We Are Drowning in a Devolved World: An Open Letter from Devo
Following the band's Rock Hall nomination, founder Gerald Casale reflects on its dystopian legacy in the age of Trump.
In 2018, 15 years after becoming eligible, Devo was nominated for the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. The honorees will be announced a week from today. I was immediately struck by the timing of our sudden recognition: When Devo formed more than 40 years ago, we never dreamed that two decades into the 21st century, everything we had theorized would not only be proven, but also become worse than we had imagined. For me, Devo has been a long journey littered with broken dreams, but the nomination compelled me to put things in perspective. I know that many are called but few are chosen.
Forty-eight years ago, on May 4, 1970, as a member of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), I was front and center being fired on by my fellow Americans in the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University, as we peacefully protested President Nixon’s expansion of the cancerously unpopular Vietnam War into Cambodia without an act of Congress. I was lucky and dodged the bullet, both literally and figuratively, but four students were killed, and nine more were seriously wounded by the armed, mostly teenaged, National Guard troops. Two of the four students killed, Alison Krause and Jeffery Miller, were close acquaintances of mine. Less than a year earlier, as an Admissions/Curriculum counselor to incoming students, I had admitted them to the Honors College program.
May 4 changed my life, and I truly believe Devo would not exist without that horror. It made me realize that all the Quasar color TVs, Swanson TV dinners, Corvettes, and sofa beds in the world didn't mean we were actually making progress. It meant the future could be not only as barbaric as the past, but that it most likely would be. The dystopian novels 1984, Animal Farm, and Brave New World suddenly seemed less like cautionary tales about the encroaching fusion of technological advances with the centralized, authoritarian power of the state, and more like subversive road maps to condition the intelligentsia for what was to come.
As I started working with my Kent State poet friend, Bob Lewis, a philosophy emerged, fueled by the revelations that linear progress in a consumer society was a lie. Things were not getting better. There were no flying cars and domed cities, as promised in Popular Science; rather, there was a dumbing down of the population engineered by right-wing politicians, televangelists, and Madison Avenue. I called what we saw “De-evolution,” based upon the tendency toward entropy across all human endeavors. Borrowing the tactics of the Mad Men-era of our childhood, we shortened the name of the idea to the marketing-friendly “Devo.” We were not left-wing politicos. We were more informed by Jungian principles of duality in human nature, and we realized human flaws spread out across the political spectrum. Hence: “We’re All Devo,” an idea from which we did not exempt ourselves.
Then, and in the decades to follow, we witnessed an America where the capacity for critical thought and reasoning were eroding fast. People mindlessly repeating slogans from political propaganda and ad campaigns: “America, Love It or leave It”; “Don’t Ask Why, Drink Bud Dry”; “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby”; even risk-free, feel-good slogans like “Give Peace a Chance.” Here was an emerging Corporate Feudal State. You were either inside the draw bridge at night, or outside with the gnashing of teeth.
Rebellion appeared hopelessly obsolete. If the message wasn’t sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, there could be hell to pay. More and more, it seemed like the only real threat to consumer society at our disposal was meaning: turning sloganeering on its head for sarcastic or subversive means, and making people notice that they were being moved and manipulated by marketing, not by well-meaning friends disguised as mom-and-pop. And so creative subversion seemed the only viable course of action. We mixed our outrage with equal parts satire and dark humor. What else could a poor boy do?
Prior to the resignation of the nefarious Richard M. Nixon, I partnered with a new collaborator, Mark Mothersbaugh, and with his musical prowess we found the sonic alchemy for the Devo aesthetic. We formed a band of brothers around the philosophy of Devolution, only to be proven all too right.
Presently, the fabric that holds a society together has shredded in the wind. Everyone has their own facts, their own private Idaho stored in their expensive cellular phones. The earbuds are in, the feedback loops are locked, and the Frappuccino’s are flowing freely. Social media provides the highway straight back to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The restless natives react to digital shadows on the wall, reduced to fear, hate, and superstition. There are climate change deniers, and there are even more who think that the climate is being maliciously manipulated by corporate conglomerates owned by the Central Bank to achieve global control of resources and wealth. If only that James Bond-style fantasy were true, I would be much more excited about the future, which I fear is more of a slow-death conspiracy of dunces like in Mike Judge’s movie, Idiocracy, the movie Devo should have made.
We are drowning in a devolved, WWF Smackdown-style world, with warring, huckster TV pundits from “The Left” and “The Right” distracting the clueless TV viewership while our vile, venal Mobster-in-Chief (who makes Idiocracy’s Macho Camacho look fit for office) and his corrupt minions rob the nation’s coffers in a shamelessly cruel, Grab-'Em-By-The-Pussy Kleptocracy. They reflect the prevailing mentality of the electorate. It’s as if Christopher Nolan wrote the script for America, where Trump is the Joker handing out Cabinet positions to The Suicide Squad: Hey, Betsy! You hate public education? How’d you like to run the Department of Education? Scott, you don’t give a shit about poisoning the environment for your kids and grandkids, right? Here’s your new office, Pal. Don’t forget that soundproof phone booth!
The rise of authoritarian leadership around the globe, fed by ill-informed populism, is well-documented at this point. And with it, we see the ugly specter of increased racism and anti-Semitism. It’s open season on those who gladly vote against their own self-interests. The exponential increase in suffering for more and more of the population is heartbreaking to see. “Freedom of choice is what you got / Freedom from choice is what you want,” those Devo clowns said in 1980.
So, let us not talk falsely now; the hour is getting late. Perhaps the reason Devo was even nominated after 15 years of eligibility is because Western society seems locked in a death wish. Devo doesn’t skew so outside the box anymore. Maybe people are a bit nostalgic for our DIY originality and substance. We were the canaries in the coalmine warning our fans and foes of things to come in the guise of the Court Jester, examples of conformity in extremis in order to warn against conformity. We were certainly not the one-hit wonders the dismissive rock press likes to say we were. We have always been the Rodney Dangerfields of Rock ‘N’ Roll. We were polarizing because we did not “play ball” with the sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll messaging dictum.
But today Devo is merely the house band on the Titanic. With three generations of fans, 10 studio albums, five live albums, scores of singles, scores of music videos (a format which we pioneered), and eight world tours committed to history since our 1978 debut record, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, we’ve all too chillingly stood the test of time. 2020 will be the 40th anniversary of our Freedom of Choice record. Don’t be surprised to see us on tour then in our iconic, red Energy Domes, careening toward the latest Presidential election/selection. Speaking truth to power is a never-ending battle. In the best-case scenario, we avoid sinking into the abyss and, as a society, scratch ourselves back to square one.
Is there any question that De-evolution is real?
Devo founder Gerald Casale is a director, and songwriter based in Los Angeles. Vote for Devo in the Rock Hall's Fan Vote here.