I want to talk some more about Devo.
That’s their video for the song “Beautiful World”, my favorite song of theirs along with “Gut Feeling”. It appears on their fourth album, 1981’s New Traditionalists. With the previous album, Freedom of Choice, Devo had established a pattern, borrowed from David Bowie, of taking on a new aesthetic persona with each new album, and for New Traditionalists, they chose costumes and images that recalled the Kennedy era, deliberately calling back to a time that is widely remembered as optimistic and forward-looking. Of course Devo themselves hadn’t suddenly become optimistic; their intention was ironic. They meant to remind their audience how unfounded that optimism was in retrospect and to compare the Kennedy era to the new “age of optimism” being ushered in by Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, in Devo’s cosmology, represented the physical embodiment of devolution in American life. His election was only the tangible result of a long term negative shift in American economics and politics, away from a consensus based around the welfare of working people and toward a consensus based around the welfare of big business and the military. That Reagan appropriated baby-boom era images of Americana, American international rightness and the nuclear family, images which Devo took every opportunity to parody, in order to better sell his platform to voters whose interests he was working against must have seemed too perfect and horrible to artists like Devo who understood cultural irony so well.
According to Jerry Casale, Devo’s bass player and the writer/singer of the song, “Beautiful World” began as an idea for a music video; the song was written to fit the imagery he had in mind. In the result, the visuals and the song mirror and reinforce each other through simple irony. When Jerry (who also directed and edited the video himself) sings “It’s a beautiful world we live in,” and then chooses to show footage of soldiers being killed by a machine gun, his intention is obvious and immediate; the sentiment that we live in a “beautiful world” is undercut by the reality we’re presented with of graphic death on a large scale. Likewise, when he intercuts scenes of light entertainment with ugliness and violence (real and fictional), we’re meant to recognize how forced the happiness in the lighter scenes is. There is no subtlety here. It is probably the least subtle Devo song, to the point that some people might be turned off by what could be perceived as a lack of imagination. (Indeed, as the 80s and 90s progressed, the ironic use of stock and newsreel footage in music videos became a cliche to the point where many viewers now would dismiss the video out of hand.) But if “Beautiful World” isn’t subtle it’s because in Jerry and Devo’s mind the point they’re trying to make isn’t subtle; it is as big and obvious as the Earth.
"Beautiful World" is, more than any of their other songs or videos, the simplest and most straight-forward statement by Devo on irony. To them, irony isn’t an approach or a mode of thinking. It’s the condition of the world. That widespread poverty, misery and violence can co-exist alongside comparatively smaller pockets of security; that people can so willfully misunderstand the reasons for the poverty, misery and violence as well as the security; that elaborate but empty justifications have to be repeated again and again in order to maintain the status quo, all of this is irony on a world-wide scale. For Devo, the knowledge of that irony is both horrifying and the raw material of their art. At the end of the last verse, Jerry says directly:
It’s a beautiful world
It’s not for me.
This statement is the hinge of the whole song; with it, Devo points the finger at those people who refuse to recognize the connection between the conditions of their lives and the larger conditions of the world. It’s not a snarky, self-satisfied accusation. It’s angry and sad. Whatever satisfaction attentive people like Devo get from being right is undermined by the terrible knowledge of humanity’s condition and the powerful indifference of their neighbors.
This has a different feel from most Devo media.
Stills from RIB, a student film from 2011.
This is a poster I made for a movie that I and some friends of mine made in 2011. It was made to be the final project for a college class my friend was in, but the day before we were going to show it, a tornado destroyed 10 percent of our town. We ended up showing it at a separate location a year later.
TECHNOLOGY AND THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN EXPERIENCE (Chapter 5 from THE END OF WORK by Jeremy Rifkin)
This is a chapter from a book called The End of Work written by Jeremy Rifkin and published in 1995. (There’s a newer edition from 2004, but I found my copy at a used book store. Because it’s older, a lot of the statistics are out of date, but the trends they illustrate are still valid.) The book makes the argument that increasing productivity and automation due to new technology and changing work organization create fewer jobs than they destroy. To illustrate that point, the author dedicates the fifth chapter of the book, Technology and the African-American Experience, to explaining why there are so many poor black people in the United States. It’s not an exhaustive answer to that question, but it’s the most complete, short and self-contained economic history of blacks in the US that I’ve found in one place.
