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.