Devo – Freedom of Choice – Classic Music Review

Devo’s second album, Duty Now for the Future, isn’t half as weak as critics have argued, and some of the songs are Devo classics. I especially like “Triumph of the Will,” and deeply resent all the morons who turned a very funny song about a de-evolved male’s discomfort with hard-ons and sexual stickiness into some kind of evidence that Devo were peddling Nazism. What the fuck, people? If anything, they were emphasizing the de-evolved human’s fear of anything that seems disorderly or out-of-place . . . like sex, women, immigrants, black people, etc. Mothersbaugh and Casale were writing about the latent fascism in the American male! They were trying to alert you of the dangers of a dumbed-down populace! Now look what you’ve done—you’ve given the world Trump! I repeat—what the fuck, people?

No, the material on Duty Now for the Future isn’t the problem. The album suffers from production and engineering techniques that essentially pasteurize the music, sapping it of most of the energy and sonic variation. It’s like I’m hearing Devo through a wall or with a pillow wrapped around my head. I’ve tried fiddling with EQ levels to get more out of the record, but it’s really challenging when the producer did everything he could to eliminate the highs and the lows. Devo without urgency is no Devo at all, and I wish they’d urgently kicked Ken Scott into the back alley and found a producer who grasped what Devo was all about.

There is no such problem on Freedom of Choice. The sense of urgency is palpable, a result of twelve uptempo tunes that all clock in at 45-single length delivered with discipline and energy. The mix is clean and clear without sacrificing one iota of driving bass, and the band is as tight as tight can be, nailing all the rhythmic variations without appearing to break a sweat. The riffs are extraordinarily memorable and consistently uplifting, and though every band on the planet was by now throwing synthesizers into the mix, no one came close to Devo in turning them into integral and effective rock instruments. Sometimes the guitars are guitars, sometimes they’re not, but whether you’re hearing synth or string, the music on Freedom of Choice fucking rocks.

As for themes, about half the songs explore masculinity in a de-evolved culture while the other half look at various absurdities in American and first-world societies. All are linked by the overriding theme of choice and its consequence of responsibility, a concept so profound that it eludes the vast majority of Americans, who largely believe choice is what you do when deciding between a Snickers and a Milky Way. As Sartre informed us, existence precedes essence, meaning that the choices we make shape who we are and, unfortunately, how we expect other people to behave. This creates millions of choice-collisions on a daily basis as we try to interact with other members of the species, whether in the struggle for survival or in the struggle to get laid. The one aspect of Sartrean philosophy I desperately wish Americans could grasp is that not making a choice is itself a choice, and comes with the same level responsibility as an affirmative choice. Americans love to brag about their freedom to choose among a cornucopia of consumer goods but often deny the existence of choices available to them in interactions with others and with society, blaming the lack of choice on tradition (I have to act like a man/woman), on the need for survival (I have to kiss the boss’ ass to save my job) or on their station in life (there’s nothing I can do about the system). And when all else fails, you can always fall back on god, who has the distinct advantage of working in ways so mysterious that anyone can interpret her teachings to suit their personal biases.

The phrase “I had no choice” is the most pathetic and untruthful statement a human being can make.

And voilà, our first song deals with . . . choices! At first listen, the herky-jerky synthesized riff that opens “Girl U Want” seems suspended in time and space, with any connection to conventional rhythm a distant fantasy. This is actually a brilliant piece of arrangement, for when the foundational bass-drum rhythm kicks in, the riff fits just like that goddamned weird piece of a jigsaw puzzle that can’t possibly belong anywhere in the picture. Eventually, the riff turns into a solid bit of counterpoint to the vocal, echoing the internal back-and-forth of the hero as he considers the possibility of hooking up with the awe-inspiring dream girl. Gerald Casale likened the girl to the sirens who lured sailors to their death; I would point out that “death” can be a metaphor for orgasm, as in the phrase “la petite mort” (tiny death), so the hero’s impending doom may not be all that unpleasant. What he’s struggling with is surrendering a piece of his god-given masculine authority to an enchantress. Dude! Give it the fuck up!