Rifkin’s writing continues from here:
At the beginning of the twentieth century more than 90 percent of the black population of the United States still lived below the Mason-Dixon line. The vast majority of blacks were tied to a form of agriculture that had changed little since the first slaves were brought to America. While the Civil War had given black Americans their political emancipation, they still remained yoked to an exploitative economic system that kept them in a state of near servitude.
After the Civil War and a short period of reconstruction, in which blacks made significant political gains, the white plantation owners were able to reassert control over their former slaves by instituting the sharecropper system. Near starvation, landless, and desperate for work, black Americans became reluctant pawns in the new sharecropping scheme. Under the new system, they were leased farmland and provided housing, seed, farm tools, and mules. In return, 40 percent of their harvest had to be given over to the landowner. Although in principle the remaining harvest was to go to the sharecropper, it seldom worked out that way. The monthly stipend, or “finish”, provided to the sharecroppers to cover monthly expenses was always too little, forcing tenants to borrow on credit from the plantation general store. Goods were often marked up, and interest rates on credit were generally exorbitant. As a result, by the time the harvest was in and counted, the sharecroppers inevitably found that they owed the landowner more money than their share of the harvest was worth, forcing them into further debt and dependency. More often than not, planters fixed their bookkeeping records, cheating the sharecropper still further. A system of rigid segregation laws backed up by a reign of terror ensured white supremacy and a docile workforce.
Most black sharecroppers planted cotton, one of the most labor-intensive field crops. Picking cotton balls at harvest was a grueling exercise. Laborers had to crawl on their knees and stoop over as they worked the cotton fields. The soft puff of cotton was surrounded by a tough stem that constantly pierced the hands. Cotton was picked and put into seventy-five-pound sacks that were dragged on a strap around the shoulder. Cotton picking lasted from sunup to sundown. In that time a seasoned picker could pick more than 200 pounds.
Plantation housing was primitive, lacking heating and plumbing. Children were little schooled and generally helped out in the fields. The sharecropping system amounted to little more than slavery by another name.
A growing number of blacks began migrating to northern cities during and immediately after World War I, to escape the impoverishment of the rural South. With foreign immigration cut off during the war years, northern manufactures desperately needed unskilled labor and began recruiting heavily among southern blacks. For many African-Americans, the prospect of s of earning a living wage in northern factories was sufficient to pick up stakes and leave families and friends behind in search of a better life. Most blacks, however, chose to stay, preferring not to risk the uncertainties of life in the northern cities.
Then , in October 1944, an event took place in the rural Mississippi Delta that was forever to change the circumstances of African-Americans. On October 2 and estimated 3,000 people crowded onto a cotton field just outside of Clarksdale, Mississippi, to watch the first successful demonstration of a mechanical cotton picker. Nicholas Lemann, in his book The Promised Land, describes what took place. “The pickers, painted bright-red, drove down the white rows of cotton. Each one had mounted in front a row of spindles, looking like a wide mouth, full of metal teeth, that had been turned vertically. The spindles, about the size of human fingers, rotated in a way that stripped the cotton from the plants, then a vacuum pulled it up a tube and into the big wire basket that was mounted on top of the picker.”
The crowd of onlookers was awed by the sight. In an hour, a laborer could pick twenty pounds of cotton. The mechanical pickers could pick a thousand pounds of cotton in the same amount of time. Each machine could do the work of fifty people.
