Sunday, February 1, 2009

DEVO-tional Experiment

DEVO-tional Experiment
(Published by Fra Noi, Chicago IL, November 2007)

Somewhere in a small town in Tuscany…

It started out as an afternoon not unlike so many others. Playing the role of Cordial Shopgirl, I cheerfully assisted tourists choose just the right earrings and/or other assorted goodies that best suited their fashion or gift giving requirements. During a quiet moment, I stepped outside to straighten up the colorful displays hung about the storefront that between the wind and tourists’ curious hands, are oftentimes in disarray. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed three elderly, heavyset, well-dressed Italian women enter the store, but allowed them a moment to browse without my guidance while I finished my tidying tasks. That done, as I entered the doorway I found myself nearly trampled to death by these same three women, fleeing the store in a stampede of great haste. One woman was holding her hands over her ears, shaking her head violently (in a way that would make any professional mourner very proud) and exclaiming rather loudly “Orribile! Orrible!” Her companions were rushing alongside her and accompanied her dismay by glaring at me as if I had just admitted to eating young children as a hobby (which, by the way, I don’t). I was at a complete loss, what could have initiated such a response? Why was she covering her ears? And what was she referring to as so horribly “orribile?”

Logically, the only reason someone would cover their ears, would be an unpleasant reaction to an auditory stimulus. But I heard nothing unpleasant at all in the sounds that were reverberating off the ancient walls that enclosed this little haven of commercial promotion. There was only music. Music that I love with all my beating heart and ever-so-slightly mutated soul. Profound, sensitive, intelligent lyrics companioned with innovative and eternally creative fluctuations of sound produced through an ingenious unification of tradition and technology. Just…music. What was her problem?

Oh no…it’s DEVO.

Apparently these lovely little octogenarians didn’t hear and appreciate the American musical group DEVO the same way I did. The unprepared great-grandmothers had innocently stumbled into the middle of the song “U Got Me Bugged” and obviously, the song had bugged them more than just a little bit. Whereas when I hear it, I tend to fade into a trance like state, usually resulting in my delicately dancing like a marionette made of over-cooked tagliatelle, I suppose I could see where someone who was not privy to the complexity of DEVO might hear it as something like a malfunctioning robot blowing bubbles through a straw into a glass of warm mercury.

The history of DEVO is long and involved (and very, very interesting), but for the sake of space here, suffice to say that they were originally formed in 1972 by a bunch of really cool art students at Kent State University, and found a certain degree of commercial success in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. They disbanded in 1991 after a period of difficulty, only to reform in 1996 and are now experiencing a huge resurgence of popularity both in America and in Europe, especially Italy. The fundamental principles of their music were never based so much on a goal of being pop-stars as much as that of being artists, using music as the canvas. Brilliantly blending the sensibilities of artistic concepts such as Dadaism, Minimalism and Industrial Design, DEVO was able to subtly convey anti-war, anti-conformity, and anti-stupidity positions through a medium yet unused for such noble purposes. As bassist Jerry Casale said in an interview for the Swedish television program “Tid för design-Showroom” in 2005, DEVO took all these ideas and combined “the low, junk pop-culture with obvious academic high-art standards in a way that was funny.”

However, not everyone got the joke, and at the outset, DEVO was met by confusion at best and near-violent rejection at worst. In an interview with “The Believer” magazine in September of 2005, synthesizer-scientist, artist, vocalist and all-around persona interessante Mark Mothersbaugh recounted the tale of an early DEVO show at a Halloween party in 1975, where the audience was less than wholly receptive. After a DJ for the radio station that was hosting the party, grabbed a microphone and yelled, “These guys must be stopped! This isn’t music!”, the audience turned into a surrealistic mob. Mothersbaugh remembers, “They felt what we were doing was dangerous. So all of a sudden, drunk mummies were shaking their fists at us. Draculas were shouting obscenities at us. That made us even happier, and pissed them off even more. It turned into a bit of fisticuffs. It was a mess. But it made us feel we had to be doing something right to get so many people pissed off.”

But lots of other people actually did understand what DEVO was doing. In Italy for example, the “Memphis Group” was an assembly of Italian designers and architects founded in 1981, whose intention was to artistically reject 1970’s conformist ideals and conventional use of color, shape and purpose in their creations, and were apparently great aficionados of DEVO. Asking around, it seemed like almost everyone here had at least heard of the Memphis Group, and they were always spoken about in positive terms. Knowing this, I felt that perhaps there had to be other DEVO fans somewhere here in Italy, and I decided to experiment and see if I could find them.

With a selection of less “abrasive” DEVO songs in hand, such as “Girl U Want,” “Uncontrollable Urge,” and “Jocko Homo,” I began to play these tunes non-stop while at work, taking advantage of the public forum the store provided me with. A type of “Skinner Box,” if you will. The results of my DEVO-tional experimentation are as follows:

1: 71% of adult Italians exposed to the music of DEVO showed little or no reaction, with the exception of the song “Girl U Want” which did get a noticeable increase in a sub-conscious foot-tapping response. (This high percentage of non-reaction was not unexpected, as Italy is inundated with noise and the Italian people have developed incredible super-powers of tolerance and filtering when dealing with sound. At the average dinner table in Italy, it is common to have the radio playing, the television on, cell phones ringing incessantly and nine different conversations going, even if there are only three people seated at the table. It is truly amazing.)

2: 15% of subjects visibly reacted negatively; a pause to listen, followed by a frown, shrug and/or shaking of the head, occasionally followed by their asking, “What is this?” I would explain a bit about the band and then ask “Ti piace? Do you like it?” Being a straightforward and chronically honest culture (despite untrue stereotyping of Italians as just the opposite), their answer was a direct, dry, and unblinking “No.”

3: 14% either knew who DEVO was and were Chihuahua-shakingly thrilled to hear them, or had never heard the music before but with big eyes full of wonder, were quite enthusiastic to learn more. I was pleased to what I could to help in their initiation.

4: Children love DEVO. Dancing was uncontrollable and a joy to behold.

5: Playing “Jocko Homo” for the parish priest was not the best idea I’ve ever had.

Summation: In all, the experiment was a success. I was able to find those that appreciate DEVO in all their splendor, right here even in a small town in Italy. Original fans were alerted to the fact that DEVO was back, and new ones quietly come to me asking to hear “quella canzone” again. Those who were not impressed or ran screaming from the store, well, perhaps a seed was planted for them and they’ll come around some day. “Dovere Adesso per il futuro!”

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