Look at you with your mouth watering
Look at you with your mind spinnin’
Why don’t we just admit it’s all over
She’s just the girl you want

Women do have the power, and if we could only figure out a way to neutralize the violent urges of the penis holders while maintaining sufficient levels of testosterone to keep life interesting, we could forget all about de-evolution and step right into paradise! “Girl U Want” is a catchy, irresistible opener that is so damned good that Robert Palmer’s badly-executed cover did nothing to diminish the power of the original.

The theme of disorder in relationships continues in “It’s Not Right,” where the male narrator struggles with the mind-boggling concept that a woman has as much of a right to sample other partners as the oat-sowing male does. Most of the lyrics depict the classic masculine whine heard in many a blues number about the unfaithful slut, but unlike the genuine struggle with the dark impulse of jealousy you hear in John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, this loser is simply following the script, trying vainly to feel the way he’s been conditioned to feel when a woman steps out of the kitchen in search of erotic experience:

I love you darlin’, it’s a cryin’ shame
The way you run around like you’re in a big game
I’m so unhappy I could cry every time I think about you
Boo hoo

That “boo hoo” gives him away as a complete phony: he really doesn’t give a shit about her, but the threat she represents to male entitlement. The marvelous arrangement reflects the psychological struggle, centering around two separate rhythmic patterns for verse and chorus (1-2, 3-4—pow-pow-pow and 1-2, pow-pow-pow), with the pow-pow-pow serving as the urge to act that winds up stuck in a loop. The synthesizer is used cleverly in a call-and-response pattern, expressing occasional bursts of panic and more frequent expressions of rising anxiety (the upward swoop) that all end with a CRASH, indicating either a burst bubble or burst blood vessel in a brain that simply cannot compute defiance of tradition.

Speaking of mis-wired brains, I don’t know what the hell was going on in the 1980’s, but it’s hard to find another decade where so many songs were misinterpreted en masse by the listening public. “Every Breath You Take” became an anthem of love and commitment despite lyrics that clearly identified the narrator as a stalker with a poisonous obsession. Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” was about female assertiveness in relationships, not domestic violence. And then there’s “Whip It,” which 90% of the population translated as an ode to either BDSM or the male ritual of whipping one’s skippy. I may be a certified BDSM pervert and a dumb blonde, but I never thought “Whip It” had anything to do with getting one’s rocks off, either while clad in leather or when watching porn flicks with one hand on the gearshift.

While “Whip It” may have inadvertently uncovered kinky fantasies lurking in the American soul, the main cause of misinterpretation is that Americans have no sense of their own cultural history. The United States has always normalized violence as a method of problem-solving, as demonstrated in the fascination with movies about The Wild West, where guns are nearly always used to tie up the plot line. Boxing was a hugely popular sport in the first half of the 20th Century, and the language and norms of boxing were incorporated in many a Hollywood film, even in films where boxing wasn’t the prime topic (From Here to Eternity, for example). You’ll even see references to boxing as a conflict resolution technique in many a film’s throwaway dialogue, like “I oughtta sock you in the jaw.” And even when the jaw in question was in fact socked, the amateur pugilists would walk away after the bout without filing assault-and-battery charges—it was normal for men to get into scrapes every now and then. With Hollywood and radio amplifying the language of boxing to a rapt audience of film and fight fans, the lessons of boxing morphed into life lessons, like: “Sometimes in life, you’re gonna take it on the chin.” “You’ve gotta figure out a way to lick the blues.” “Son, when you’ve been whipped (or whupped), you gotta get up off the canvas and fight back.”

I don’t think there was a way out for Devo on this one. If they’d titled the song “Lick It,” cunnilingus would have been on everyone’s mind (not a bad thing), and for some reason I can’t quite pinpoint, “Whup It” simply doesn’t get the job done.