The arrival of the mechanical cotton picker in the South was timely. Many black servicemen, recently back from the war, were beginning to challenge Jim Crow laws and segregation statutes had kept them in virtual servitude since Reconstruction. Having fought for their country and been exposed to places in the United States and overseas where segregation laws did not exist, many veterans were no longer willing to accept the status quo. Some began to question their circumstances; others began to act. In Greenville, Mississippi, four black veterans walked to the county courthouse and asked to register to vote. After repeated rejections they filed a complaint with the FBI which in turn sent agents to Greenville to help register the four men to vote in the state of Mississippi.
Whites in Mississippi, and elsewhere in the South, were worried. The rumblings of change were getting louder and threatened to undermine the precarious arrangement that had maintained the plantation economy for so long. A prominent planter in the Delta wrote to the local Cotton Association with a suggestion that was to be taken up, in short order, by white landowners all over the South. His name was Richard Hopson, the brother of Howard Hopson, whose land was used to demonstrate the marvels of the new mechanical cotton picker. In his letter, Hopson reflected on the growing racial tension in the Delta and wrote, “I am confident that you are aware of the serious racial problem which confronts us at this time and which may become more serious as time passes. …I strongly advocate the farmers of Mississippi Delta changing as rapidly as possible from the old tenant or sharecropper system of farming, to complete mechanized farming. …Mechanized farming will only require a fraction of the amount of labor which is required by the sharecropper system thereby tending to equalize the white and negro population which would automatically make our racial problem easier to handle.”
In 1949 only 6 percent of the cotton in the South was harvested mechanically; by 1964, it was 78 percent. Eight years later, 100 percent of the cotton was picked by machines.
For the first time since they had been brought over as slaves to work the agricultural fields in the South, black hands and backs were no longer needed. Overnight, the sharecropper system was made obsolete by technology. Planters evicted millions of tenants from the land, leaving them homeless and jobless. Other developments hastened the process. Federal programs forced a 40 percent reduction in cotton acreage in the 1950s. Much of the land was converted to timber or pasture, which required little labor. Restrictions on tractor production were lifted after the war, greatly accelerating the substitution of tractors for manpower in the fields. The introduction of chemical defoliants to kill weeds reduced the workforce still further - black workers had traditionally been used to chop down weeds. When the federal government extended the minimum wage to farm laborers, most southern planters found it more economical to substitute chemical defoliants for hand chopping, leaving blacks with no source of employment.
The push of mechanization in southern agriculture combined with the pull of higher wages in the industrial cities of the North to create what Nicholas Lemann called “One of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history.” More than 5 million black men, women, and children migrated north in search of work between 1940 and 1970. The migration routes ran from Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia along the Atlantic Seaboard to New York City and Boston; from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Alabama north to Chicago and Detroit; and from Texas and Louisiana west to California. By the time the migration was over, more than half of of all black Americans had moved from South to North and from an entrenched rural way of life to become an urban industrial proletariat.
The mechanization of farming deeply affected the whole of agriculture, forcing millions of farmers and farm laborers off the land. Its effect, however, on African-Americans was more dramatic and immediate because of their greater concentration in the cotton-growing region of the South, where mechanization spread more quickly and forcibly than was the case with other farm technology. Equally important, unlike most farmers, the vast majority of blacks did not own the land they worked. Since most where sharecroppers at the mercy of the planters, and existed largely outside the money economy, they had no capital at their disposal and therefore no means by which to weather the technological storm that swept over their communities. The Reverend Martin Luther King tells of his surprise in visiting a plantation in Alabama in 1965, meeting sharecroppers who had never before seen U.S. currency.
The mechanical cotton picker proved far more effective than the Emancipation Proclamation in freeing blacks from a plantation economy. It did so, however, at a terrible price. The forced eviction from the land and subsequent migration of millions of destitute black Americans to the North would soon unleash social and political forces of unimaginable proportions - forces that would soon come to test the very soul of the American compact. Writing in 1947, southern lawyer and businessman David Cohn implored the nation to take heed of the storm clouds on the political horizon. He warned:
The country is upon the brink of a process of change as great as any that has occurred since the industrial revolution. …Five million people will be removed from the land within the next few years. They must go somewhere. But where? They must do something. But what? They must be housed. But where is the housing?
