"Whip It" / Devo
Back in 1980, a new cable channel called MTV desperately needed music videos -- that's the only explanation why a crudely produced film snippet by this oddball Cleveland-area cult band got such heavy airtime. That Marlboro Man rancher, lashing the clothes off of his frontier wife -- was that kinky or what? Some folks would say that MTV "made" Devo's career; on the contrary, I think Devo was responsible for making a whole generation want our MTV. You absolutely HAD to get wired for cable, because where else on 80's TV could you see stuff like that?
Normally I don't go for high-concept bands, but I bought Devo's package one hundred percent. Devo stood for "de-evolution," synonymous with mindless conformity, which we Devo fans were supposed to combat by being free-thinking individuals. How hard is it to get 20-somethings to buy into an agenda like that? And Devo carried it off in perfect deadpan style, dressed in hazmat coveralls with industrial goggles and inverted flowerpots strapped to their heads; their robotic stage movements matched those jerky synthesized arrangements (only Devo could cover "Satisfaction" and "Working In A Coal Mine" with all the blues drained out of them). Everything, down to the album covers, was executed with retro flair; Devo was post-modern long before it became a hipster cliche.
At the time, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were perfectly happy to let their audiences think "Whip It" was all about S&M (either that or whacking off). But Casale now says he wrote those lyrics to imitate the parody poems Thomas Pynchon scattered throughout Gravity's Rainbow. (Since I'm currently slogging through Pynchon's most recent novel, Against the Day, I have to giggle over that info.) And it's true, the song is packed with a rousing Horatio Alger/Dale Carnegie can-do spirit -- consider the jerky phrases of the chorus: "Now whip it / Into shape / Shape it up / Get straight / Go forward / Move ahead / Try to detect it / It's not too late / To whip it / Whip it good." Yessirree!
Mark Mothersbaugh has a real gift for aural texture (no wonder he's done so well as a soundtrack composer -- his work on Rugrats alone proves his genius). This track's got an absolutely driven drumbeat, an obsessive-compulsive guitar riff, and a completely daffy synth motif; it's so tight, so uptempo, it sounds just like it came off an assembly line -- and that's the point. I love those twin vocals, finishing each other's sentences in the verses: "Step on a crack / Break your momma's back" or "When a problem comes along / You must whip it" or "No one gets away / Until they whip it" -- god forbid anyone should try to think for himself. No, we're in group-think mode here. "Crack! That! Whip!" (followed by those slapping whip cracks, calibrated precisely to a millisecond behind the beat).
Unfortunately, "Whip It"'s MTV-fuelled success so outstripped the rest of the Devo oeuvre, they're often called a "one-hit wonder." Those of us who were there at the time know better. Devo was unabashedly American in an era when the U.K. seemed to OWN New Wave music; I adored all those British acts, but I was glad we had at least one band from our side of the ocean -- and a lunatic bunch of Midwestern nerds at that.
Whip It video