Freedom of Choice

Freedom of Choice

In one of the most unexpected pop coups of all time, a gaggle of herky-jerky performance punks who looked like robots and sounded like sexual frustration set to synthesizers managed to score both a platinum record and a chart-climbing pop hit in the age of Air Supply. Inspired by Prince, Stevie Wonder, and the sound of the Moog bass, the postmodern mechanical men in Devo attempted to stretch their R&B and soul muscles on the group’s third album—without sacrificing their twitchy energy and satirical eye. “It’s ridiculous to think about, but we thought Freedom of Choice was our funk album,” Devo vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh would later recall. “That’s as funky as Devo gets, I guess.” Teaming with Wonder producer and electronics whiz Robert Margouleff, the band came up with a dozen fractured, synthed-out pop songs that would be released in the spring of 1980—just as a strange new decade was getting underway. Devo’s label, Warner Bros., had hopes that the unambiguously poppy “Girl U Want” would become a hit; instead, it was the oddball “Whip It” that would end up as one of the defining songs of the 1980s. Inspired by sardonic passages of Thomas Pynchon’s landmark head-scratcher Gravity’s Rainbow, and intended as a motivational talk to then-president Jimmy Carter, “Whip It” took on a life of its own. A racy video for the song was played repeatedly during MTV’s first year, and made Devo’s plastic ziggurat “energy dome” headgear synonymous with the very concept of the 1980s. The song remained inescapable for decades afterward: The Chipmunks covered the tune, Martin Scorsese dropped it into the soundtrack for his crime saga Casino, and Swiffer repurposed it for a commercial. Though “Whip It” ended up as the band’s only Top 40 hit, the arrival of Freedom of Choice became a unifying cultural moment for a generation of mutants and misfits, as evidenced by the oddball assortment of artists who’ve covered some of the album’s songs—a group that includes everyone from Soundgarden to Robert Palmer to A Perfect Circle. Like millions of Devo devotees, those artists saw Freedom of Choice as a crucial call to arms in what was about to be a very bleak decade. This is a record with a lot on its mind: The driving title track turns an Aesop-like fable into a lesson about consumer capitalism. “Snowball,” inspired by Mothersbaugh seeing a dung beetle on TV, is about the Sisyphean existence of humanity. And the guitar-driven “Gates of Steel” is a soaring urge to free your mind from its perceptions and limitations: “Give in to ancient noise/Take a chance, a brand new dance/Twist away the gates of steel.” Thanks to Freedom of Choice, millions of nonconformists would take Devo’s advice—and music is still feeling the aftershocks.

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