Most of this group are farm negroes totally unprepared for urban industrial life. How will they be industrially absorbed? What will the effect of throwing them upon the labor market? What will be the effect upon race relations in the United States? Will the victims of farm mechanization become victims of race conflict?
There is an enormous tragedy in the making unless the United States acts, and acts promptly, upon a problem that affects millions of people and the whole structure of the nation.
CAUGHT BETWEEN TECHNOLOGIES
Although African-Americans were unaware of it at the time of their trek north, a second technological revolution had already begun in the manufacturing industries of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and New York that once again would lock them out of gainful employment. This time the economic displacement created in its wake a new and permanent underclass in the inner cities and the conditions for widespread social unrest and violence for the remained of the century.
At first, blacks found limited access to unskilled jobs in the auto, steel, rubber, chemical, and meat-packing industries. Northern industrialists often used them as strikebreakers or to fill the vacuum left by the decline in immigrant workers from abroad. The fortunes of black workers in the North improved steadily until 1954 and then began a forty-year historical decline.
In the mid-1950s, automation began to take its toll on the nation’s manufacturing sector. Hardest hit were unskilled jobs in the very industries where black workers were concentrated. Between 1953 and 1962, 1.6 million blue collar jobs were lost in the manufacturing sector. Whereas the unemployment rate for blacks had never exceeded 8.5 percent between 1947 and 1953, and the white rate of unemployment had never gone beyond 4.6 percent, by 1964 blacks were experiencing an unemployment rate of 12.4 percent while white unemployment was only 5.9 percent. Ever since 1964 black unemployment in the United States has remained twice that of whites. Writing on The Problem of the Negro Movement in 1964, civil rights activist Tom Kahn quipped, “It is as if racism, having put the Negro in his economic place, stepped aside to watch technology destroy that place.”
Beginning in the mid 1950s, companies started building more automated manufacturing plants in the newly emerging suburban industrial parks. Automation and suburban relocation created a crisis or tragic dimensions for unskilled black workers. The old multistoried factories of the central cities began to give way to new single-level plants that were more compatible with the new automation technologies. The limited availability of land and rising tax rates of the cities were a powerful disincentive, pushing manufacturing businesses into the newly emerging suburbs. The newly laid interstate highway system and the ring of metropolitan expressways being built around northern cities increasingly favored truck over train transport of goods, providing a further incentive to relocate plants to the suburbs. Finally, employers anxious to reduce labor costs and weaken the strength of unions saw relocations as a way to draw distance between plants and militant union concentrations. Eventually the same anti-union feelings pushed companies to locate plants in the South, Mexico and overseas.
The new corporate strategy of automation and suburbanization became immediately apparent in the automotive industry. Ford’s River Rouge complex in Detroit was long the flagship plant of the company’s far-flung operations. The Rogue plant was also the home of the UAW’s most vocal and militant local union, whose membership was over 30 percent black. So powerful was Local 600 of the UAW, that it could cripple Ford’s entire operation with a single strike action.
Despite the fact that the Rogue complex had plenty of room for expansion, Ford management made the decision to move much of the production away from the site to new automated plants in the suburbs, in large part to weaken the union and regain control over its manufacturing operations. In 1945 the Rogue plant housed 85,000 workers. Just fifteen years later the employment rolls had plummeted to less than 30,000. Historian Thomas J. Sugrue notes that from the late 1940s through 1957, Ford spent more than $2.5 million on automation and plant expansion. Ford initiatives were matched by General Motors and Chrysler. Together, the Big Three auto companies constructed twenty-five new, more automated plants in the suburbs surrounding Detroit.
Satellite businesses that serviced the automotive industry also began to automate production in the 1950s - especially companies manufacturing machine tools, wire, car parts, and other metal products. Many auto-parts manufacturers like Detroit’s Briggs Manufacturing and Murray Auto Body were forced to close up their shops in the mid- to late 1950s as the giant automakers began to integrate their production processes, taking over more and more of the manufacturing of component parts in newly automated production lines.
