Beyond an art-school joke

Lots of people remember Devo for their hit song “Whip It.” The song’s video was one of the first played on MTV, and helped catapult the band to stardom. What many people don’t know is the band was founded on some radical principles. The name "Devo" comes from the band’s concept of “de-evolution — the idea that, instead of continuing to evolve, mankind has actually begun to regress, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd-mentality of American society."

Founding members Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were students at Kent State University while the college was a major hub for hippie-radicals in the 1960s and ‘70s. Casale was present on May 4, 1970, when the National Guard opened fire on a peaceful protest, killing four students. That experience led to the band’s formation, and helped inform its art and politics for the duration of its career.

Xpress: Can you elaborate on the theory of “de-evolution” that the band was named after?
Casale: It was partially an art-school joke… We sort of adopted it as an explanation of what we saw in the culture, which was not progress, not the brilliant and bright future that the ‘50s had promised, with dome cities and flying cars and technology helping humans with disease and labor.

Quite the opposite — we saw infrastructure falling apart, decimation of the education system a la the Republicans and Nixon. We saw more and more factions developing, more and more violence worldwide, people getting actually dumber, not able to engage in rational and analytical thought or discussion, just repeating mindless sound bytes and propaganda slogan from TV and we called that De-Evolution.

The video for “Whip It” was one of the first videos played on MTV. Was there cognitive dissonance for you, coming from such a revolutionary background and then becoming commercially successful via MTV?
It was a wonderful moment where the genie got out of the bottle before they figured it out and clamped down on Devo … We were very happy that MTV was in this position at this time playing the Devo video that later on they would have never played, it would have never met their censorship standards, but it slipped through the cracks in the beginning because they had no programming. MTV came into existence and needed music videos and because it was not nationally syndicated yet, it was open to anything; it was trying to bring music to people not as a down-the-line-from-radio hit, but rather starting with music videos. And that was a short-lived goal. It didn’t take MTV long to become a commercial monster … They quickly tied their playlist into Top 40 songs.

I have read that the shootings at Kent State were an impetus to start the band.
Yes, none of what I just told you would have even come about if it had not been for the trauma of May 4th … I don’t think I had the same philosophical sensibility before the killings as I did after, it was like the hippie part of me was killed, it was no more Mr. Nice Guy.

I no longer believed in the essential goodness of humanity, with a few bad apples. I no longer thought that good ideas and merit would ever win the day. That stupidity and vast evil was a far more prevalent force in the Universe and that brute power wins no matter how unjust it is … And history right after the fact proved me right, because they spun the story to make the students look like the culprits instead of the victims that they were … and Devo was a creative response to a situation that would maybe make someone else join The Weather Underground and start blowing up buildings.

It seems to me that these days there’s not quite that spirit on college campuses that there was in the ‘60s.

Of course not. We live in a corporate feudal society … All people want is bling-bling and immediate money for the least amount of effort. When they do get a job they just want to keep it, they don’t want to cause trouble and they live in abject fear. A generation today grew up where corporate culture had already become the model, and then you add to that the pseudo-militaristic assault on privacy, like what happens to a person at an airport today, that would have been intolerable to anyone in my day. People are used to standing in line, shutting up, doing what they’re told, being afraid that with the wrong comment they’ll be in a secondary search and then in jail. It’s all been a training program to get people used to absolute authority, across-the-board authority, no matter how illegitimate…

And that’s not by accident. Certainly for the right-wing forces that are represented by people like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, after all the false drum-beating for patriotism and democracy, underneath it all is basically a hatred of anything but conformity. They certainly don’t want the masses to be educated. You can see the way that education has been decimated. Teachers are disrespected and not paid anything. If you have an informed population, you have people questioning authority and government policy. If they don’t know any better and are kept on a level of hand-to-mouth survival, they won’t make any trouble. And program is work. We don’t have a democracy, that’s my position. Democracy is a brand and we don’t live in a democracy. We live in a feudal state, that’s what it is.

— Uphar Neibuger is a freelance writer and music promoter.

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7 thoughts on “Beyond an art-school joke

  1. Dionysis

    Pretty astute observations by Casale. As an aside, Mark Mothersbaugh is among the most successful film and television score writers out there, having done the sound tracks for countless films and television programs, as well as music for many video games.

  2. JonathanBarnard

    Astute? Hardly. Corporate culture was much more dominant in 1970 than now. Some 20% of the workforce was employed by Fortune 500 companies in 1980; less than 9% was employed by them in 2006. (And the figure has been steadily dropping.) In terms of spouting nonsense, I think he’s right up there with Glenn Beck.

  3. Dionysis

    “Corporate culture was much more dominant in 1970 than now.”