Gerald Casale’s use of the whip metaphor gave him a lot more latitude, allowing him to link the motivational message (“When a problem comes along, you must whip it”) to authoritarian symbolism (“Crack that whip”) and tough guy athleticism (“Now whip it into shape”). The absurdity of this simplistic, superficial solution to life’s challenges is hinted at in the opening verse with the reference to a child’s superstition (“Step on a crack/Break your momma’s back”), and if that wasn’t enough of a signal, Casale later inserts irrelevant advice to the happy homemaker (“Before the cream sits out too long/You must whip it.”) Geez, you’d think with all these clues LYING THERE IN PLAIN SIGHT that listeners would have figured out the song had nothing to do with sex, but I’ve learned that the myth that guides many Americans through their daily lives is Peter Pan: if you wish it, it will come true.

“Whip It” is yet another rich rhythmic tapestry, where a variety of sounds (drums, whips, bass, synth, guitar) and the occasional elongated measure magically combine to create one fabulous dance number. I also love that eerie little organ sound during the chorus, and whenever I hear it, I picture a small, round metallic object of alien origin buzzing through the air, its little lights blinking on and off to the rhythm. And as far as the controversy over the video is concerned, with Lily Tomlin going all-out feminist on Devo by refusing to host the Midnight Special unless Devo was cut from the show because oh my god that AWFUL MAN committed a violent act against one of our SISTERS . . . you know, some people really need to stop interpreting everything through whatever defensive lens they choose to use and grow the fuck up. Shit, woman, it looked more like a magic act than anything I’ve seen in a dungeon! The controversy does bring up a pet theory I’ve developed (but really haven’t had much time to verify) that the 1980’s was the decade where satire began to lose its power—and even worse, the thing being satirized became the thing to be celebrated. The most obvious example is the movie Wall Street, where Oliver Stone expected everyone to be disgusted with Gordon Gekko’s shocking mantra, “Greed is good,” and instead was shocked to see the phrase triumphantly adopted by greedy bastards everywhere.

“Snowball” is the Sisyphus myth translated to modern relationships, and we’ve all been in relationships where we keep trying, and trying and trying and for some reason we’re too fucking dumb to realize we’re repeating the time loop. The electronic patterns here feel more like computer output: cold, unfeeling, inevitable. I think it would have been really cool had Devo cut all the electronics and gone a cappella when the Sisyphus story line is interrupted by a recitation of the basics of human affection (“Eyes were made for looking/Hands were meant for holding/Hearts were meant for loving/Lips were meant for kissing”) but I suppose it would have been too much to ask of a de-evolved man to completely break the pattern.

“Ton O’ Love” features more strong rhythms, but here the focal point is Gerald Casale’s tone of voice. What I hear in his tone is a middle-aged white guy (let’s call him Fred) wearing a gray, off-the-rack business suit, chest pumped out to camouflage belly over belt, face marked by the enormous self-satisfaction of having led a privileged life, talking with his hands (one of which holds a pipe) to emphasize the vital importance of the wisdom he is dispensing to the younger white men who crowd around him—the neophytes hoping to pick up a few pointers to guide them on the road to success. Fred’s message is specifically tailored to buck up those wet-behind-the-ears types who struggle with the not-really-all-that-mysterious code of conduct of the “respectable class” in regards to the treatment of women:

When love takes a back seat to life
When a man runs away from his wife
That’s when you know
He’s in the world

To be in the world!  To be somebody! To transform oneself into the man of action, rubbing elbows, buying a few rounds, cutting deals, speaking at the Rotary, hitting the links every Saturday! To be free of the repressive environment created by mothering, smothering females—just like Huck Finn! Fred further advises his listeners that female rebellion is common, it happens to every man sooner or later, it’s nothing personal and that the only solution to such a distasteful display is a full application of testosterone-driven, all-American force:

Take your turn
Now make your move
And crush that doubt
With a ton o’ love

All I have to do is shower the broad with candy, flowers, kisses and aggressive, non-consensual sex? Sounds like a plan! But wait . . . women sure do bitch a lot, Fred. What’s that all about?

When woman takes a back seat to man
She has to tell him where to go if she can
And she decides
To wear his ring

Heh, heh, chuckle, chuckle. They’re the back seat drivers who like to think they’re in control. I get it. Pretty harmless—makes ’em feel important. But what about those guys who are still single? What advice do you have for us, Fred?