The number of manufacturing jobs in Detroit fell dramatically beginning in the mid-1950s as a result of automation and suburbanization of production. Black workers, who just a few years earlier were displaced by the mechanized cotton picker in the rural South, once again found themselves victims of mechanization. In the 1950s, 25.7 percent of Chrysler workers and 23 percent of General Motors workers were African-American. Equally important, because the black workers made up the bulk of the unskilled labor force, they were the first to be let go because of automation. In 1960 a mere twenty-four black workers were counted among the 7,425 skilled workers at Chrysler. At General Motors, only sixty-seven blacks were among the more than 11,000 skilled workers on the payroll. The productivity and unemployment figures tell the rest of the story. Between 1957 and 1964, manufacturing output doubled in the United States, while the number of blue collar workers fell by 3 percent. Again, many of the first casualties of the new automation drive were black workers , who were disproportionately represented in the unskilled jobs that were the first to be eliminated by the new machines. In manufacturing operations across the entire northern and western industrial belt, the forces of automation and suburbanization continued to take their toll on unskilled black workers, leaving tens of thousands of permanently unemployed men and women in their wake.
The introduction of computers and numerical control technology on the factory floor in the 1960s accelerated the process of technology displacement. In the nation’s four largest cities, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, where blacks made up a large percentage of the unskilled blue collar workforce - more than a million manufacturing, wholesale, and retail jobs were lost, many the result of technology displacement. Author James Boggs voiced the concern of many in the black community when he declared that “cybernation …is eliminating the ‘Negro jobs.’”
As businesses fled to the suburbs, millions of white middle and working class families followed suit, relocating in new suburban sub-divisions. The central cities became increasingly black and poor in the 1960s and 1970s. Sociologist William Julius Wilson notes that “the proportion of blacks living inside central cities increased from 52 percent in 1960 to 60 percent in 1973, while the proportion of whites residing in central cities decreased from 31 percent to 26 percent.” Wilson blames this exodus for the spiraling decline in the inner-city tax base, a precipitous drop in public services, and the entrapment of millions of black Americans in a self-perpetuating cycle of permanent unemployment and public assistance. In New York City in 1975, more than 15 percent of the residents were on some form of public assistance. In Chicago it was nearly 19 percent.
In the 1980s many of the nation’s northern cities partially revived by becoming hubs for the new information economy. Scores of downtown areas made the transition from “centers of production and distribution of material goods to centers of administration, information exchange and higher order service provision.” The emerging knowledge-based industries have meant increased jobs for high-skilled white collar and service workers. For large numbers of African-Americans, however, the new urban renaissance has only served to accentuate the ever widening employment and income gap between highly educated whites and poor unskilled blacks.
The only significant rise in employment among black Americans in the past twenty-five years has been in the public sector: more than 55 percent of the net increase in employment for blacks in the 1960s and 1970s occurred there. Many black professionals found jobs in the federal programs spawned by the Great Society initiatives of President Lyndon Johnson. Others found employment at the local and state levels, administrating social service and welfare programs largely for the black community that was being displaced by the new forces of automation and suburbanization. In 1960, 13.3 percent of the total employed black labor force was working in the public sector. A decade later more than 21 percent of all black workers in America were on public payrolls. By 1970s government employed 57 percent of all black male college graduates and 72 percent of all black female college graduates.
AUTOMATION AND THE MAKING OF THE URBAN UNDERCLASS
The corporate drive to automate and relocate manufacturing jobs split the black community into two separate and distinct economic groups. Millions of unskilled workers and their families became part of what social historians now call an underclass - a permanently unemployed part of the population whose unskilled labor is no longer required and who live hand-to-mouth, generation-to-generation, as wards of the state. A second smaller group of black middle-class professionals have been put on the public payroll to administer the many public-assistance programs designed to assist this new urban underclass. The system represents a kind of “welfare colonialism” say authors Michael Brown and Steven Erie “where blacks were called upon to administer their own state of dependence.’”
