Mark Mothersbaugh could probably buy anyone reading this several times over. His composer credits on the IMDb number 165 and counting, from subversive pop entertainment like “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” to indie hits like The Royal Tenenbaums and blockbusters like The LEGO Movie. But this commercial success was born from a decidedly anti-commercial aesthetic. Mothersbaugh was a founding member of Devo, who broke out of Akron, Ohio as misfits even in the punk scene, their robotic rhythms, misanthropic lyrics and theory of de-evolution delivered on a twisted but pretty catchy musical foundation. Former Billboard and Rolling Stone editor Evie Nagy takes a look at Devo’s third album,Freedom of Choice. This is one of the latest entries in the 33 1/3 series of small volumes about pop albums, and it’s a solid addition to pop music literature, striking an even balance between music criticism and cultural criticism, giving props to Devo’s musicianship and their unusually prescient if cynical look at the future of music.

What made Devo cynical visionaries was their early insistence on image, from uniforms that looked like hazardous waste suits to promotional films that were in heavy rotation in the early days of MTV simply because they were among the only acts who had the foresight to make music videos. This tension between commercial success and de-evolutionary theories may have found an unholy synthesis in today’s oversaturated media, and although Devo had the biggest hit of their career with “Whip It,” the unlikely second single released from Freedom of Choice, the band’s warm feelings from the soon to be pop phenomenon was short lived: it wasn’t long before MTV relegated Devo’s music videos to late-night hours.

There are now close to 100 entries in the 33 1/3 series. It’s an admirable but an inconsistent undertaking, and picking up titles just based on your personal favorites hasn’t been the best way to approach the series. Fortunately, even casual fans of Devo can appreciate Nagy’s book. She doesn’t try to argue that the album is one of the greatest in rock history, but makes a strong case for Devo as sometimes unheralded musicians (especially their first drummer, Alan Myers) and astute cultural signifiers. Nagy even suggests that this band known for robotic gestures and futuristic (read: cold) rhythms had something like soul, their protests about a world gone mad the alienated beats of humans who refused to succumb to the social conformity of an age of automatons.

Social satire aside, the band wrote catchy songs, even if “Whip It” was widely misunderstood as celebration of S&M. The lyrics were meant as a parody of motivational slogans to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, a “You can do it, Dale Carnegie pep talk for [then-] President Carter,” but when it came time to make the music video, Devo gleefully went ahead with the S&M angle, and the video became a controversial success.

The book is structured to follow the band’s history as it assesses each of the songs on the album, but this conventional structure is subtly upended as the author reveals exactly how out of touch the band was with the cultural climate. As they toured behind the album, a this being the ’80s, cocaine flowed freely. Some of the band gladly partook of the stuff, but Mark Mothersbaugh was known to trick record executives by pouring lines of sugar onto a table before a meeting. Nagy relates a telling anecdote from the time, reported by Creem‘s Richard Riegel: “As I’m passing out of the Holiday Inn, I spot Mark Mothersbaugh engaged in one of those wanton acts of destruction today’s decadent rockstars are so inclined to indulge in within the walls of these shameless hostelries: he’s purchasing a coil of U.S. postage stamps from a vending machine in the hallway.” “Through Being Cool“ indeed.

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