The Girl U Don't Want My World of Flops Case File #139/My Year of Flops II #36 Devo 2.0's Devo 2.0
As my bank account and precarious professional and financial standing unfortunately attest, I do not know a lot of lucrative things. I do not possess one of those intuitive business minds with a natural gift for making money, or even a basic grasp of math or the financial world. Nor do I know a lot of important things. I don’t have a surgeon’s education and base of knowledge. Christ, I can’t even tie a tie or drive a car.
In many ways I am a shambling man-child perpetually on the precipice of disaster but I do know a lot of random ass shit. A LOT. I take great pride in the sheer volume of obscure bullshit my brain contains. My memory contains so much densely packed dumb-ass ephemera, from the jingles for DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince hotline to the opening narration of Easy Rider: The Ride Back to sixty percent of the dialogue from Showgirl, that there’s no room left for useful knowledge that might improve my life or make me money.
Because I pride myself on knowing a whole lot of stupid trivia I sometimes feel a weird, sharp surge of shame when I encounter something that I should know yet inexplicably do not.
Sometimes I’ll encounter something as a 43 year old that should have been on my radar decades earlier, only to Google this ostensibly fascinating new phenomenon and the first thing that comes up is a 1000 word article I wrote about it ten years earlier. I have forgotten a whole lot of shit. That’s the nature of the profession: your brain can only hold so much information, so it has to regularly shed unnecessary knowledge and irrelevant or outdated opinion so that it can absorb new data.
This happened most recently when someone at my Facebook group, Society for the Toleration of Nathan Rabin, linked to an article about Devo 2.0, a fascinating mid-aughts experiment where the simpatico forces of Devo and Disney joined forces for the creation of Devo 2.0, a prefabricated tweenybopper outfit that made The Monkees look like exemplars of punk-rock authenticity by comparison.
Devo 2.0 afforded the actual members of Devo, absurdist provocateurs and preeminent conceptual geniuses, the opportunity to behave like a less creepy, evil, grossly sexual cross between bogus blimp magnate and boy band Svengali Lou Pearlman and legendary degenerate/ Runaways creator Kim Fowley.
In Devo 2.0’s music videos, distressingly few of which are available online, telegenic kids in their tweens and early teens mug their way through new versions of old Devo songs pitched to the lucrative five through nine Radio Disney audience but on the group’s first, last and only album, 2007’s eponymous debut, Devo 1.0 members Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh, Gerald Casale, Bob Casale, Josh Freese and Neil Taylor play the instruments on the album.
This leaves only the lead vocals of Nicole Stoehr, a twelve year old with the soul and delivery of a 1982 New Wave weirdo and the background vocals of guitarist and vocalist Nathan Norman and keyboardist Jackie Emerson (who later appeared in The Runaways and The Hunger Games) as the only elements of Devo 2.0 not handled by the actual Devo. Perhaps I should put guitarist and keyboardist in skeptical quotation marks since over the course of the band’s curious life and unmourned death the band members mostly just pretended to play their instruments in videos directed by Gerald Casale.
They were supposedly proficient enough to handle their instruments for some live gigs but a Monkees-like metamorphosis where the kids went from being a studio concoction to an actual band never happened, since Devo 2.0 split up before they could rebel against their cruel oppressors in, um, one of the coolest, most original and best rock bands ever, and find their own voice and sound.
What would a second Devo 2.0 album sound like? Death metal? Prog? Rap-Rock? Smooth Jazz Fusion? We’ll never know, because it was one and done for an idea that probably should never have seen the light of day in the first place, seeing as it feels unmistakably like a brilliant practical joke about commercialism and authenticity and the ethics of rock and roll played at Disney’s expense by a band of conceptual super-geniuses who were either selling out egregiously in an unforgivable fashion, executing their most subversive prank or some crazy, post-modern combination of the two.
The concept of Devo 2.0 sounds less like an actual album that exists in our universe than the kind of ranting that would get someone hauled off to Bellevue Hospital at the height of the group’s countercultural late 1970s/early 1980s peak: let’s see, it’s Devo, but it’s not Devo because instead of Devo Disney got a bunch of kids to pretend to be Devo, or at least play de-fanged Devo songs, and even though they’re pretending to play instruments it’s actually the real Devo that’s doing almost all the heavy lifting musically but a real 12 year old girl is the front woman now. Got it?
That’s not a gimmicky commercial conceit for an album; it’s an anxiety-riddled music executive’s nervous breakdown.
As a doughy white middle-aged man I know all too well that nobody wants to see or hear from my kind. We’re all you saw or heard from for a very long time and it got real boring. Like SUPER boring. We abused the shit out of that privilege and now, thankfully, other people have a chance to be seen and heard, assuming that we middle-aged white people don’t still insist on elbowing them gently and not so gently out of the way because, while we have been heard from, and heard from again, and then checked back in on after that, there’s still no level of attention that will satiate some of us.
This is true even of rock geek Gods like Devo. They’ve always been a dazzlingly visual band but that iconic sense of style and aesthetics has nothing to do with rock star good looks and everything to do with subverting and lampooning macho rock mythology and pretension. They surely must have wondered if their kick-ass music would be more popular with the general public if it was performed, or rather “performed” by the kind of people the public does want to look at and hear from: attractive model-singer-actor types between the ages of 11 and 14.