It is possible that the country might have taken greater notice of the impact that automation was having on black America in the 1960s and 1970s, had not a significant number of African-Americans been absorbed into public-sector jobs. As early as 1970, sociologist Sidney Willhelm observed that “As the government becomes the foremost employe for the working force in general during the transition into automation, it becomes even more so for the black worker. Indeed, if it were not for the government, negroes who lost their jobs in the business world would swell the unemployment ratio to fantastic heights.”
The public image of an affluent and growing black middle class was enough to partially deflect attention away from the growing plight of a large new black underclass that had become the first casualty of automation and the new displacement technologies.
Technological unemployment has fundamentally altered the sociology of America’s black community. Permanent joblessness has led to an escalating crime wave in the streets of America’s cities and the wholesale disintegration of black family life. The statistics are chilling. By the late 1980s one of every four young African American males was either in prison or on probation. In the nations’ capital, Washing DC, 42 percent of the black male population between eighteen and twenty-five years of age is either in jail, on parole,awaiting trial, or being sought by police. The leading cause of death among young black males is now murder.
In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a U.S. senator, published a controversial report on “Employment, Income and the Ordeal of the Negro Family” in which he argued rather forcefully that “The under-employment of the negro father has led to the break-up of the Negro family.” When that report was written, 25 percent of all black births were out of wedlock and nearly 25 percent of all black families were headed by women. Single-parent households headed by women are typically locked into a cycle of welfare dependency that is self-perpetuating generation after generation, with a high number of teenage pregnancies out of wedlock, a disproportionate school drop-out rate, and continued welfare dependency. Today, 62 percent of all black families are single-parent households.
These statistics are likely to rise in the remainder of the decade as an increasing number of unskilled black workers are let go in the current wave of re-engineering and downsizing. According to a report issued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, black wage earners made up nearly one third of the 180,000 manufacturing jobs lost in 1990 and 1991. Black also suffered disproportionately in the loss of white collar and service jobs in the early 1990s. The reason for the heavy losses in black employment, according to The Wall Street Journal, is that “blacks were concentrated in the most expendable jobs. More than half of all black workers held positions in the four job categories where companies made net employment cuts: office and clerical, skilled, semi-skilled and laborers.” John Johnson, the director of labor for the national Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), says that “what the whites often don’t realize is that while they are in a recession, blacks are in a depression.”
More than forty years ago, at the dawn of the computer age, the father of cybernetics, Norbert Neiner, warned of the likely adverse consequences of the new automation technologies. “Let us remember,” he said, “that the automatic machine …is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic consequences of slave labor.” Not surprisingly, the first community to be devastated by the cybernetics revolution was black America. With the introduction of automated machines, it was possible to substitute less costly, inanimate forms of labor for millions of African-Americans who had long toiled at the bottom of the economic pyramid, first as plantation slaves, then as sharecroppers, and finally as unskilled labor in northern factories and foundries.
For the first time in American history, the African-American was no longer needed in the economic system. Sidney Willhelm summed up the historical significance of what had taken place in his book Who Needs the Negro? "With the onset of automation the negro moves out of his historical state of oppression into one of uselessness. Increasingly, he is not so much economically exploited as he is irrelevant …The dominant whites no longer need to exploit the black minority: as automation proceeds, it will be easier for the former to disregard the latter. In short, White America, by a more perfect application of mechanization and a vigorous reliance upon automation, disposes of the negro; consequently, the negro transforms from an exploited labor force into an outcast."