Find a girl with the face of a clock
Hands move forward ’til you can’t stop
She comes from above
With a ton o’ love

Yes! A woman who exists to help me press forward, never backward! The angel from above cheering me on to victory! My achievements are her achievements! We men sure are lucky to have creatures like that at our disposal! God bless America!

Now there’s a phrase that begs a question. What is this “America” that deserves blessing? I’ll bet you a gazillion dollars that if the question “What word do you associate most with America?” came up on Family Feud, answer #1 would be “freedom.” If you asked the average American what freedom means, though, you would likely find the answers contradictory and confusing. Ted Nugent would tell you it’s the freedom to have as many guns as you want to shoot down liberals. Liberals would say it’s freedom to protest against jerks like Ted Nugent. Religious types would likely cite freedom of religion first, though the more patriotic evangelicals would add several qualifiers to that statement to emphasize that such freedom is only available to Christians of a certain political bent. And though freedom of the press is enshrined in the First Amendment, nearly everyone hates the press when they uncover disagreeable things. Since most Americans slept through history and civics classes (see report in The Atlantic), I think if Americans were really honest and someone asked them, “What does freedom really mean to you?” in a way that doesn’t call up the anxiety associated with the high school history test they forgot to study for, the more truthful answers would look something like this:

  • The freedom to make money.
  • The freedom to protect my personal property—my stuff.
  • The freedom to choose either ice cream or low-fat frozen yogurt, either an iPhone and a Galaxy, either a purchase or a lease, etcetera, etcetera.
  • The freedom to deny other people their rights if they bother me.
  • The freedom to deny other countries their rights if they try to mess with American business interests.

Americans cherish those freedoms, largely because they’re immune from experiencing the consequences of their choices. They have invented invisible, unknowable structures collectively referred to as “the system” to rationalize failure and shield them from much of the impact. Wars take place in faraway lands. Other people enforce the laws. I respectfully recommend changing the motto of the United States from “E Pluribus Unum” to “Not my problem unless you mess with my money, my guns or my Amazon account.”

“Freedom of Choice” is Devo’s lasting contribution to the notion of freedom in America, a strong and powerful message supported by strong and powerful music. The extended intro with its reverberating toms beating out the sound that resembles the rhythm of a runaway train foreshadows the intensity and unusual directness of the rest of the song. I love how they take the time to do a mini-overture before kicking into the verses, a choice that makes the musical theme all the more memorable. The call-and-response between synth and guitar sound that shapes the theme gives me the tingles, and the entire intro brims with the determination and confidence of people who have a vital message to deliver . . . and boy, do they! The vocals throughout the song are delivered with unusual power, in a defiant tone that dares you to take a long hard look in the mirror:

A victim of collision on the open sea
Nobody ever said that life was free
Sink, swim, go down with the ship
But use your freedom of choice
I’ll say it again in the land of the free
Use your freedom of choice
Your freedom of choice

“A victim of collision on the open sea” is a more poetic version of “shooting oneself in the foot,” and in the historical period from Vietnam onwards, Americans have had more self-generated collisions than any country on the planet. “Nobody ever said that life was free” points out the absence of empathy in the American heart and the culture’s difficulty in forgiving mistakes or believing that misfortune could really be misfortune and not the victim’s own damned fault. And how about those choices? Sink? Swim? Go down with the ship? Cherish your fucking freedom, Americans! The message is reinforced with the introduction of a modified version of the paradox of Buridan’s Ass, the story of donkey who is equally hungry and thirsty and placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water: the donkey can’t make up his mind, so he dies of hunger and thirst. Philosophers of various stripes have argued that the paradox can be broken by the application of free will . . . and we’ll come back to that notion in a minute.

The second verse deals primarily with the acquisitive side of choice, the most important aspect of choice in a materialistic society. What’s really weird about how this form of freedom plays out is that it feels more like an addiction-driven choice than one based on conscious awareness (“Then if you got it, you don’t want it”). Having filled their two-car garages and attics with stuff, the ever-sensitive market responded to American needs with a flood of self-service storage facilities where you can store additional junk that you really don’t want anymore but giving it up would be like giving up your daily fix—unthinkable! Here the repetition of “use your freedom of choice” underscores the essential triviality of choice involving consumer goods. I mean, are those the freedoms Americans fought and died for? I doubt soldier Johnny’s last words were, “I gave my life fighting foreign enemies who wanted to deny me the inalienable right to choose between Tide and Cheer.” Sadly, those choices have been elevated in status because Americans have ignored the more vital choices and inaction has been rationalized as the smart play. Still, not making a choice counts as a choice, and the repetition of the chorus following the second verse drips with sarcasm:

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom of choice!