    You must be joking.

    “The increasing globalization of U.S. corporations gives them the leverage to hold down wages and resist unionization. Average real wages (corrected for inflation) have been falling since the early 1970s. By 1992, average weekly earnings in the private, non-agricultural part of the U.S. economy were 19 percent below their peak in the early 1970s. Nearly one-fourth of the U.S. workforce now earns less in real terms than the 1968 minimum wage! The trend toward less unionization is evident…in the graph…,which shows a steady decline in union membership since the 1950s. This is a chicken-and-egg relationship because weaker unions are less able to restrict corporate behavior and the resulting freedom of action for global corporations means unions will be weakened further by companies putting their workers here in competition with low-paid workers abroad…

    Over the last 15 years transnational corporations have gotten basically everything they wanted: the collapse of communism, free trade agreements, deregulation, lower taxes, the weakening of trade unions and the pushing down of wage rates…

    The trend is evident when you consider that employment in the U.S. manufacturing sector has declined over the past 30 years from 33 percent of the total workforce to less than 17 percent, even though our manufacturing sector has steadily increased output. As this trend continues we will see the elimination of most U.S. manufacturing jobs…

    http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/econ101/americanDream.html

    Not only has the influence of corporations grown dramatically, but with the activist Supreme Court overturning 100 years of established case law, we now see corporations undermining our very democracy without any accountability. You think that signals a weakening of corporate power?

    Trying to refute the points by citing Fortune 500 companies as the sole barometer of corporate influence is spurious.

    Yes, observations noted in the letter are quite astute.

  4. JonathanBarnard

    Do I think that income inequality in this country has been a growing problem over the last few decades? Absolutely. The government has taken some steps to address this issue with the implementation of the earned income tax credit under Clinton and Obama’s healthcare bill that will eventually provide health insurance for the neediest, but I think these steps are far from enough. We need higher income tax rates for the wealthy and means-testing for social security, for instance. And while I laud Obama for bolstering Pell grant aid to provide access to college for those with low incomes, he needs to go farther. And let’s hope healthcare in this country evolves toward something that makes more sense for users—like socialized medicine. And let’s also hope that Obama gets to make a few more appointments to the Supreme Court—because I worry about its composition too.

    Still, I find much of Casale’s commentary and much of what was written in the link you provided completely wrongheaded. The idea that average Americans are corporate serfs living “hand to mouth” and increasingly denied educations is ludicrous. Despite serious problems with income inequality, Americans of all income levels are in reality much wealthier than they were back in the sixties. Using real income is misleading because it tends to exaggerate inflation and underplays gains in quality. (For instance, cars are much more durable—thanks mostly to the effects of global competition, especially from the Japanese—so buying a cheap second hand car will keep you on the road for much longer.) Home ownership rates have gone up a bit, and those homes are much larger and have more cars in their garages (despite a drop in the size of households). Inside, the homes are packed with vastly superior consumer goods. People have access to much more varied and better quality food (but unfortunately eat too much of it.) They eat out more. They travel more. Time use studies show that they have more true leisure time. More of them graduate from high school. More of them graduate from college (though college graduation rates here have regrettably stalled since the 1980s, unlike in the rest of the world). Student-teacher ratios in public elementary schools are lower. People live more robust lives in old age. Rather than growing conformity, there is growing tolerance of differences. There have been huge gains, for instance, in acceptance of interracial marriage and gays. The Internet has provided greater access to information and a wider range of viewpoints.

    Likewise—and largely as a result of globalization—recent decades have brought huge improvements in living standards in third world countries, particularly in Asia and South America. (Not so much in Africa, unfortunately.) Generally speaking, there is greater political freedom throughout the world, according to the NGOs that track that. Fewer places are engulfed by conflict. And the biggest new challenge facing the world—the problem of global warming—is in fact largely caused by the widespread rise of living standards.

    The trend is evident when you consider that employment in the U.S. manufacturing sector has declined over the past 30 years from 33 percent of the total workforce to less than 17 percent, even though our manufacturing sector has steadily increased output.

    Growing productivity in manufacturing is something that should be celebrated. Productivity gains are always higher in manufacturing than services. Naturally, that means that the percentage of the workers employed in manufacturing will decline and the number in services will rise. As computerization and mechanization reduce the relative need for factory workers (without reducing output), standards of living increase since more workers are available to provide services as teachers, nurses, massage therapists or what have you—just as productivity gains in agriculture provided workers for factories beginning in the industrial revolution.