Writing from his prison cell in the Birmingham jail, the Reverend Martin Luther King lamented the ever-worsening self-image of black American who were “forever fighting a degenerating sense of ‘no-bodiness.’” Marx’s reserve army of exploited labor had been reduced to Ralph Ellison’s specter of the “invisible man.” Automation had made large numbers of black workers obsolete. The economic constraints that had traditionally kept black Americans “in line” and passively dependent on the white power structure for their livelihoods, disappeared. Vanquished and forgotten, thousands of urban black Americans vented their frustration and anger by taking to the streets in urban ghettos across the country. The rioting began in Watts in 1965 and spread east to Detroit and other northern industrial cities over the remainder of the decade. After the Watts riots, one of the local residents delivered a terse postmortem warning to the nation that spoke directly to the pent-up rage that had led to the outbreak. “The whites,” he declared, “think they can just bottle people up in an area like Watts and then forget about them. It didn’t work.”
It should be noted that not all civil rights leaders at the time accurately diagnosed the problem at hand. Many traditional leaders in more mainstream black organizations continued to perceive the black plight in strictly political terms, arguing that social discrimination was at the root of the crisis and that antidiscrimination laws were the appropriate cure. A few, however, saw what was taking place in the economy as a precursor of a more fundamental change in black-white relations, with ominous consequences for the future of America. In the conclusion to his poignant book on the subject, Sidney Willhelm wrote, “An underestimation of the technological revolution can only lead to an underestimation of the concomitant racial revolution from exploitation to uselessness; to misjudge the present as but a continuation of industrialization rather than the dawn of a new technological era, assures an inability to anticipate the vastly different system of race relations awaiting the displaced Negro.”
Willhelm’s prediction proved correct. Today, millions of African-Americans find themselves hopelessly trapped in a permanent underclass. Unskilled and unneeded, the commodity value of their labor has been rendered virtually useless by the automated technologies that have come to displace them in the new high-tech global economy.
[Tumblr note: One thing Rifkin fails to do is describe the falling real benefits received by welfare recipients since 1970; it also isn’t able to include the gutting of welfare that Bill Clinton signed into law in 1996, the year after the book was published. Look here for more information.]
Wow, a lot of people sure like that Moebius/Joyce post. I’m kind of embarrassed I don’t have more content on here now.
There’s a mouse in our house.
That’s the cover to Oh, No! It’s DEVO, my second favorite album by the band Devo. I want to talk some about Devo.
Devo are a rock and roll band that started as a performance art project and kept being a performance art project to a degree. They’re not alone in that regard. A lot of acts from the late 60s on blurred the line between pop/rock music and performance art, either because they formed with that in mind (Oingo Boingo, Klaus Nomi, Pere Ubu, The Residents) or because they started incorporating more conceptual stuff into their live act/recordings/public image over time (David Bowie, Pink Floyd). What sets Devo apart from the others is the consistency and straight-forwardness of their philosophy.
Dave Thomas, the lead singer of Pere Ubu, another band from Ohio that formed around the same time, said this about Devo:
"They had a strategy. We found the idea of having a strategy to be really small town and hick."
Brian Eno, who produced their first album, said this:
"Anal is the word. They were a terrifying group of people to work with because they were so unable to experiment."
These statements were meant to be negative, but to me the idea that Devo worked from a plan, that they knew exactly what they wanted to say and only needed to work out how to say it, is inspiring. It’s too rare that a band or any other group of artists start out because they think they have a statement to make, and when that statement synchs well with the work being produced, the result is very refreshing.
Devo’s statement is, in essence, that society, in the throes of late Capitalism, is disintegrating. In the band’s lyrics and literature, that sentiment is couched in terms of the theory of “devolution”, a send up of Darwin which contends that humans are de-evolving back into apes. This idea is sometimes played for laughs in their videos and music, but the underlying point is serious and worrying. From behind their invented jargon and concepts, Devo want you to know that things are getting worse and there’s no indication that they’ll get better; angry pessimism has defined the group since its inception. Unlike other bands branded as “pessimistic” or “dark” whose lyrics either turn inward toward personal feelings of depression and listlessness or identify with morbid imagery, Devo is one of a handful of rock/pop groups that turn their negative feelings outward on what they see as ridiculous or doomed social and economic structures, and the only one I know of to so successfully phrase those feelings as satire.
