Bob Casale’s death has me combing YouTube and the rest of the web for clips and stories about Devo. A friend introduced to their music in high school and Are We Not Men was among the cassettes that I brought with me to my first year of college.
I was not a huge Devo fan but I liked them. I liked their theatrics and the science fictiony drone world they conceived as a cautionary tale to those of us growing up at the dawn of the Computer Age. They reminded me of David Bowie. Whether he was Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke, each album he did was a soundtrack to a story starring that particular persona. Bowie didn’t just release records, he told transmedia stories — “telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats” — before the term was coined.
Janelle Monae reminds me of Devo. Her album, Metropolis, tells the story of an android living in a future world where the robots have become so convincingly human that there are rules in place to maintain the thinning line that divides the two lifeforms (android and human). It’s very reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner.
There is this great 2010 interview conducted by Jian Ghome with Bob and Jerry Casales for QTV. In it Bob and Jerry speak about the concept of devolution that inspired the formation of the band and about Devo’s popularity and “unpopularity” through the decades. Jian also does a good interview with Janelle Monae.
If we are still evolving as paleoanthropologist John Hawks believes, are we also still devolving as Jerry Casales describes in his interview with Jian Ghome? What I particularly liked about the interview was Jerry’s response to balancing the need for art with the need for money. Jian and Jerry also touched upon Devo’s ebb and flow from anti-establishment (being hated by Rolling Stone when they first came out) to establishment (inspiring many new bands).
Devo inspired how I thought about my writing during my college days when I thought I could singlehandedly change the world through love and poetry. Back then I sometimes spent more time on the look and feel of how I imagined reading my stuff than on the writing itself. I created characters to speak through and attitudes to speak with.
I wonder if Janelle considers Devo one of her inspirations? As Devo ages I can’t help hoping that the bands they inspire will be more than just knockoffs of the original. Our technology has evolved but it does seem emotionally we are moving in the completely opposite direction. Social media has been used to start revolutions and to globally expose local injustices but it also has been used to market and devolve the people.