s a kid, I always dropped everything and planted myself on the couch whenever MTV aired Devo’s “Whip It.” The first hit to the eye was the sight of the band donning red flowerpot hats and performing like robots in a phony ranch built inside a warehouse. Whenever Gerald V. Casale sang on-camera, his head was cocked away from the viewer and had the profile of dictators on posters. And then there was Mark Mothersbaugh, stripping a mannequin of a living woman piece by piece with his whip, having beer commercial cowboys and cowgirls cheer him on. To my pre-sexual self, that was all a cartoon. The synth-pop music was twitchy and giddy enough to soundtrack DuckTales and The Real Ghostbusters. Of course, I had no clue that the band was protesting. How could I tell that they were dedicated to showing us how mankind is Devo-lving into primitive consumers of pleasure in the face of technological advancement? How could I know that those cowboys were supposed to represent the decadent, but beautiful Reaganites who conquered America in 1981? And how would I know that the band was playing a vacuous pop song to “welcome” that triumph?
I’m curious about how the “Whip It” video affected the kids who are now playing in the new version of Devo. Casale and Mothersbaugh are supposedly passing the torch to the next generation. Photogenic musicians aged 10-13 were hired to play Devo covers at state fairs and shopping malls, with Disney paying the bills. The new label, Disney Sound focuses on translating alternative rock into family entertainment: They Might Be Giants dropped a record that teaches the alphabet and we’ll soon see an all-kid, Go-Go’s cover band. As the first of the label’s “remaking the band” series, Devo 2.0’s debut album, Dev2.0 had the original adult band playing the instruments on Devo oldies, while 13-year-old Nicole Stoehr took the mic. Included with the record is a DVD that has music videos of the children dressed in Devo 2.0-brand clothing, and playing in a swank room with plastic fantasique furniture and large screens showing ditzy computer animations of singing mutant potatoes and cream getting whipped. There are also interviews with the new “devolutionists,” photo galleries of those kids, and a documentary about a band of wacky Kent State students who went on to sell millions of….WAIT. What the hell is going on here?
Devo got dark, subversive, new wave songs into the pop charts because they deceptively seemed innocent to the ear. The group set about the deconstruction—most famously with their brilliant cover of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” that neutered Sixties rock rebellion into the hopeless, mechanical routine of everyday life. Their willfully generic pop hit, “Beautiful World” described utopia as sold on magazine covers and discount product displays. Devo got away with it all because mainstream audiences never grasped their “devolution” concept or their sense of irony (or they didn’t care). The band supposedly “sold out” 22 years ago by hawking Honda scooters, telling TV viewers, “Choose a scooter that best expresses your individuality,” while wearing matching uniforms and flowerpot helmets. “Beautiful World” was later sold away to fit with images of the splendors of shopping for a Target ad, but with the “NOT ME” punch-line removed to not confuse anyone, of course.
This brings us to Devo 2.0. Casale told Billboard that the project is “benignly subversive,” even though the “controversial politics and irony” are removed (sorry kids, no “Mongoloid” or “Jocko Homo”). There is the gut suspicion that Disney, Casale, and Mothersbaugh are using the kids to exploit the Echo Boomer bubblegum-pop and Generation X retro-nostalgia markets. And there is the possibility that the original Devo mission is being accomplished—the band’s societal critiques getting reduced to children’s fodder and then placed on the shelves of Wal-Mart and the Disney Store. To have kids singing “Through Being Cool” in our culture where “coolness” is an aesthetic that people must damn well get right, that’s a feat. Yet, “Freedom of Choice” does sound odd on a Disney record.
However on a base level, the sight of tweens playing Devo songs is still humorous. Stoehr is the main attraction as she stiffly bends her arms and rolls her wide eyes about like a new wave vet. Her vocals are actually more effective than her adult predecessors. As Casale and Mothersbaugh’s robo-speak were spoiled by their thick Ohio twang, Stoehr’s flat, Anglo-Angelino accent is a near-perfect fit, as heard in the opener, “That’s Good” and “Through Being Cool.” The studio-polished music keeps the pep of the original recordings, and the two new songs are decent, kid-friendly fare: “Cyclops,” a headbanger about a lonely, misunderstood mutant, and “The Winner,” which reminds of The Max’s theme song in Saved by the Bell.
But, music aside for a moment, what is Devo 2.0 trying to do? Is it wholesome fun for kids who are otherwise vulnerable to the likes of Britney Spears and boy bands? Is it Devo 1.0’s most subversive act yet? Or is it the perfect litmus test (strip bands of all the ego, myth, and mystery—and let their music stand on its own two legs) for the staying power of a band’s songs? And if kids like it, will they even bother to look up Devo’s back catalog? Or will it be nothing more than a curiosity like the teen Abba tribute group, The A-Teens and the Kidz Bop series? Or are all these questions beside the point because Casale and Mothersbaugh have produced something both funny and unsettling, just like the original Devo?
Reviewed by: Cameron Macdonald
Reviewed on: 2006-03-14