Furthermore, there’s a dynamic of shifting relations between Devo’s message and the sound of their music over the course of their first five, “classic” albums. From around the time their first album came out, the band stated that their intention was to gradually de-emphasize the classic, guitar-based rock sound in their music in favor of synths and dancier beats. As they made that shift, starting in earnest with 1980’s Freedom of Choice, their sound became cleaner and more radio friendly, (their only big hit, “Whip It”, came off of Freedom of Choice,) while their lyrics and videos became darker and more pointed. The trend culminates in 1982’s Oh, No! It’s Devo!, an album that combines near parodically manic synth-dance music with the creepiest content of Devo’s career. Consider the start of album opener “Time Out For Fun”, spoken in a chipper, electronically pitched-up deadpan by lead-singer Mark Mothersbaugh:
This is Devo.
We would like to say
Things go both ways
New ideas stupid moves,
Nightmares or dreams come true.
Mucho work minus play.
Tension mounts in a twisted face.
Dark clouds in the crystal ball.
Tension mounts in a foreign place.
The screw turns, someone calls: time out for fun!
As he says this in the video for the song, Mark’s and the rest of the band’s heads twitch around on rotating potato-bodies, suspended in a weird geometric void. Compare to a song like “Mongoloid” or “Jocko Homo” from the first album, 1978’s Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, which, while still rooted in pessimism and irony, are more straight-forwardly comedic and not nearly as dire.
Because of their persistently detached style and downplaying of individual identities within the band via matching uniforms and hair styles, Devo were (and sometimes are) accused of being anti-humanist, cynical or even fascist by critics who either didn’t get their act or found it disingenuous. Again, Dave Thomas of Pere Ubu:
"I remember a couple songs they did that had emotion… They soon dropped those from the set. I find their ‘philosophy,’ i.e. what lies underneath the surface devolution material, to be vacuous, populist and cynical to a repulsive and unnecessary degree."
From a 1979 Rolling Stone article by Chris Morris on a Devo show in Santa Monica:
"Devo’s show bore all the orgiastic earmarks of a Nuremburg rally for spudboys. The noisy, ebullient fans, some of whom dressed in the bright yellow Devo uniforms being sold in the lobby, screamed with glee at the group’s propaganda films… About the only thing missing from the pageantry was a stage setting by Nazi architect Albert Speer.
…Devo’s songs, albeit clever, are basically a series of simple conceits, and repeated exposure to the band’s music only serves to expose its hollowness and the absence of any real emotion.
…The first-rate musicianship of guitarist Bob Mothersbaugh and drummer Alan Myers was rapidly submerged in an atmosphere of smugness and cynicism. In the end, the show became an exercise in string pulling - calculated and devoid of warmth.”
The fascism thing is silly enough to disregard, but both of these quotes have a common complaint: Devo are cold, emotionless and manipulative. Of course, I don’t buy that. There’s a lot of emotion in Devo’s songs, mostly anger, frustration and sadness. The problem is that they aren’t coming out and saying explicitly, “I am angry, frustrated and sad”; they move around on stage more like weird robots than human beings; they make strange-sounding proclamations and strange-looking videos; there’s a great deal of affectation involved in their performance. The conclusion that’s drawn is that they’re somehow “inauthentic”; they’re “faking”.
I find this definition of authenticity, when it’s applied to Devo or others, very limited. Distance, in this scheme, is the ultimate sign of bad faith. In contrast, I’d offer the German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s scheme in which distance, between the audience, the artist and the art/performance, can be the occasion for consideration and insight. Brecht questions the metric for “authenticity” or “truth” by which “more feeling” or “seems more lifelike” equals truer and rather proposes that truth in a performance be judged by how well what an artist means to convey (rather than how he/she conveys it) matches the conditions of reality. In this scheme, “realism” as a set of aesthetic choices doesn’t necessarily equal reality. In the same way, I argue that Devo for all their calculation and inhuman gestures do a better job of representing reality than most other bands or artists.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Devo soon.