It’s evening on the approach to Akron-Canton Airport, and the towns that dot the airplane’s path twinkle like a string of Christmas lights, each a suburb in a chain that stretches north to Cleveland. These suburbs are largely what has made Ohio a bellwether in presidential elections; George Bush carried the state by 3.5 percent over Al Gore in 2000, and by 1.9 percent over John Kerry in 2004. This year Ohio is again a critical swing state, and musicians are converging from across the country to perform benefit concerts in support of their candidates. But unlike most of the bands that will stop off in the Buckeye State this election season, Ohio is home for Devo, which has arrived en masse from its Los Angeles base in order to stump for Barack Obama. Sprung from a post–Kent State Ohio in the early 1970s, around the time John McCain was locked down in a Vietnamese jungle and Akron was smarting from the twin whammies of our failed military incursion and the blue-collar layoffs in the rubber industry — the city’s chief employer — Devo has long protested in its idiosyncratic way the pitfalls (and pratfalls) of modern industrial life, the kind that have hit this part of America particularly hard in the past half-century.
“Oh, yeah, Devo. ‘Whip it good!’” exclaims the cabdriver heading into downtown Akron. He doesn’t know that the song was actually a plea to Jimmy Carter to toughen up during the 1980 election against Reagan. He thinks it’s a song about sex. A skinny white guy in his mid-30s, wearing a baseball cap and a week’s worth of unshaven beard, he stinks of 10,000 cigarettes, his cab 10 times worse, and he wheezes as he sighs when asked about the race for the presidency.
He probably isn’t going to vote, he says, because he’s just so sick of it all — though he’s leaning toward placing his nonvote for Obama. The Palin nomination is, to him, an insult. “She’s not ready, and I don’t trust that she would be anytime soon.” Race isn’t a factor for him, and he feels as though Obama is at least trying to tell the truth.
We cruise past the Akron Civic Theatre, on downtown’s Main Street. DEVO is featured on the marquee in big, bold letters. Pulling up to the hotel, the driver apologizes for having to charge me $45 for the trip. It’s a little steep, he acknowledges, but he gets to split the fare down the middle — “$22.50 for me, $22.50 for the company” — and I’m one of his only decent fares that night. “Whoever is president is isn’t going to be able to control the price of gas,” he says. “That’s where most of this is going to go.”
Two days later, a few minutes prior to showtime at the Akron Civic Theatre, Mark Mothersbaugh, dressed in the trademark yellow Devo hazmat coveralls and red “energy dome” cap, explains the band’s strategy. “Here’s what I hope to accomplish with this. Ohio has a reputation now for choosing our president. And I feel like there’s people here who need to think about that and take it seriously, because they may decide the presidency for the whole country for the next four years.”
Given the recent political conversations in which imaginary terrorist affiliations have supplanted actual dialogue about the country’s future, it’d be tough to argue with Devo’s long-standing central tenet: that man, having peaked culturally and intellectually, is in a state of de-evolution. (Persuasive evidence can be found on basic cable in a downtown Akron hotel room, where Ayers attack ads and McCain eye-rolling battle for airtime with Ab Blast and Miracle Mop infomercials.)
“They ruined a lot of these façades when they tried to renovate them,” Mothersbaugh says, pointing out the architectural “updates” that cover the ornate originals on the buildings of Akron’s Main Street as he walks to the Civic Theatre. The district seems to have been hit hard by the economy. In the early-autumn chill, dozens of people loiter in a plaza while waiting for the bus. Half of South Main Street is shuttered, and the other half seems on the verge of foreclosure. Abandoned hair weaves roll down the sidewalk like tumbleweed.
But inverse of the outdoor vista is the stunning Akron Civic Theatre, “the jewel on Main Street,” built by theater magnate Marcus Loew in 1929 on the eve of the Depression. Designed by famed theater architect John Eberson with rococo flair in the Moorish Revival style, the vibrant, colorful room was fully restored in 2001. Its ceiling is painted sky blue, and during concerts, little dots of light mimic stars, and projected clouds drift along with the music.
During sound check, Summit County Democratic Party officials and volunteers decorate the theater. They hang a few giant Obama/Biden banners, set up an information booth and merchandise table selling Obama and Devo stuff. As a way to raise extra cash, the band members have created a T-shirt on which they have transformed the Obama campaign’s official logo by placing a cockeyed energy dome on top of it. A volunteer builds a pyramid with the official plastic domes on sale for $20, with all proceeds going to the campaign.
