"Whip It" is a song by the American rock band Devo, featured on their third album Freedom of Choice (1980). It is a new wave and synth-pop song built around a motorik beat, and is played with a synthesizer, electric guitar, bass guitar, and drums. The lyrics are seemingly nonsensical, with a common theme revolving around solving one's problems by "whipping it". Bassist Gerald Casale wrote the lyrics, which were intended to satirize American optimism, and took inspiration from Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. With producer Robert Margouleff, Devo wrote and recorded "Whip It" at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. Lead vocalist Mark Mothersbaugh wrote the song's distinct riff, which was based on the Roy Orbison song "Oh, Pretty Woman".
"Whip It" was not expected to be a hit, due to its nonstandard tempo and strange lyrics. The radio programmer Kal Rudman took an interest in the song, and it soon spread to several radio stations in the Southeastern United States. Peaking at number fourteen on the Billboard Hot 100, "Whip It" became a major hit, and found chart success in several international territories. Mothersbaugh believes that the song sold well because most people assumed that the lyrics were about masturbation or sadomasochism.
The accompanying music video ran with these sexual themes, and features Mothersbaugh whipping the clothes off of a woman on a dude ranch. Despite claims of misogynistic undertones, the video became popular on the fledgling television channel MTV. In recent years, several journalists have described "Whip It" as a cornerstone for the development of new wave music in the early 1980s, and a unique song that transcended mainstream music. In the band's forty-year history, "Whip It" remains Devo's only song to peak within the top forty on the Hot 100. As a result, Devo is often labeled as a one-hit wonder.
Background and recording
Devo's 1979 album, Duty Now for the Future, was considered a disappointment by both critics and band members. Critics saw the album as a formulaic repeat of their 1978 debut Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, and the band members primarily blamed the formulaic sound on the album's producer Ken Scott. Warner Bros. Records was also unhappy, and issued an ultimatum to the band members that they needed to produce a successful third album, or they would be dropped from the label. The members believed that a hit single could bolster their next album's popularity, and finally give them radio exposure.
After parting with Scott, Devo began searching for a new producer to work with. In late 1979, the band members played nuclear waste workers in the Neil Young film Human Highway. While on break, the band members met Robert Margouleff at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. Margouleff recalled this meeting, noting that the band members wore bizarre attire that consisted of black jumpsuits and red helmets, and that they were upfront in asking him if he wanted to serve as a producer for their next album. Margouleff agreed to this offer, and was brought on to produce "Whip It" and its parent album, Freedom of Choice.
"Whip It" was written by bassist Gerald Casale and singer/keyboardist Mark Mothersbaugh, from August to October 1979. Howard Siegal engineered the song, while Margouleff served as the producer. It was recorded at the Recording Plant, and mastered by Ken Perry at Capitol Studios. The song was recorded with API mixing consoles, 3M tape machines, and Minimoog synthesizers. Throughout the song, there are whipcracking noises, which were recorded using an Electrocomp 500 synthesizer and Neumann KM 84 and U 87 microphones.
The music for "Whip It" was created by taking elements from four different demo tapes that Casale had collected. Mothersbaugh composed what would become the song's break in his bedroom; the break was originally much slower, with a classical sound. In another tape, Mothersbaugh played what would become the main riff with a drum machine. One of Captain Beefheart's drummers created a drum beat that Mothersbaugh recorded, and the last demo was a live recording between Casale and Mothersbaugh. Casale took the four demos and layered them atop one another to create smooth and consistent time signature. Mothersbaugh created the main riff in "Whip It" by taking the riff used in Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman", and slightly changing the ending.
Music and vocals
"Whip It" is a new wave and synth-pop song, built around a consistent 4/4 beat known as a motorik beat. It moves at a quick tempo of 120 beats per minute, and is constructed in verse–chorus form. With a chord progression of D-A-E7sus4 in the verses and C-G-D in the choruses, the song is written in the key of E major. The song's main riff alternates between a five note ascension and a three note descension, and is played with a synthesizer, electric guitar, and bass guitar. The chorus features two synthesizer notes that are a half step between each other, which creates what AllMusic's Steve Huey describes as "a disorienting aural effect".
