Apocalypse Jukebox: It’s Got a Beat and You Can Die to It
In this excerpt from PopMatters' new book Apocalypse Jukebox, Janssen and Whitelock remind us that underneath Devo’s flowerpot kitsch and low comic value lies a high-minded, sharply satiric argument that centers upon the principle of postapocalypse.
Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular MusicPublisher: PopMatters
Author: Edward Whitelock
Display Artist: David Janssen, Edward Whitelock
Length: 256 pages
Affiliate: Affiliate: www.http://softskull.com/ (Soft Skull)
US publication date: 2009-03
Excerpted from Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music. Chapter 8. "The Beginning Was the End"" Devo's Beautiful (Postapocalyptic) World) - "Intelligence can be eaten" (PopMatters / Soft Skull, March 2009)
The pop-cultural relevance of Devo, for many, probably begins and ends with “Whip It” and those bizarre red flowerpot hats. That is to say, as a novelty. There is a sharp negative association attached to the novelty item, as a trifle meant for quick amusement with an intentionally brief shelf life. And no doubt Devo exploited the novelty act concept, but the five spuds from Akron were also novel in the more positive sense of being new and unusual, as well. Both Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, the band’s founders and principal mouthpieces, have always insisted that Devo began as conceptual art long before it morphed into a musical act. In that sense, Devo has manifested itself as visual and performance art, literature, and film, the latter genre being especially influential in the dissemination of the concept. But what is the concept? That question is precisely what makes Devo such fertile ground for this study.
Casale once claimed that Devo is “like an atmosphere; it’s not a solid.” In the same definition he admits, “Maybe it is bullshit, but it’s good bullshit.” Therein lies the difficulty; the Devo idea is both airy and perhaps just a lot of hot air. A useful starting point for further understanding the “Devo-sphere”, though, lies in the title of the short film that helped propel both word and band to national attention. The film is called The Truth about De-Evolution (The Beginning Was the End). Filmed in 1976 and thereafter often included as a showpiece at Devo concerts, the ten-minute short introduces the world to characters that would recur in the Devo ubernarrative, such as General Boy and Booji Boy, and focuses on Mothersbaugh’s character, who appears ambiguously as a white-coated mad professor, lecturing to students in a formal hall, presumably on the philosophy of devolution philosophy.
The film is bookended by Devo’s cover of “Secret Agent Man” and the Devo manifesto “Jocko Homo”. If that summary sounds at all confusing, it might be reassuring to know that the film’s narrative doesn’t make much sense, not in any linear fashion, though anyone familiar with ’80s-era MTV would have no trouble “reading” the film, since it can be seen as a prototype for the music video genre. To those with only a casual association with Devo and their most popular work, seeing this film for the first time can be a rather shocking experience because it swiftly debunks the common misconception that Devo comfortably rests among the novelties of the much-caricatured sound and look of the ’80s. The conceptual nature of Devo is rich and weird, for underneath the flowerpot kitsch and low comic value lies a high-minded, sharply satiric argument that centers upon the principle of postapocalypse.
The moniker Devo, as the film’s title makes clear, signifies the idea of evolution in reverse, which in a very real and important sense is the thesis statement of the band, around which all of their work revolves. The subtitle of the film, though, is a more subtle clue that points the serious “devo-tee” toward one of the foundational sources for what the band considered its “big idea”. The Beginning Was the End is also the title of a work of “anthropology” published in 1973, written by one Oscar Kiss Maerth. The premise of this work is summed up on the title page: “Man came into being through cannibalism—intelligence can be eaten.” The book develops the argument that Homo sapiens is the result of a group of apes that became addicted to “brain food,” so to speak. That is, they began literally eating the brains of other apes.
This book is now rather hard to find for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it did not exactly “take” in the scientific community. Also, it has long been rumored, though not confirmed, that the author was a former Nazi living in South American exile, and it has also been observed that the author’s nom de plume sounds a lot like “kiss my ass.”Yet, it is an important Devological document because the book has most, if not all, of the necessary ingredients to make Devo: It is grotesque, it might be bullshit, perhaps it is satiric bullshit, and it has, at least on the surface, philosophical tendencies and aspirations. Clearly, as the subtitle of their debut film indicates, the title of the book itself resonated with Casale and Mothersbaugh, and the implications of that title are worth some consideration.
It almost has the feel of a palindrome: The beginning was the end. In the context of Kiss Maerth’s theory, the title serves to emphasize the antievolutionary strain that runs throughout the argument, in which the creation myth itself has sewn within it the seed of its own destruction. The forbidden fruit of the Other’s brain becomes the poison fruit of one’s own. As Kiss Maerth claims, the ultimate consequence of that “first supper”, as it were, is “an over-sized sick brain, which made [humankind’s] self-destruction appear to be progress.” In other words, we are slowly but surely devolving, or our beginning was our end. This paradox is especially interesting in the apocalyptic context because it suggests a rather postmodern idea: that the apocalypse already occurred. If the time of revelation has already passed, if the big finish for which we thought we were preparing or trying to avert already transpired, then in an important sense we are outside of history. This is Jean Baudrillard’s big idea, one of them anyway. In The Illusion of the End, Baudrillard offers his own take on de-evolution:
But if there is no longer a future, there is no longer an end either. So this is not even the end of history. We are faced with a paradoxical process of reversal, a reversive effect of modernity which, having reached its speculative limit and extrapolated all its virtual developments, is disintegrating into its simple elements in a catastrophic process of recurrence and turbulence.