Devo would be re-born, preposterously but wonderfully, as Mickey Mouse Club types overflowing with pep and camera-ready sass with the original band serving as a strange combination of puppeteers, inter-generational, cross-gender musical ventriloquists and star-makers.
Disney would give the original pranksters of Devo the key to eternal youth. Heck, maybe they could even install a Draconian Menudo-like cut off age where you had to leave the band when you reached 16 because nobody wants to see you haul your geriatric ass around a stage and try to compete with genuine young people when you’re an ancient 18 or 19 year old. Or keep introducing younger and younger versions of the band until Devo 6.0 is the original Devo backing a bunch of fetuses still in the womb.
Of course compromises had to be made before arguably the brainiest and most subversive of the giants of the Punk/New Wave movement could be repackaged for the Hannah Montana generation, to cite another kid-centered, high concept Disney music project of the time that did a little better commercially.
Mark Mothersbaugh’s dark, biting wit was sanitized, commercialized and infantilized for a family audience. Most egregiously, on “Uncontrollable Urge” Devo 2.0 take ambiguous lyrics that could very well be sexual in nature and made them about compulsive food consumption. In the music world that is called “Pulling a Yankovic.”
The kid-friendly “Girl U Want”, re-conceived as “Boy U Want” surgically removes the white hot lust and salacious innuendo that defines Devo’s original to such an extent that I was reminded of the famous scene in The Simpsons where Krusty tells the Red Hot Chili Peppers that they’ll have to change “What I got, you got to get, put it in you” to “What I’d like, is I’d like to hug and kiss you.”
Instead of the expected blowback, they cheerfully acquiesce, reasoning happily, “Wow, that’s much better! Everyone can enjoy that!”
Devo 2.0 is Devo Everyone can enjoy! Depending on your perspective that’s either the ultimate cash-in or the final stage in De-Evolution: the biggest, most trusted name in family entertainment in existence pays you handsomely to create a version of your all-time great band that either alters or completely changes the meaning of many of your songs in an attempt to conquer the kindergarten-to-third-grade set and infect children, mere children, with your anarchy and absurdist ideals.
Speaking of The Simpsons and its early animation company Klasky Csupo, about a decade before the failed launch of Devo 2.0, Klasky Csupo and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh accepted what I imagine was a large sum of money to get into bed with another quintessentially American international conglomerate punks used to shit on for ruining the world with its greed and awful products: McDonald’s.
The Mothersbaugh brothers composed the music for The Wacky Adventures of Ronald McDonald, a series of appalling part-action, part-live animated, direct-to-McDonald’s videos for the terrifying spokes-clown and the rest of the McDonaldLand gang. I’m not mad at the Mothersbaughs for shacking up with two of the most beloved, despised names/brands in capitalism; I give them props for subverting the system from within, for getting Disney to finance and then distribute such a patently bizarre, not terribly commercial idea.
But if Devo 2.0 alters lyrics from one of the most challenging and arty bands of the late seventies to make them acceptable for babies, really, the rock solid songcraft and idiosyncratic personality of these songs shines through all the same. Devo 2.0 is essentially Devo’s greatest hits re-recorded as cynical commercial product for children with a twelve year old girl’s vocals layered on top. That can’t help but change the fundamental essence of songs like “That’s Good”, “Jerkin’ Back and Forth” and “Beautiful World”, whose meaning is not just changed but reversed when the pointed, “It's a beautiful world, For you/It’s a beautiful world, Not me” is replaced with an ambivalently delivered but positive, "It's a beautiful world for you/and me too.”
Disney does not do despair. Or sex. But it does do catchy songs with monster hooks, and cute child performers overflowing with bratty charisma, even if they sometimes seem puzzled by what they’re singing, almost as if the lyrics are so foreign to their experiences and worldview that they’re singing them phonetically even though they’re in English.
Nicole Stoehr was a goddamn star and the old men of Devo unsurprisingly proved extremely efficient at playing their own songs. As a conceptual goof, Devo 2.0 is brilliant but as actual music for human beings to listen to it’s not half bad either. Is it as good as Devo’s originals? Of course not but compared to glossy Disney pop music aimed at the kindergarten crowd it’s the goddamn Beatles’ White Album in terms of artistic achievement and integrity.
If I went to a child’s birthday party and they were playing selections from Devo 2.0 I would be overjoyed because I love these songs even in Kidz Bop form but also because that would mean that some other weirdo not only knows about Devo 2.0 but felt the desire to experience it themselves. This would make them my kind of weirdo.
Learning, or possibly re-learning, of Devo 2.0’s existence made me nostalgic for the days back when the A.V Club ran a feature called Least Essential Albums of the Year. The idea was to irreverently highlight not the worst albums of the year, necessarily, but rather albums that had absolutely no reason to exist, that could not be more inessential.
Devo 2.0’s Devo 2.0 is the ultimate Least Essential album. In a world where Devo’s original albums are readily available, why on earth would anyone need watered-down and slicked-up new versions of nuggets from their catalog with a child warbling vocals?
No one needs Devo 2.0. It’s ragingly inessential. That’s the whole point. It’s the only album I can think of where its creators might view making our list of the year’s least essential albums as high praise and not criticism.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success
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