As the song progresses, a guitar lick becomes more prominent in the main riff. During the instrumental break, the riff temporarily changes to a nonstandard 6/4 beat, before returning to the original 4/4 beat. Casale and Mothersbaugh sing the vocals for "Whip It", with a vocal range of A4-F#5. The two alternate vocals; Casale uses a nasally drawl, while Mothersbaugh sings in a more powerful "cartoonish" voice. The use of two vocalists is a call and response, that Casale notes is "kind of like white boys rapping".
The lyrics for "Whip It" appear disjointed and nonsensical. For example, a central theme revolves around the ability to solve one's problems by "whipping it", while other lines include motivational statements like "go forward, move ahead" and "it's not too late". Casale wrote the lyrics, which were intended to satirize American optimism. He took inspiration from Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, a novel that contains satirical limericks about capitalist can-do clichés. Casale incorporated as many lyrics that would sound like motivational clichés if taken out of context.
Mothersbaugh also remarked that the lyrics were written in the form of a subtle pep talk for United States President Jimmy Carter during the 1980 presidential election. The members of Devo were supporters of Carter, and were afraid that the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan would win the election. Mothersbaugh jokingly once said in an interview: "Come on Jimmy, get your shit together." Huey notes that despite the song's novelty, there are violent undertones in the lyrics. He describes the process of whipping it to solve one's problems as "a sardonic portrait of a general, problematic aspect of the American psyche: the predilection for using force and violence to solve problems, vent frustration, and prove oneself to others".
"Whip It" was one of four songs from Freedom of Choice to be released as a single. Warner Bros. heavily favored the commercial viability of the first single, "Girl U Want", as its music and lyrics were more radio friendly, akin to "My Sharona" by the Knack. "Girl U Want" failed to reach any record chart, however, and was considered a failure. Despite this initial failure, Devo decided to tour in support of the album without a hit single. Shortly into the tour, the disc jockey Kal Rudman began playing "Whip It", and the song soon spread to several radio stations in the Southeastern United States. Within a week, "Whip It" had become a major hit, which forced Devo to temporarily stop the tour to book larger venues, as their concerts were starting to sell out too fast.
"Whip It" debuted at number eighty-five on the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States, on August 30, 1980. It spent twenty-five weeks on the chart, peaked at number fourteen on November 15, and finished the year at number ninety-four on the Billboard Year-End singles chart for 1981. In the United States, the song also reached number thirteen on the Cash Box Top 100, number fourteen on the Hot Dance Club Play chart, and number seventeen on the Record World Singles chart. The song found success internationally, peaking at number seventy-seven on the Australian Kent Music Report, number eleven on the Canadian RPM Top Singles chart, number eleven on the Official New Zealand Music Chart, and number fifty-one on the UK Singles Chart. "Whip It" was certified gold in the United States and Canada, denoting shipments of 1,000,000 and 75,000 copies respectively.
In a retrospective review, Huey said that the song has "an irresistibly odd novelty appeal", and commented that the song was "one of the best arguments that punk ideology didn't necessarily lose its bite when placed in the more pop-oriented musical context of new wave". PopMatters' Chris Gerard also noted the song's originality, and described it as "a bold and provocative recording that still sounds fantastic blasted out of a good set of speakers". The website subsequently ranked "Whip It" as the fifty-first best alternative song of the 1980s.
When "Whip It" was released, many listeners assumed that the whipping lyrics were double entendres for either masturbation or sadomasochism. Devo's previous material often included sexual innuendos and sometimes even blatant references to sex in the lyrics, which made "Whip It" appear consistent with this style of songwriting. Mothersbaugh recalled how many disc jockeys would make masturbation jokes to him before interviews. He also believes that "Whip It" sold well because of these supposed taboo subjects.
Although "Whip It" was not about masturbation or sadomasochism as some listeners believed, Devo ran with these sexual themes for the accompanying music video. The video is set on a dude ranch, where cowboys and cowgirls watch Mothersbaugh whip the clothes off of a woman smoking a cigarette with a holder. A cross-eyed woman and a middle-aged woman making whipped cream watch from a ranch house, while the other members of Devo play the song in a cattle-pen. The band members are wearing sleeveless black turtlenecks and red flower pot shaped hats called energy domes.