Of course, Baudrillard most probably would not buy the idea that the beginning was the end, instead viewing it as yet another apocalyptic phantasm, but still there is something to his take on humanity’s “reversive” shriveling that is, well, sooo Devo.
Yet another way to move beyond the end, past apocalypse, is to consider the possibility of postapocalypse. In a too strict application, the concept shouldn’t even exist, yet the day after continues to gather cultural momentum. In After the End: Representations of PostApocalypse, James Berger goes one step further and argues that the postapocalyptic idea has overtaken the apocalyptic in cultural currency. As he puts it, “The visions of the End that Frank Kermode analyzed in terms of a sense of an ending have increasingly given way to visions of after the end, and the apocalyptic sensibilities both of religion and of modernism have shifted toward a sense of post-apocalypse.” In other words, the immanence, the all-out pervasiveness, of the Last Day in contemporary imagination, according to Berger, has given way to Day After visions.
In readings that range from Holocaust literature to ’80s action movies and the Reagan presidency, Berger argues that postapocalyptic imaginings all operate under an amnesiac condition that is itself the result of blunt cultural trauma, a trauma which repetitively reproduces after-the-fact apocalyptic narratives. A crucial aspect of what is forgotten in this process is the all-too obvious reality that such narratives are constructed in the postapocalyptic zone, such that the end was the beginning was the end was the beginning was ... etc. This is what Berger calls the “‘time loop’ ... [of the] apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic plot line.” The Devo narrative is just such a time loop that, through self-conscious satire and irony, calls attention to the same problems of postapocalyptic psychology as Berger’s study does. Take for instance, Devo’s early press releases on the band’s origins that clearly parody Kiss Maerth’s creation myth:
The band devolved from a long line of brain-eating apes, some of which settled in northeastern Ohio around Akron, where the DEVOs eventually appeared. By the process of natural selection they met and shared the habits of watching TV, watching everyone else, and making noise. They called what they saw around them de-evolution, and they called their music DEVO. Spuds yelled and threw things like beer bottles at them when they played until one day in 1977 the spuds cheered and threw fits because spudmen in the cities realized we’re all Devo.
The satiric element of this narrative is hard to miss, but there is another originary narrative associated with Devo’s bio, behind the spud myth, that closely fits Berger’s trauma theory and may even help to explain the motivation behind Devo’s satire of postapocalyptic culture. Both Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh were art students at Kent State University in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In an important sense, the day of apocalypse for Devo is May 4, 1970, the day that resulted in “four dead in Ohio”, as Neil Young famously sang. In fact, two of the four were friends of Casale’s, and he recounts how he ran toward one of them as she fell: “I saw the huge M-16 exit wound in Allison’s back. I almost passed out.”
Understandably, Casale discusses that tragic and traumatic moment in revelatory terms: “I would not have started the idea of Devo unless this had happened. It was just the defining moment. Until then, I might’ve left my hair long and been a hippie. When you start to see the real way everything works, and the insidious nature of power, corruption, injustice, brute force, you realize it’s just all primate behavior.” He added, “That day was Devo. It might have been the most Devo day in my life.” This anecdote helps to illustrate Berger’s thesis about the relation between trauma and postapocalypse, in which the traumatic event itself is apocalyptically framed yet told from an after-the-fact perspective. The latter of course is somewhat of a default position since otherwise, if there were no postapocalyptic narrator, the tale would not exist.
What is perhaps most interesting about Casale’s description of that process is the way in which he employs the postapocalyptic Devo aesthetic to the narrative. Notice, for instance, the Maerthean allusion in the phrase “primate behavior” as well as the repeated use of Devo itself in the description. The “big idea”, then is clearly not just a collage of kitschy, kooky ’80s camp. It is all those things to be sure, but it is also a postapocalyptic work of grief. In this light, it is certainly no coincidence that The Truth about De-evolution was filmed in the Governance Chamber at Kent State.
Want to continue reading what Janssen and Whitelock say about the devolution of mankind and more on the obscene and dangerous musical form known as rock ‘n’ roll? See Apocalypse Jukebox: The End of the World in American Popular Music.
Devo - Time Out For Fun (soon to be dead)
David Janssen grew up in the mountains of the Northwest with blisters on his fingers resulting from his religious devotion to a cheap acoustic guitar. Told in a dream that he would be the punk Bob Dylan, he ardently pursued his destiny into 20-something adulthood until his guitar and amp were stolen, which he read as a providential sign to enroll in graduate school. He is now an Associate Professor of English at Gordon College and associate editor for Studies in Popular Culture.
Edward Whitelock spent most of 1978 hoarding his grandmother’s meds in preparation for suicide. Why? The usual story: he was a poor, clumsy, socially awkward kid whose daily life was comprised of the slow, lonely, seemingly unending torture of the middle-school outcast. When Devo appeared on Saturday Night Live, everything changed; the future was revealed: The geeks would inherit the earth. He is now a Full Professor of English at Gordon College. He has published poems in over a dozen literary journals as well as numerous articles in professional journals and anthologies.