Friday, September 10, 2010

Don't Shoot (I'm a Man)

I've written about Devo before, so some of you may know that though I came to them sort of late (something that is also true about Zappa), they have since become one of my favorite bands.

Still, I was little scared to check out the new album, because, as Marc Masters put it in his Pitchfork review, "there are a few bad omens hovering around Something For Everybody. It's been two decades since Devo last attempted a full album of new music--and 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps wasn't memorable." These seemed to me to be reasonable fears. In any case it has taken me a few months to get around to actually listening to SFE.

Turns out I disagree with much of the rest of Masters' assessment. (That's not surprising when it comes to me and Pitchfork reviewers, alas.) To my ear, most of the good songs on this album are stacked toward the beginning, and the clunkers ("Human Rocket," "Sumthin'," "Step Up," and "Cameo") kick in after track five, not before.

More importantly, I'm not prepared to dismiss the album as "self-parody" or overly "self-conscious," as Masters comes close to doing. (I'm not even sure I understand what "self-parody" would be, if the self in question is a parodist in the first place. How does one parody the act of parody?)

To me, a more productive way to look at this album is to consider what happens when parody effectively becomes the thing it is parodying. Parody on its own implies an omniscient narrator, commenting on something from a perhaps loving, but also superior, critical, and ultimately safe distance. But when parody is taken to its logical extreme, the power relationship is reversed. We're left with failure, because the thing being parodied has proven to be impervious.

I can't help feeling that SFE is chock full of the sound of this dynamic, the sound of Devo being absorbed into the very commercial monster it once mocked from a distance. (What else could explain the presence of autotune on the album?) It's actually kind of scary to listen to, as the parodist's autonomy seems to disappear in a pit of consummate self-abnegation (perfectly symbolized in this case by the very Freudian cover image of a Devo power dome being eaten by a beautiful woman).

If we should all just disappear
The skies and waters will clear in a world without us

The lucky ones are gonna be the first to go.

That is art as a mirror, alright, but it's a mirror that is unafraid to show us the very ugliest part of ourselves (which, the album seems to suggest, is the idea that our society has become parody-proof). And there is almost no sense of a protected vantage point outside the whole mess.

Is it aesthetically "beautiful"? Probably not. Is it effective, or compelling, or powerful? Definitely.


Anonymous said...

Sometime you might want to take a looksee at Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Tear It Down, which is nominally about "postpunk," but defines the genre broadly enough to include Devo. Or at least check out his blog post about them.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Rip It Up and Start Again. I must have been thinking of that old Don Martin strip.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, sorry, sorry, that's what I get for posting a link without bothering to read it first, which in this case leads to a page of footnotes to a book you presumeably don't have. Also, on second thought I believe the exact wording to the Don Martin strip was "Pull down. Tear up."

mrG said...
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mrG said...

I only heard the teaser trailer and the free web snips, but, also with the 'new' Robert Plant and even the Planet Gong returns, what strikes me is how, after decades of total absence, these pristine studio efforts compositionally sound like they were done the day after each respective band disbanded, and that, I find not comforting, but sad.

I respected these guys, I thought them clever artists with innovation and insight, drawing the rest of us into a future; they have not budged an inch since OMG, 1980?? That was thirty years ago.

That's what I call parody of oneself: they got the old gang, capture the old magic and put out the old sound. They probably needed to relearn how to play their instruments by listening to their old records. At least the Glenn Miller Band is made up of young musicians, and with Sun Ra, it really is the recordings he did the day before in those last ones that the good Doctor is digging out of the archivers for release.

But these guys? ho hum

Pablo Picasso said art was just another way of keeping a diary; I was getting married, having kids, getting divorced, peaking my career, international fame, colliding with power,a fall from grace and getting remarried, and reinventing myself over and over just to stay alive, while these guys? Like, ah, hey man, where'd ya been? Up to much? naw, nuthin'. You? Aw, you know, thinkin' 'bout stuff. Wanna brewski? Yeah, whatever.

Which I suppose is very 80's.

Maybe I'm missing something my ears (not quite as old as theirs) just doesn't hear, or maybe I just don't get this That's MY style branding business, but I'd feel the same if Don Martin drew that same towel dispenser with the same deadpan style, but I'd cheer a little if he at least found some modern device worthy of the same mistaken instruction, because it would show me he was still alive.

mrG said...
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