S is for Devo’s Pyramid (on Enigma, Myth, Mystery, and Aura in Popular Art)

| May 4, 2014

More than a decade ago, I read an interview with Beck Hansen in Rolling Stone, and his throwaway quote about maintaining mystery in the digital age stuck with me.

“It’s fascinating to me, these performers who do those shows where they follow them around. And performers’ Web sites where they’re writing about what they had for dinner and what the towels were like at the hotel. When I was a kid, I enjoyed not knowing. I wasn’t sure if Devo lived in a plastic pyramid and slept in plastic pods or what. My mind was filled with ideas of what went on. Did they have a spaceship? Did they live in a New Wave bunker? I thought they were some kind of army. Or the Cars. When I was ten, the singer was enigmatic. The glasses on, you didn’t know what was goin’ on. I loved that, though. Now they’d be following him around. And where does it end? “Come on, watch me chop my head off! I’m going to guillotine myself!” Maybe GG Allin was a prophet. He was always saying he was going to kill himself onstage. That’ll be the final act. Those people are going to be annihilating themselves. And then everyone will go home”

I remember thinking the same thing of KISS, when I bought my first album in 1980-something. If I had any idea back then, as I do now, that the guys in KISS were just a bunch of gluttonous drunken letches, and not magical in any way, I wouldnt’ve been nearly as interested.

These artists we revere as icons, imbued with a magical aura (often constructed crassly as a commercial ploy to separate young people from their money), why spoil the magic by getting to know who they really are, in all the mundane details of their all-too-normal lives? Today, I think the most popular strategies for crafting mythologies are not about positioning an artist (I use the term loosely) as ‘creative’ so much as making them seem ‘attractive’, by conventional standards of masculine/feminine beauty. The mythology/tropes of today adhere to homogenous yet unrealistic caricatures of beauty, segregated firmly along gender lines. If I look at Katy Perry, Rihanna, et al, there’s a somewhat uniform pop sensibility, and women are supposed to look a certain way. Same goes for men. As a society, we like our pop stars to look unrealistically beautiful, but act just like us. There’s very little room for deviance in the contemporary commercial/pop aesthetic. Although I don’t respect her music, I think Lady Gaga has been the only mega-star in the music industry to really maintain that kind of allure, or mystery. But alas, even her mystery has faded as the apparatus around her grows desperate to “correct” her fading trajectory.

Is there no room for myth in contemporary popular art/music? Is the decline of mystery due to our insatiable appetite for mundane spectacle and the new ubiquity of media?

Are we worse off for it?

I, for one, miss mystery.

Do these guys sleep in a pyramid?

Ric Ocasek  – What’s Going on Behind those Shades?