The final rendition of that chorus takes us back to the essential question of free will. What makes “Freedom of Choice” a truly great piece of work is that it questions whether or not Americans want to exercise free will at all. The final version of the chorus changes one preposition, and that little change makes all the difference in the world:

Freedom of choice
Is what you got
Freedom from choice
Is what you want

Americans may protest mightily at what appears to be an absurd notion in the land of the free, but there’s plenty of evidence to back it up. Out of 32 democracies measured by the Pew Research Center, the United States ranks 26th in voter turnout. Think of the steelworkers who refused retraining because they stubbornly insisted they were and could only be steelworkers—they didn’t want to have to choose some other occupation, even if it meant a descent into poverty. Shortly after Trump’s ascendancy, Reuters announced that they had instructed their journalists to report on the United States in the same way they report on other authoritarian countries, a piece of news greeted with a massive yawn. Americans view nearly everything through the lens of self-interest, so if it’s not happening to me, what the fuck do I care? Americans could get rid of Trump in a week if they really wanted to through massive civil disobedience and a general strike, but instead they punt the choice to the Democrats (who do absolutely nothing but yap and beg for money), organize for an election that may never happen and will certainly be rigged (again), or pin their hopes on a dysfunctional legal system to nail a guy who has a lifetime of experience in all the delaying tactics the system has to offer. If you add the millions of non-voters to the Trump voters, guess what? You have a working majority more than willing to install an authoritarian regime that will completely relieve you of your responsibilities as a citizen, making sure you never have to trouble yourself with free will again.

Devo was so far ahead of their time.

Flipping over to side two, we encounter the slashing power chords that dominate the soundscape of “Gates of Steel,” a song based on a riff Mothersbaugh picked out of a jam session with Deborah Smith and Susan Schmidt of Akron band Chi-Pig, a promising group that never got the big break. The theoretical background comes from the book The Beginning Was the End by Oskar Kiss Maerth, where the author introduces the theory that Homo sapiens evolved from cannibalistic apes. The motivation to eat ape brains was, like most human motivations, grounded in the sex drive: one ape found that ape brains served as an aphrodisiac, so all the other apes wanted in on the fun. The downside of this evolutionary shift is that the long-term effect (according to Maersk) is a loss of connection with nature, which in turn explains the species’ willingness to pollute the air and water and send many other species into oblivion. The theory has no grounding in science, but it does fit in nicely with the de-evolution theme, and gruesomely echoes the ape transformation depicted in the opening passages of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where evolutionary progress is linked to the proto-human transformation from vegans to carnivores. The lyrical problem with “Gates of Steel” is that you’d have to know something about the theory to make sense of the words, so I advise listeners to avoid taxing their oversized brains on the lyrics and concentrate on the absolutely thrilling, driving music: “Gates of Steel” kicks serious ass, and it always excites me to the max.

“Cold War” is a lighter piece on relationships that compares the heterosexual struggle to the distorted negotiations that dominated the Cold War. The concerns are similar to those voiced in “Ton O’ Love,” with the male narrator completely unable to make sense of the internal war between natural male aggression and the need to avoid being a jerk if you’re going to get past second base:

Go, go fight fight, punch
Your way to happiness
Go, go light light, or
You’ll never be a big success

In the end, the narrator circles back to his starting negotiating position: “I owe you absolutely nothing.” How fucking intimate of you. Now get the fuck out of my bed. Oh, yeah—thanks for the techno-funky music.