“This is one of the biggest fund-raising events of the season,” says Wayne Jones, chair of the Summit County Democratic Party, as he walks the aisles and oversees the progress. “This county went 56 percent for Kerry in ’04. If we can get it to 60 to 65 percent for Obama, that makes a huge difference.” It’s a big county, he says, with 300,000-plus voters. “If we can get 180,000 to 200,000 votes for Barack Obama, that’s huge.” Jones is optimistic. “I think it’s going to be extremely close, but I think he’ll take Ohio.”
There’s tension both among strangers passing each other on the highway and families sitting around the dinner table, explains Mothersbaugh before the show. One of his brothers, an ardent McCain backer, didn’t appreciate the fact that Devo would force him to attend an Obama rally in order to see his brothers perform. (Mothersbaugh’s brother Bob I, Devo’s guitarist, is an Obama supporter.) Indeed, Mothersbaugh asked his father (known to Devo die-hards as General Boy, he narrated some of the band’s early propaganda films) to introduce the band tonight, but the family patriarch declined, in part, for the same reason.
Still, Mothersbaugh says, the band needed to come to Ohio. “The truth of the matter is, in some recent elections some counties in this state were won by as little as nine votes. That shows you how important your vote is, especially in this state.”
It’s this imperative that has driven musicians on both sides of the political race to step up in swing states and cultural hubs around the country. Musicians this election are out in larger force than ever before, a vast army of singing persuaders. James Taylor performed five free concerts in North Carolina in support of Obama. John Legend, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel raised a big chunk of change for Obama in New York last week. Streisand at L.A.’s Beverly Wilshire raised $9 million for the Illinois senator. Jeff Tweedy, the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists have pitched in. Dianne Reeves, Brad Mehldau, Hank Jones, Stefon Harris (!) and other jazz geniuses did Jazz for Obama in New York.
Daddy Yankee and Ted Nugent are two unlikely partners in the McCain corner. “I’m very deliberately trying to be out there with my ideas and my music,” country singer John Rich — half of superstar duo Big & Rich, told People magazine last month. “I respect McCain for his heroism over the years. He stands for the things I value, and there aren’t many young conservatives like me who make it into the media, so I’m trying to do my part.”
Jerry Del Colliano, director of the Thornton Executive Programs in Music Industry and clinical professor of Music Industry at USC, has long studied the collision of music and politics but is particularly excited by one recent endorsement. “I’ve heard that Shakira is going to perform for Obama,” he says, “and I don’t know about you, but if I could see her on a video, that would firm up my support for Obama — and I’m choosing my words very carefully.” He laughs before declaring: “There is no, I repeat, no evidence whatsoever that a celebrity endorsement or a performance by even the biggest of stars has any effect whatsoever on the outcome of an election.” Music is an effective tool, he acknowledges, and he understands the desire to align the two. But it’s not the decider. “Music is probably a lot more sacred than a lot of things in our society. When we listen to Springsteen, and Springsteen sings on behalf of the Democrat — in this case Obama — we expect that. [And] I think the Republicans, or the independents, or the people who don’t give a damn, look in the other direction,” Del Colliano adds.
And, at times, music captures a moment, frames the events perfectly. He suggests Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” chorus in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. “If the Chipmunks sang the song, it wouldn’t have mattered. It not only fit the era, but it fit the generation, [which] was critical. It was time for a baby-boomer president, and that song came right out of the greatest-hits vault. It made sense.” Ditto “Happy Days Are Here Again,” FDR’s theme.
But, Del Colliano continues, much of the time ego drives artists to endorse and fund-raise for candidates, as if musicians had political wisdom on par with their understanding of the cowbell. “Our entitled world is increasingly self-absorbed. This year we’re seeing the outraged singer. For example, the two gals from Heart, who are mad about the song ‘Barracuda’ being played around Governor Palin’s appearances. [It’s] so self-absorbed — in my editorial judgment. And John Mellencamp’s another guy, who wanted [to stop] “Our Country” [from] being played at McCain rallies. To me the stars are saying, ‘I’m so big, I’m so major, I’m so important that I’m going to stop it from being used.’ The idea that major artists are saying, ‘Don’t use my material,’ shows you how self-absorbed we’ve all gotten.”
As to whether Devo’s going to change anybody’s mind in Akron, Del Colliano has a tip: “Look around and see how many Republicans you find.”
