more to come soon)

    Dave Chappelle

    Stanley Kubrick

    John Carpenter

    Klaus Kinski 😉

    Sean Penn

    Gena Rowlands

    The Roots

    Andy Warhol (Following a class on UMW Blogs about Warhol and I have an argument for this one)

    Laurie Anderson

    Neil Young (He may be the great example on this list!)

    The Coen Brothers

    Quentin Tarantino (you have followed this argument, I’m sure)

    In fact it’s really not that hard to please me in the musical realm for successful bands. Just don;t sell your hit songs to the highest bidding advertiser, guilty bands I can think of:

    The Who

    Rolling Stone (again and again and again)

    The Steve Miller Band (never a great band, but the fly like to USPS represented a new low.

    And I’m sure it goes on and on…

  6. Mikhail says:

    David Bowie
    Tom Petty
    Werner Herzog
    Terrance Malick
    Tom Waits

  7. jimgroom says:

    And so, Mikhail, can you really excuse Devo after all these folks (most of whom were never as forthright about condemning consumer culture as as the De-evolution boys -they made a career on it!) kept their dignity in tact?

    I am not a moralist per se, but I want to believe some things are worth keeping track of, namely one;s dignity and beliefs, which may very well change, but so should your approach to your art and your world, in my mind you can’t have it both ways.

  8. Mikhail says:

    I’m not excusing Devo, Jim, just saying that I am not all that surprised. Maybe I’m even less surprised because, on one hand, we have Devo 2.0 while, on the other, there’s the soundtrack to Rushmore.

    I’ve stopped expecting dignity as default mode of the serious artist. There’s nothing here to excuse, just something to lament. Dr. Dre did Coors Light commercials. Ice Cube did everything he’s done in the last 5 or so years. It’s a fact of popular culture I’ve come to accept.

  9. Mikhail says:

    This is not to say that Dr. Dre and Ice Cube are serious artists. For da record.

  10. jimgroom says:


    I think you;re right, I’m trying to walk a thin line here, and I am becoming a dirty moralizer as a result. Damn it! Thanks for keeping me honest.

  11. Luke says:

    And why shouldn’t we conclude that this is Mikhail’s first step towards embracing Blackboard? It’s not selling out, it’s buying in! (Of course, I’m kidding)

    By the way… not serious?

  12. Mikhail says:

    Blackboard now? Next post.

  13. jimgroom says:

    Brilliant, Luke.

    I had a feeling all this talk about film, television, and music would lead back to Ed Tech stuff, I just didn’t know how!

    BlackBoard seems so much clearer to me now that I have given up on principles. And these digressions were actually all leading towards the announcement that Bb now has a garage for me to play in, technically an EduGarage.

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