Listen to this track by Akron Ohio-bred cult heroes Devo. It’s “Beautiful World”, a single as taken from their 1981 album New Traditionalists. That release followed up what many consider to be their breakthrough in 1980’s Freedom of Choice which featured their ginormous hit “Whip It”.
This song follows the template set by that release in that it’s full of synthesizer and vocoder textures matched with twangy surf-guitar. Along with that, this song reflects a more pop-oriented approach and a much toned-down experimental side. The lyrics don’t reflect the high-mindedness of some of their earlier work either, full as it was of theories about the devolution of society from which the band get their name.
Even if this is true, this song is no ball of pop cotton candy. As accessible as this song is, and as in line as it is with the new wave sound that was very marketable by 1981, it still has an edge to it that works against its cheery title.
The 1980s was a time of great optimism for many. We were told that the struggles of the past were won. For those of us who had the privilege, it was easy for us to believe that the new decade was a new golden age, free of domestic national violence and suffering because of what the civil rights movement had won for us. Finally, everyone was equal. What a relief all of that racism and sexism was finally over! There was no rioting in the streets as there had been in the mid-to-late sixties. No one burned their bras anymore. The horrors of an American war no longer dominated the news on TV. America’s dark night was finally over, and the west had emerged more prosperous than ever.
On the surface, the eighties were all David Lynch-like picket fences and green lawns. But below that, and not very far below either, were the continuing forms of systemic prejudice, poverty, and social oppression and unrest that continued to become manifest in violent ways all over the nation. It’s true that many things were better on the surface than they had been. But the struggles of the past were not over, and social ills were not cured. They’d simply been made to be less easily seen. For many of us, oppressive forces at work in people’s lives every day became entirely invisible, giving us a false sense of social progress and making it harder to point out that all was not well.
That’s what lies at the heart of this song, which could be taken as one of contentment and optimism initially, reflecting the mindset of the new decade. This is all but for the robotic and dehumanized vocal delivery that seems to undercut the lyrics. As easy as it is to be taken at face value apart from that, “Beautiful World” quickly becomes less a song about optimism and more and more about exclusive privilege and alienation that exists to make social ills harder to identify and to fight. Here, the beautiful world of happy boys and girls in their new clothes, the wonderful people everywhere showing that they care, becomes nothing but a facade applicable and relatable only to some, covering the corrupted structures of a recent past.
Very importantly, the song’s narrator isn’t included in any of the things that has defined this beautiful world he’s described; “for you/not me/it’s not for me”. As such, the narrator becomes the voice of anyone who is left outside of the privilege bubble, their experiences made invisible to those within it and glossed over by false notions of social evolution. Effectively, this song becomes about being gaslighted by the very mainstream culture that keeps many people from being heard; You’re not oppressed. You’re being oversensitive. You live in the greatest country in the world, so don’t you think you’re being ungrateful?
These sentiments are still prevalent today as they were in the 1980s, with statements like “we live in a post-racial society” and others being all too indicative. When women, LGBT, and minorities are telling stories about being made to feel excluded and even unsafe in their own communities every day, the idea of a “beautiful world” as applied to everyone is revealed to be a soberingly long way off indeed for many, many people.
As of this writing, tomorrow is US election day, November 8, 2016. Along the very long road to this day, we’ve seen a narrative spun for us about how America can be great again in much the same way as it’s outlined in this song, marked by privilege and cultural alienation. The question will remain as to whether US voters will buy that vision or not.
Devo is an active musical unit today. You can learn more about their recent movements and history at clubdevo.com.