Devo’s Paradox: Why some art can’t be appreciated in its own time
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Devo was already controversial long before the release of its 1978 debut LP Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!. Between the band’s early singles, its aggressively conceptual live performances, and its appearance in the bizarre 1976 short film The Truth About De-Evolution, Devo had popped up on the radar of rockers and rock critics alike. Then, after David Bowie touted the Ohio quintet as “the future,” Devo had a lot to prove with its Brian Eno-produced debut. And according to many of the major critics of the era, Devo failed to make its case.
In his Rolling Stone review, Tom Carson wrote:
The primitive guitar work and pulsing beat suggest a gamut of early Sixties borrowings, but the group is also reminiscent (the vocals especially) of some of the artier New Wave bands such as Wire or the B-52s. Yet all of these influences are flattened into an arid, deliberately fragmented science-fiction landscape. There’s not an ounce of feeling anywhere, and the only commitment is to the distancing aesthetic of the put on. I suspect, though, that in adopting this style, Devo would argue that they’re simply being good journalists—that the futuristic deadpan comedy of their stance reflects the current pop-culture reality… It’s impossible to tell whether these guys are satirizing robotlike regimentation or glorifying it. The answer seems to be that there isn’t any difference.
The usually more adventurous Lester Bangs dismissed Devo, saying “sounds like tinkertoy music to me,” while Robert Christgau was simpatico with Carson, writing:
If this isn’t Kiss for college kids, then it’s Meat Loaf for college kids who are too sophisticated to like Meat Loaf. Aside from music per se, the Kiss connection is in their cartoonishness—Devo’s robot moves create distance, a margin of safety, the way Kiss’s makeup does. But the Meat Loaf connection is deeper, because this is real midnight-movie stuff—the antihumanist sci-fi silliness, the reveling in decay, the thrill of being in a cult that could attract millions and still seem like a cult, since 200 million others will never even get curious. (It’s no surprise to be told that a lot of their ideas come from Eraserhead, but who wants to go see Eraserhead to make sure?) What makes this group worthy of attention at all—and now we’re back with Kiss, though at a more complex level—is the catchy, comical, herky-jerky rock and roll they’ve devised out of the same old basic materials. In small doses it’s as good as novelty music ever gets, and there isn’t a really bad cut on this album. But it leads nowhere.
The most savage Devo review came from curmudgeonly rock ’n’ roll true-believer Dave Marsh, whose Rolling Stone review of the band’s 1979 follow-up Duty Now For The Future hisses, “These guys synthesize trenchant experimental trends into a hodgepodge that’s compelling only to those without the intellectual vigor to penetrate the band’s surface pose to find the real pose underneath.” He adds, “As rock & roll, this sort of stuff is a horror show that dispenses with backbeat, melody and raw emotion—i.e., all the things that ever made rock worthwhile.” Marsh ends with a flourish: “To say that this critic despises Devo does not go nearly far enough. When I finish typing this, I’m taking a hammer to Duty Now For The Future, lest it corrupt anyone dumb or innocent enough to take it seriously. Shards sent on request.”
Not every rock critic hated Devo. The band’s debut album ranked at No. 20 on The Village Voice’s 1978 “Pazz & Jop” poll (right between Willie Nelson’s Stardust and Bob Dylan’s Street Legal), and today, Are We Not Men? routinely lands on lists of the best and/or most significant albums of all time. More to the point, today, the record doesn’t really sound like cause for such high alarm on the part of the critical establishment. Carson was on the right track when he compared Devo to Wire and The B-52’s. Are We Not Men? is fundamentally an energetic, catchy pop-rock record with arty inclinations—“edgy,” but fun. It’s of a piece with the various punk and new-wave moments coalescing in the late ’70s, all led by musicians who were re-thinking rock ’n’ roll, but hardly destroying it.
It’s important to note, though, that the Devo skeptics weren’t “wrong” per se. Devo intended to provoke with its science-fiction mission statements and its emotionless renditions of ’60s party music, so the affronted reactions that the band received from some quarters weren’t just expected, but to some extent, desired. Art and criticism are supposed to be in conversation with each other, and the Devo-haters were just answering the band in the terms its members had established. Marsh in particular makes a persuasive case that Devo is more shallow and disposable than smart. He just fails to be as persuasive when he all but demands that the young people of the late ’70s not take any pleasure in this catchy, exciting music.
