Friday, May 22, 2015

Devo's Freedom of Choice, by Evie Nagy

As a young teenager, I remember being entranced by Devo, so delightfully different from the pop-rock garbage on the radio.  I joined Club Devo and eagerly awaited every new release.  Alas, I never saw them live.  Looking back after three decades, I am realizing how much I missed in Devo's music.  Evie Nagy has filled in a lot of gaps for Devo fans in Devo's Freedom of Choice.

Focusing on Devo's third album, Freedom of Choice, Nagy tells Devo's story.  She draws extensively on interviews with band members, who lend insight into the creative process behind the album and tell great stories about the life of Devo.  Perhaps more importantly, Nagy places the album in context.  She quotes contemporary reviews and other musicians who were influenced by Devo, and discusses Devo's place in and influence on the general state of rock music.

I enjoyed reading some of the backstory of the songs.  On "Whip It": it wasn't meant to be sexual.  They say "We wrote it as a 'you can do it, Dale Carnegie' pep talk for President Carter." After so many fans assumed a sexual theme, for the music video, "Devo ran with the S&M theme to the absurd extreme."

Devo famously had a dysfunctional relationship with record labels.  They also continuously satirized commercial culture.  So it's interesting to read their thoughts on the subject of money and success.  Nagy writes, "While Devo objected to the excessive corporate greed that led to unacceptable levels of inequality, they of course were not opposed to making money. . . ."  They also had a contentious relationship with MTV.  When the network started, Devo was one of a very few bands that had been making videos of their songs, so Devo got heavy rotation.  Soon, all the bands were doing it, and MTV shifted from "playing all the art stuff that was out there, to concentrating on music videos that record companies were basically making as commercials for the albums they were trying to sell." Since Devo didn't get the radio airplay that many other bands got, the found themselves excluded from MTV's rotations.

Now that I'm well into middle age, I have to admit Devo's music doesn't move me like it did when I was kid.  But I do still love it!  As a conservative Christian I probably shouldn't embrace them; I certainly don't embrace their liberal politics and atheism.  As a conservative Christian 13 year old, I know I didn't get some of that subtext.  As I've looked back at some of Devo's videos, I am also reminded that Mark Mothersbaugh is to blame for giving me the idea that it would be cool to wear my racquetball eye guards to a party.  I was a dork.

Spuds will love the nostalgia and the insiders' information in Devo's Freedom of Choice.  You may or may not agree with Mark that Freedom of Choice marked "the end of Devo."  But a good case is made here that, while their later work is enjoyable, this album did mark their pinnacle.  Non-spuds who think of Devo as a one-hit wonder will be surprised to read of Devo's impact and musical influence.  Spuds and non-spuds alike will want to dust off their old LPs or cassettes, or pull up some songs on YouTube, and relive the early days of Devo, a great band ahead of its time.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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