“I don’t think there are many out there,” acknowledges Summit County Democratic chair Jones, surveying the sold-out crowd at the Civic. “But that’s not what this is about. This is about getting attendance up, about stressing to our base to get your neighbors out, get the message out.”
Mothersbaugh is thinking of a different tactic down in the catering room. “We’re not letting anyone out of the building until they sign and turn in their early vote for Obama,” he says, adjusting his cap. He laughs as he declares that the band will change any and all minds with the sheer force of its message: “Every single one of them.”
Turning serious, Mothersbaugh explains Devo’s goal, which has less to do with ego than effort: “For us, I think it’s just bringing an awareness to the election. Sometimes when you go out there, especially in this state, you feel like everybody’s against you if you have an Obama sticker. And I think that maybe this helps remind people that, no, that’s not the case. There could actually be a majority interested in a serious change in the politics of the last eight years.”
At least 2,500 people will be casting for Obama, give or take the few token Republican Devo fans in attendance at the Civic. During the Black Keys’ set, the crowd of people — a mix of young Akron hipsters, aging Devo-tees wearing “Duty Officer” coveralls and red hats, and older Democratic torchbearers — file in and secure their energy domes and limited-edition tees from the merchandisers, sign the volunteer lists and down plastic bottles of Budweiser. Chrissie Hynde performs an acoustic set with a second guitarist.
“These are songs about Akron,” she explains before diving into three tracks from the Pretenders’ new Break Up the Concrete CD. Hynde recently opened a vegan restaurant a few blocks from the Civic, and has long advocated for animal rights.
After she finishes, a few elected Democrats wearing yellow hazmat suits and red domes yuck it up with the crowd as they pitch for various Democratic candidates. Then the big Loews movie screen drops and one of Devo’s great propaganda films appears. The crowd cheers as clips of the band throughout its many incarnations flip on the screen. Images of the band in the early days, marching through abandoned Akron warehouses, of cruising through ragtag streets in junky Chevys, of jerking back and forth to music.
The screen rises and Devo, heavier than in the film but still donning the requisite yellow-and-red getups, tear into “That’s Good,” a song with an honest simplicity that either candidate would be smart to steal: “Everybody it’s a good thing/Everybody wants a good thing/Everybody ain’t it true that/everybody’s looking for the same thing.”
The band rips through its set with the urgency of the fully evolved — “Mongoloid,” “Peek-a-Boo,” “Whip It,” and a thrilling, jubilant “Gates of Steel.”
“The earth it moves too slow,” sings Mothersbaugh, his yellow suit torn away, now standing in a black referee-type outfit with kneepads. “But the earth is all we know/We pay to play the human way/Twist away the gates of steel/A man is real, not made of steel!” Many of these songs, Mothersbaugh tells the crowd, were written five blocks from the Civic Theatre.
The cabdriver who returns me to Akron-Canton Airport is a black man who looks like Cedric the Entertainer — if Cedric had a mustache-less Abe Lincoln beard. He’s all about Ron Paul, “the only one who represents true change in this election,” he says. Yes, the idea of a black president is important to the driver, but, he believes, only Ron Paul seems to understand how to turn the country around and represents true change, which will happen when we as a country concentrate inward and address America on its Main Streets.
As he explains his exasperation with the two choices, the dilemma starts to sound shockingly like one of the last songs Devo played the night before, “Freedom of Choice.” The band began the song with its typical thunderclap drums, but this time instead of moving to the central keyboard riff, keyboardist Bob II broke into an android version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and the crowd cheered as Jerry Casale screamed “Obama ’08! Obama ’08!”
The band then dove into “Freedom of Choice.” Mark Mothersbaugh marched around the stage as he sang the lyrics, adapted from a Roman fable by Phaedrus about a dog who finds two bones. Sang Mothersbaugh, “He picked at one/He licked the other/He went in circles/He dropped dead/Freedom of choice/is what you got/Freedom of choice!”
“I think in previous days, the individual artist campaigning for or tolerating or agreeing to perform on behalf of a candidate was probably unthinkable,” submits USC’s Del Colliano, “at least not on the level that it is done today. We all know Sinatra went back and forth with JFK, but he was also a Reagan friend, and he could go anywhere he wanted to. And it’s interesting: The only thing McCain and Obama agree on is that Sinatra makes their playlist. Was Sinatra just big enough to get away with it? Yeah, he was probably big enough to get away with it. And he probably didn’t give a damn about a lot of things that happened.”