Understand, too, that this isn’t a case of genius going unrecognized in its own time. Plenty of music-lovers dug Devo back in 1978. If anything, the loudest adverse reactions to Devo were an example of what happens when a solidly entertaining rock band is rejected by writers who’ve been hyped up to expect genius. The Devo phenomenon is representative of the way critics sometimes rush to apply the brakes to a trend or an artist that seems to be racing to premature canonization.
This happens with musicians all the time. Ryan Adams talked about this a little in an interview last year with our Steven Hyden, noting that each album he releases seems to be greeted with a shrug by critics who a year or two later will cite those same albums as the kind of excellent music that Adams doesn’t make any more. Partly, that’s a function of how Adams began his career, as a cocky wunderkind who rubbed a lot of critics the wrong way. And partly it has to do with the kind of music Adams makes, which sounds so easy and appealing that many critics mistake it for disposable, until months go by and the songs from his most recent album are still ringing in their heads. Either way, Adams wasn’t wrong when he said, “What’s really happening is this: I’m making records, and people are fucking trying to have an instant emotional connection with something that’s bigger than them, bigger than their immediate response.”
While critics, fans, and websites engage in these regular, never-as-important-as-they-seem skirmishes over whether this or that five-figure-selling band is “overrated,” the music keeps piling up, waiting for a calmer moment when it can be properly assessed. Believe me, I know. I’ve been reviewing records professionally since 1990, and when I look back at the albums and bands I was sure were vital back in my 20s—and the albums I either ignored entirely or publicly trashed, largely because they were popular—I cringe a little. (But just a little. Being spectacularly wrong about music is an important part of growing up.)
It’s not just music, either. Movies frequently arrive so pre-judged that critics and viewers alike are reduced to choosing between joining the brigade or becoming conscientious objectors. But that “Are you in or are you out?” debate has very little relevance, long-term. Aside from troll-y “most overrated movies of all time” lists, the enduring discussions we have about movies are more about their themes, their aesthetics, and how they captured their cultural moment, not about whether they “deserve” to be called “great.” Consider 2007, when two of the best American movies of the ’00s were released: No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. The buzz on both was high before they were released, and throughout the end of ’07 and into early ’08, much ink was spilled about which of the two—if either—was really a new American classic, and which of the two was better. Who cares about these questions now? Both movies are so rich, powerful, and entertaining that they’ve easily outlasted the immediate attempts to pigeonhole, position, or nitpick them. Going back and reading the handful of negative reviews of those two movies is like reading pans of Of Mice And Men or The Great Gatsby.
Television is fast becoming the new medium of choice for all of us to misjudge. The advent of the episode-by-episode review has been a boon to those of us who take TV seriously, and who like to analyze and weigh its strengths and weaknesses the same way we would any art form. But reacting nearly in real time to stories that sometimes take years to play out isn’t always fair to the writers and actors who are trying to develop ideas carefully over multiple episodes. Plus, the need to have something to say every week means that TV critics sometimes scrutinize beats and jokes more than they can withstand.
I hasten to add that I’m not pointing any fingers here that I wouldn’t point at myself. I know firsthand that when I’m writing about a show, I tend to be harder on it than if I’m just watching as a fan. I also know from decades of TV-watching that sometimes a series that seems to have gone off the rails looks much better than I remembered when I catch up with it again years later. Barring a major change in the creative team, the cast, or the premise, most quality shows remain decent to very good right up to the end. There are highs, sure, but our favorite shows rarely bottom out as badly as we may believe. More often, it’s that they settle into a comfortable groove, and we just get bored.
Please be clear about this: I’m not saying that what my colleagues and I do lacks value. Far from it. We report, we assess, we analyze, we champion, and we contextualize, and all this serves both as useful information for consumers and as conversation-starters for fans. Even the extra-textual elements that creep into a review—like whether a movie has been hailed as a “masterpiece,” or a singer-songwriter is being labeled a “genius,” or even whether certain artists are unlikeable jerks—serve a purpose, both as a way of engaging with the world outside the frame and as a way of documenting what we were thinking about at the time. Tom Carson and Robert Christgau’s dismissive, defensive reactions to Devo are part of that band’s story, and now help explain what Devo was and what it meant, circa 1978. Those guys did their jobs—and well, I’d say.
But professional critics and casual enthusiasts alike can always benefit from a little perspective, and a little patience. We should try to remember that sometimes the moment when we feel most compelled to comment on a piece of art is the moment when we’re least equipped to appreciate it.