    I have issues with corporate influence and believe we need stronger regulations in some areas, but if corporations were really calling all of the shots, then why does the U.S. have one of the world’s highest corporate tax rates? While income tax rates have been slashed (and in my opinion need to go up for the wealthy), corporate tax rates I think are pretty reasonable—only slightly lower than they were in the seventies and much higher than they were before WWII. And by the way, low and middle income people pay a much lower percentage of their income in taxes than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

    As a liberal, I find it interesting how the far left mirrors the far right in terms of their pessimism—supposedly there was some sort of golden age in the middle of the 20th century, but everything is going to hell in a handbasket now. Outside of global warming concerns, the facts don’t support that.

  5. Dionysis

    I don’t disagree with anything in your first paragraph, and in fact would second many of your points, with one caveat. And you admittedly do raise many valid items of consideration in the second. Providing the link did not constitute carte blanche agreement with everything stated (in particular the ‘”hand to mouth” bit, although the past two years have thrust more into that situation). And while it’s hard to deny that, setting aside ‘real income’ as you suggest, a more benign relationship of the citizenry to corporations and the wealthy can be made. However, there are troubling dynamics at work that overshadow the positive.

    The growing income gap and redistribution of wealth upward is linked in a very ominous way to the evolution of what is essentially becoming a plutocracy, with a rapid evisceration of the traditional middle-class.

    “Wall Street has successfully infiltrated our government and most policies are vetted to ensure banking success before ever becoming law or what we now pass as reform…

    The amount of people that are long-term unemployed is at record levels. … we have never been close to a similar situation going back to the late 1940s when records started being kept. These are structural problems. Nearly 7 million of the officially unemployed today have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. The working and middle class saddled with incredible amounts of debt are losing any ability to stay above water. This is why we see those jumping on food assistance exploding even at a faster rate than those losing their jobs. Why? We have a giant class of working poor in the United States.

    9 of the top 10 industries in the United States are low paying service sector work…

    …manufacturing sector in the U.S. has been taken apart and this goes back to the 1970s. These were quality jobs that are not coming back. If you take a look at the actual FIRE side of things (finance, insurance, and real estate) job losses are showing up in good numbers but this sector has gone up on a very clear path since the 1950s. We have decided to push real estate and toxic loan products instead of making things. The banking sector has outsourced our workforce. Why else are the top 10 job sectors in low paying service sector work like cashiers or servers?

    This correlation did not happen by accident.
    http://www.mybudget360.com/middle-class-financially-squeezed-by-the-plutocracy-long-term-unemployment-food-stamp-participation/

    Increasing numbers of people are struggling to exist, working two or more part-time jobs, seeing their educational efforts result in lower wages for fewer job opportunities, and an increasing alienation of citizens towards their government. The growing cynicism that sees little difference between Democrats and Republicans being pawns of corporate power is pervasive.

    “Our nation has now created a larger gap in the distribution of wealth than the massive chasm that helped fuel the Great Depression. In 1928, one year before the global economic collapse, the wealthiest .001% of the U.S. population owned 892 times more than 90% of the nation’s citizens. Today, the top .001% of the U.S. owns 976 times more than the entire bottom 90%…”

    http://ecolocalizer.com/2010/04/12/plutocracy-reborn-wealth-inequality-gap-largest-since-1928

    The long-standing influence of corporations on our democracy was legitimized and unfettered with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission.

    President Obama himself referred to the ruling as ““a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.”

    With regard to the growth of productivity and the loss of American manufacturing jobs (accompanied by growth in corporate wealth), in theory it should be celebrated, but in practical terms today, those job loses are at the expense of American’s well-being, while largely benefiting the development of other countries and the financial well-being of corporate executives. It is hard to see that “standards of living increase since more workers are available to provide services as teachers, nurses, massage therapists or what have you” as a reality. I see continuing waves of all types of jobs disappear permanently.

    I might agree that corporate tax rates are “reasonable” if it weren’t for the fact that for years, they’ve hosed the public to the tune of over 18 billion per year, and corporate taxes are at their second lowest level in history at 7.4% of tax receipts. Corporations have consistently relied on politicians to preserve this arrangement.

    I’d like to be more optimistic, and certainly don’t look for things to be morose over, but I think the reality and the future it portends is darker.

  6. JonathanBarnard

    I’m definitely not trying to say there aren’t serious issues in the country.

    The recession is bad and has been hitting the long-term unemployed particularly hard, and I’m afraid we’re going to have high rates of unemployment for several more years.

    There’s plenty to be gloomy about, I know. But I’m still fairly optimistic long term. Maybe I’m foolish (and maybe it’s just a psychological defense mechanism as a parent).

    Thanks for the exchange of views.

  7. Dionysis

    “Thanks for the exchange of views.”

    And thank you as well.

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