Music News

Q: Are They Old Men?

Since the '70s, Devo has specialized in subversion, and the more twisted, the better. Early on, for instance, the band prompted unwitting fans to offer mock Hitler salutes during in-concert renditions of "Praying Hands" -- a Triumph of the Will-like gag that demonstrated how easily groupthink can mutate into fascism. "We actually did that in Germany," boasts band co-founder Mark Mothersbaugh. "We were like, 'We're in a beer hall right now. This is interesting.'"

In recent years, the players, who headline a post-punk nostalgia-fest at Coors Amphitheatre this week, have been able to engage in similarly insidious shenanigans with the backing of none other than corporate America. Consider that Target used "Beautiful World," a ditty that lampoons the plastic world of consumerism, in an oft-aired TV commercial that promoted the plastic world of consumerism. Did the discount chain's execs not realize that they were essentially satirizing themselves via their choice of soundtrack? "That was a question I really didn't want to pose to them," Mothersbaugh admits, laughing. "I thought, it suits my purposes just fine for them to insert that song into the mainstream media. And if it made anyone who hadn't heard the song go watch the video, they would get a whole different take on it."

Given Devo's fondness for absurdist imagery and wacky costumes, not to mention the crew's knack for simple, catchy melodies, it was only natural that Mothersbaugh would find himself making children's music once the combo's hits stopped coming. He drifted into the genre when one of his pals, Paul Reubens, asked him to help score the appropriately warped '80s kiddie show Pee-wee's Playhouse, and subsequently signed on with Rugrats, which has been running on Nickelodeon since 1991 and spawned several big-screen spinoffs. Yet his latest expedition into school-age territory may be the strangest to date. Devo has been hired by that bastion of family friendliness, the Walt Disney Company, to record two new numbers, "Cyclops" and "The Winner," as well as new versions of eight old favorites, including "Whip It" and "Girl U Want," with children singing the lead parts. Videos made to accompany these tracks will then be aired between programming on the Disney Channel.

According to Mothersbaugh, the opportunity to push Devolution in an alien environment was enhanced, not diminished, by Disney-mandated tweaks. When the time came to render "Uncontrollable Urge," Disney types worried that "someone could construe its lyrics to be about sex," he says, "even though, quite honestly, the song's very unsexual on all levels. If you tried to make love to it, you'd go really fast, and it would probably be pathetic." To prevent any erotic misinterpretations, he adds, "they changed some of the lyrics so they're talking about somebody who's having a 'snack attack' -- a craving for junk food!

"At first I thought, 'We can't do that,'" Mothersbaugh concedes. "But then I thought, 'Of course we can. Why not?' I mean, what an interesting science experiment: Devo through the Disney filter."

Popular culture doesn't get much more subversive than that.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts