|For a Song
What You Got, What You Want: Two Steel-Belted Tunes by "Those Rubber Brains from Akron"With election season upon us here in the US, public discourse shops among clichés and platitudes about candidates likely actions if elected, bolstering blind faith that government serves the public interest and upholds the Constitution & Bill of Rights. In this light, consider a pair of songs from Devos "breakthrough" 1980 album Freedom of Choice: the title song and "Gates of Steel." They offer pithy insights into perennial conflicts between liberty and submission, natural rights and oppression, freedom to choose and fear of responsibility.
The Land of the Free
If a song exhorts listeners to use their freedom of choice, ostensibly the writer believes in some significant way people are failing or refusing to do so. "Freedom of Choice" suggests the writers/performers perceive that causes their fellow Americans -- "in the land of the free" -- some needless suffering.
The mysterious opening lines, "Victim of collision on the open sea / Nobody ever said that life was free," suggest lifes aquatic origins when there was no tyranny and hence no concept of freedom and life & death choices that can arise without warning, seemingly for no reason, when how we choose, not circumstances alone, will determine our fate. Evolution produced a human animal subject to circumstance, capable of exercising reason, and subject to reflexive emotional reaction circumventing reason. "Use your freedom of choice, freedom of choice": Leave the outcome of events to chance, and youll drown.
That is particularly important in "the land of the free," whose Founders recognized that manifesting reason for the common good in our unique ways, free from tyranny, could result in a shining city on a hill, a society such as had never existed in all of human history, which they understood as a long succession of tyrannical, violent, and oppressive regimes with a few short-lived exceptions that proved the rule.
and Home of Pavlovs dogs?
A professor tells me the "poem in ancient Rome / About a dog who found two bones" might literally refer to a poem by Phaedrus, the Roman Aesop, in which a dog, swimming and carrying a bone in his mouth, sees himself cum treat reflected on the waters surface. Lunging to seize what he takes to be a bone in another dogs mouth, he loses the bone hes already got. The treat-triggered action reminds us, too, of "Pavlovs dogs," famous for demonstrating in their namesakes experiments how easily humans can condition their "best friend" to salivate at anything associated with receiving a treat. The repeated lines "I say it again in the land of the free / Use your freedom of choice, freedom of choice" tell us we resemble the dog in the poem more than people at liberty to create the world they desire. "He went in circles / Till he dropped dead": This particular variation on the theme warns us our misbehavior might have serious consequences.
Three years before Freedom of Choice, in his book Snap, Crackle, and Popular Taste: The Illusion of Free Choice in America, author Jeffrey Schrank described choices between brands of advertised products as pseudo-choices, illusory non-choices presented as important rather than meaningful choices on which to base an intelligent life. A meaningful choice might be to read, converse, or exercise rather than to shop, but advertising and public relations had conditioned millions of people to think they should give high priority to comparing brands of mouthwash equally ineffective or frozen chemical food-like concoctions equally devoid of nutrients.
Focusing and spending wastefully on what is inconsequential, useless or harmful, we fail to observe and respond to the growth of corporate tyranny with government support or sanction. Even music becomes a conditioning device, manipulating our emotions in stores, boutiques, and malls, sometimes on streets and boardwalks. Our Devo friends neednt have read Schrank or seen any of the multitude of books, articles or TV shows about those trends in order to create "Freedom of Choice" -- the evidence, the behavior is everywhere, always; thats why many people dont notice it.
The song doesnt tell listeners to share the writers/performers opinions or tastes, just to recognize reality and exercise reason rather than spend ones life duped, pursuing trivial stuff, going in circles till we drop dead.
Whats in the way?
"Gates of Steel" comes immediately after "Freedom of Choice" on the album. In addition to having structurally parallel titles, both songs exhort listeners to do a basic human task. If "Freedom" tells us to use our freedom or lose it, "Gates" tells us to tear down artificial barriers between our oppressed, conformist selves and the inner human voice that comes down to us through the ages: "Unlock the secret voice / Give in to ancient noise." Both songs, like much of the bands other material -- and its satirical uniform costumes, album covers, stage acts, and videos -- mock groupthink, herd mentality, arbitrary conformity beyond reason.
Steel is a product of many thousands of years of technological development and affluence -- the flow of Earths wealth to humans -- and centuries of growth of corporations -- nonhuman, nonliving, non-feeling wealth-accumulating fictitious persons as they are called in law. But "A man is real / Not made of steel"! Human beings cant fulfill their needs and their biological nature when they adopt a nonhuman, corporate mode of existence, suppressing as if with a steel barrier their original humanity -- "Half a goon and half a god."
Superman, the Man of Steel, comes to mind, the superhero whose presence and popularity soared in the era when the members of Devo grew up. After World War II, millions returned home from the horrors of war, took factory and corporate-management jobs, and suppressed their natural responses to what they had experienced. Drinking, building, motoring about, watching movies & TV, vacationing, and fitting in, they deadened themselves emotionally and spiritually. Post-traumatic stress disorder, common in war survivors, wasnt recognized then. Sucking everything up to move forward, many must have found it comforting -- and helpful in relations with their children -- to be mythologized as the invulnerable, emotionless Man of Steel who never fails to rescue those threatened by evil as they and their slain comrades had helped to do in Europe and the Pacific.
The members of Devo grew up in the war economy that still has never ceased growing for long since World War II. Akron, where the band originates, was a longtime tire-manufacturing town -- hence the epithet "those rubber brains from Akron" a writer foisted on the "spud boys," as they preferred satirically to call themselves referring to potatoes blandness, plainness, and combination of superficial difference & internal sameness. Not war survivors themselves but art students, they found value in exploring, not suppressing, their humanity. And even the military general their parents and grandparents generations made president had warned of an out-of-hand military-industrial complex.
Whereas "Freedom of Choice" warns us that if we dont exercise our freedom to choose meaningfully well behave like the unreasoning dog who goes in circles till he drops dead, "Gates of Steel" tells us to break down artificial obstacles to our knowing and communicating what we want and need. "A man is real / Thats how he feels"! He not only feels as if he is real; he feels by virtue of being real -- a biological being, not a manufactured material or product.
Apes of the planet
But what kind of biological being is a real, non-corporate, non-metal human being? Some kind of agitated, unsatisfiable ape, perhaps. "The ape regards his tail / He stepped on it"? Some versions say "Hes stuck on it," but the vocals in the recording clearly say "stepped." And it would be hard to make sense of comparing humans with an ape "stuck on" his tail, since apes dont have tails. The lyric I find most likely to be the actual one suggests monkeys -- with tails -- preceded apes in evolution and quips that apes lost their tails by stepping on them rather than through the evolutionary process where they began living on the ground, no longer grasping tree branches with tails. Its through stupidity, not sapience as our species current Latin name Homo sapiens has it, that we got the way we are -- which, as well see in a moment, Devos songsmiths see as regression, not progress.
"The Earth it moves too slow / We pay to play the human way": Apes and therefore humans eagerness to have things otherwise than nature alone provides for led to our early ancestors speeding up their own evolution, eventually creating civilization -- and suffering from the consequences, by suppressing their humanity with artificial barriers for unfulfilling purposes. "But the Earth is all we know" -- we want life to be richer, safer, more enjoyable than nature allows, but pursuing a better existence makes us unhappy due to our biologically determined emotional and spiritual nature, rooted in Earth, not in stuff like steel that we make from parts of it. To be fulfilled, we must recognize we are "real" and "give in to ancient noise," "Take a chance [on?] a brand new dance" -- stop dancing to the corporate tune and dance to the "secret voice," the sound of the human soul: Do the dance that expresses the truth within.
One of the most influential books of pre-Devo decades is Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, first published in 1941. Like some others, Fromm sought to explain the popular appeal of fascism and Nazism. In a Western world of democratic principles and opportunities, why do millions of people accept or embrace dictators aligned with a plutocracy and non-living, non-feeling corporations interests, against individual rights and the public interest? Why would a species that evolved free on the savanna have lived so long under tyranny before creating legal and constitutional rights and democratic societies, then subvert them?
Fromm posited that large numbers of people dont want the responsibility, uncertainty, constant vigilance, and fear that come with freedom, so we welcome those who will assume responsibility for everything, enabling us to go about our daily lives without inconvenient abiding worries and moral burdens.
Primates natural social groups consist of extended family units including individuals who leave their original groups to find mates, preventing too much inbreeding and maintaining hybrid vigor. Hierarchies understood by all group members prevent chaos and enable those best at nurturing and protecting the group to thrive and reproduce the most. Dominant individuals who perpetuate injustice are immediately punished and sometimes supplanted. Apart from observable preferred treatment in food, sex, and a few other basics, dominant individuals lead the same lives as the rest, and competition for dominance is open to all who might choose to risk the consequences.
As human societies departed from their original ecological niche, created agriculture, civilization, and eventually mass societies, dominant individuals made themselves and their progeny ever less vulnerable to retribution or challenge, and everyone else found themselves in increasingly confusing, oppressive, and entrenched social, political, and economic systems. Meritocracy gave way to arbitrary power and tyranny, with most people living abject lives as slaves in one form or another. No wonder so many people want simple instructions, "role models" to follow, a concept of a "mainstream" to be a part of -- notions unknown to the Founders and not included in the Constitution.
Will we get fooled again?
Devo named itself and based its work not just on a musical concept but on a sociopolitical one: "de-evolution" -- as the official Devo website puts it, "the idea that instead of evolving, mankind has actually regressed, as evidenced by the dysfunction and herd mentality of American society." Often misunderstood as promoting this mentality and thereby a tendency toward fascism, Devo in fact satirizes de-evolution, groupthink, conformity, needless surrender to authority. Satire involves adopting the persona of the subject of ones comment. At its most successful, it simultaneously exposes and sympathizes, as compared to merely ridiculing or lambasting.
The bands trademark mock-robotic instrumentation, vocals, costumes & other visuals, and stage movements lead superficial listeners to think the band sincerely promotes what it in fact satirizes. The seriousness of Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casales lyrics is comedic, comedy in the true sense being serious entertainment. (Susan A. Schmidt and Deborah L. Smith also co-wrote "Gates Of Steel," according to the bands official website but not according to some other sources.)
In establishing individual liberty and equal rights under the law as the bases of the US Constitution, the Founders sought to create a path to a shining city on a hill, not shiny vehicles and potato-chip bags. The market met basic needs as described in The Wealth of Nations, published the same year as the Declaration of Independence and Common Sense. Consumerism wasnt a way of life, nor shopping an all-day amusement or fetish. By going from one distraction to another like "a dog who found two bones," we surrender our freedom to choose among things that matter and find ourselves gated off from our true selves, which are partly political.
The Constitution authorizes every citizen to exercise meaningful choices, but as Ralph Nader points out, Republicans and Democrats are very often the same wine in different bottles when it comes to sanctioning corporate rights eschewed by the Founders and precluded by the Constitution. With John McCain and Barack Obama vying for the presidency in a society where public discourse has largely devolved into television ads and mass-media distortions of candidates and their records as well as of the Constitution and the law -- all funded by non-living, non-feeling, non-thinking corporations -- time will tell whether we use our freedom of choice and twist away the gates of steel or submit to those paying to determine what we think about and languish behind barriers we choose not to recognize, let alone twist away.
...David J. Cantor
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