Devo was heavily committed to adding film aspects to their act, and asked Warner Bros. to give them non-recoupable promotional money to make videos for "Girl U Want" and "Freedom of Choice". This was before music videos had become standard industry practice, which confused label executives. When "Whip It" started to receive radio airplay, Warner Bros. embraced the concept, and requested the band to produce a video for "Whip It", with a $15,000 budget. The idea for the video came from an article in a 1962 issue of The Dude magazine, which revolved around a former stuntman who marries a stripper and moves to a dude ranch in Arizona. For entertainment, the man would whip his wife's clothes off, although she would not get hurt. As Mothersbaugh stated: "That's the kind of stuff that fed us creatively. It was just so stupid and so low, and yet so great."
Partially a reaction to Reagan's previous career as a Hollywood actor, Devo wanted to make a video that parodied the cowboy mythos. In the video, the whip did not actually strike the woman's clothes; rather, they were tied to a fishing line and pulled away after each whip crack. The whip did, however, strike the cigarette holder to knock it out of her mouth. For the first few months, the video was seen by a limited audience, primarily on late-night talk shows. The American television channel MTV launched in 1981, a platform dedicated to showcasing new music videos. The channel gave the video heavy exposure, so much that it temporarily pushed the song back into popularity, right before the release of Devo's next album New Traditionalists (1981).
The video garnered some controversy, particularly for perceived misogynistic undertones. Casale noted how the band members intended for the video to appear tasteless and demeaning, but also funny. These misogynistic claims were amplified when Devo was cut from a live performance on an episode of The Midnight Special hosted by Lily Tomlin. When Tomlin saw the video, she refused to host the show unless Devo was cut. There were also claims that MTV banned the video, but these claims were ultimately false.
Several journalists view "Whip It" as a cornerstone for the development of new wave music in the early 1980s. In his book Pop Goes the Decade: The Eighties, Thomas Harrison wrote how the song introduced heavily synthesized music to a mainstream audience. Author Evie Nagy gave similar commentary, calling it a "defining anthem of new wave's rise". The majority of new wave music in the early 1980s was produced by British bands. This meant that following the success of "Whip It", Devo joined the B-52's as the face of the emergent American new wave music movement.
The song's popularity can be largely attributed to its distinct originality. Gerard noted "there's been nothing quite like 'Whip It' in the top 40, before or since". Nagy believes that the song's drum beat, guitar chords, and keyboard lines are all so distinct, that anyone could immediately recognize them if they have heard the song a few times. In his book 99 Red Balloons: And 100 All-time One-hit Wonders, Brent Mann wrote: "It's hard to find anyone between the ages of 30 and 50 who does not have a vivid recollection of 'Whip It'...the kind of unusual track that made listeners want to bop their heads and break into a herky-jerky dance."
The accompanying music video is also remembered for its bizarre and controversial content. According to Huey, "the song has remained in the public consciousness thanks in part to MTV's extensive airplay for the video". With the popularity surrounding the "Whip It" music video, MTV began pursuing Devo, and promised them a new platform to showcase their visual works. However, Devo would eventually develop a troubled relationship with the channel. Most of the band's subsequent videos were censored for controversial content, or even rejected, on the basis that the song was not a hit single. As Casale put it: "As soon as MTV went national, they came up with this new Taliban set of rules...we were stunned and felt jilted."
In the band's forty-year history, "Whip It" remains their only song to chart within the top forty on the Billboard Hot 100. As a result, some journalists have labeled Devo as a one-hit wonder. Mann noted that the band's strange philosophy on devolution offset their accessibility, and wrote: "Devo's songs were, quite simply, too far out and counter-culture for mainstream radio". Despite this label, Devo has never tried to distance themselves from the song, and still consistently play it live. Casale remarked: "I'm glad it was 'Whip It', because it was certainly twisted and original...it came from a pure, creative, open collaboration, and that's to me when all the best stuff comes".
Credits and personnel
Credits adapted from Freedom of Choice album liner notes.
- Written by Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh
- Produced by Robert Margouleff
- Recorded at the Record Plant, Los Angeles
- Engineered by Howard Siegal
- Mastered by Ken Perry, Capitol Studios, Los Angeles
Charts and certifications
Sales and certifications