Speaking of naive, debilitated men, the narrator in “Don’t You Know” wins the prize for worst romantic approach in history:

and don’t you know I got a thing that looks for you
don’t you know the way you make me feel about you
don’t you know I got a place that waits for you
don’t you know that I am always thinking of you

I got a rocket in my pocket
but I don’t know what to do
like a plug without a socket
I’m just waitin’ ’round for you

If you parse the lyrics, you’ll see that the narrator believes he has no responsibility for either his rocket or his feelings, which leads to the logical conclusion that if he is unable to get the woman to share her socket, she’s going to get the blame. I’d always reacted to this song as the story of a nerd with zero seduction skills who’d eventually fail in his quest and go back to the video game console, but after the murderous attack in Toronto by a card-carrying incel, the song takes on a much darker cast: “I’m involuntarily celibate because of YOU, woman, and you’ll fucking pay with your life.” Apparently, the same belief drives both the hyper-sexed and undersexed male: that women exist to spread their legs and they owe it to men to spread on demand. I remember thinking A Handmaid’s Tale was a silly book when I first read it, but now I’m not so sure.

“That’s Pep” employs a choppier rhythm dominated by sharp guitar cuts and a sinuous riff. Here Mark Mothersbaugh takes the athletic model of masculinity hinted at in “Whip It” and gives it a fuller treatment. Boxing imagery is scattered among various scraps of positive thinking aphorisms in a succinct summary of the empty thoughts that fill the decaying brains of men whose identities depend completely on their ability to conform to the standard issue. And when these losers go partying, they head over to “Mr. B’s Ballroom” with its big beers, big broads with big tits and big babies getting drunk, throwing up and bashing chairs over each other’s heads.

Human beings are fucking weird.

The music at Mr. B’s is suitably loose, and perfectly in sync with the lyrics (“Party time, turn the music up loud/Party time, lose your head in the crowd”). I love it when the voice of authority steps in and order the idiots to “Freeze!” because I really don’t want to hang out with these people anymore.

The closing piece appears to extend the study of de-evolution to humans across the planet, but the examples are largely American, indicating that “Planet Earth” was designed to shed light on American ethnocentrism rather than species-wide behavior. Americans have always been suspicious and distrustful of foreigners to varying degrees, and many still believe that the United States is the only country that really matters. “Planet Earth” presents this dynamic through the fascinating contrast of the cheery, enthusiastic dance music and an android-like vocal from Gerald Casale—one that comes across as the detached perspective of the alien anthropologist faithfully recording patterns of human activity:

I’ll probably stay
On planet earth
It’s a place to live your life
Where pleasure follows pain
People go insane
Fly around in planes
Pray that it won’t rain
Drive around in cars
Get drunk in local bars
Dream of being stars
Well I lived all my life on planet earth

Planet Earth sounds like one boring fucking place, and the narrator sounds less than enthusiastic about sticking around. If you interpret the song from a planetary perspective, he has no choice, since interstellar travel remains off the table for at least another century. But when you identify the guy as an inhabitant of the United States, you realize that his lack of enthusiasm is closely tied to his limited ability to deal with alternative choices. America is the center of the universe! It’s the greatest country on Earth! Why go anywhere else? The final report from our robotic observer underscores the essential theme of Freedom of Choice: people are terrified of freedom and prefer the safety of the cage to the exercise of free will.

I saw a man on a stage
Scream, “Put me back in my cage.”
I saw him hang by his tie
I saw enough to make me cry

Reading the reports from the United States of Trump make me want to cry every fucking day.

My ambivalent feelings about Freedom of Choice have nothing to do with the music, lyrics or Devo’s enthusiastic performance. It’s a fucking great record, and I love listening to it from beginning to end. The ambivalence comes from its unrelenting exposure of disturbing tendencies in the American psyche that had been gestating in relative darkness for some time, and are now coming into the light so vividly that even the most oblivious people can no longer ignore them. Consider me a pessimist, but I’ve seen nothing from the United States in the last year-and-a-half to believe that Americans are motivated to do anything more than bitch and hold a few rallies to express how unhappy they are. While that may be temporarily therapeutic, America is already well on its way to authoritarianism, and what’s driving it is the overwhelming desire of Americans to simplify their choices in a world too complex for them to grasp.

We good guys. You bad guys. Leave us alone or we blow you up. End of discussion. Now let me back in my cage.

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