Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh formed Devo when they were students at Kent State University. Jerry told us how this song came together:
"Whip It, like many Devo songs, had a long gestation, a long process. The lyrics were written by me as an imitation of Thomas Pynchon's parodies in his book Gravity's Rainbow
. He had parodied limericks and poems of kind of all-American, obsessive, cult of personality ideas like Horatio Alger and 'You're #1, there's nobody else like you' kind of poems that were very funny and very clever. I thought, 'I'd like to do one like Thomas Pynchon,' so I wrote down 'Whip It' one night. Mark had recorded some sketches for song ideas in his apartment, and when we'd get together every day to write, rehearse and practice, we would listen to everybody's snippets of ideas. He had this tape with about 8 things on it, and one of them had a drum beat that was very interesting, it became the 'Whip It' drum beat. Then 3 other songs had pieces of what became the 'Whip It' song, except they were in different time signatures and different tempos. I put them all together into one composition. All the parts of the song got rolled into one song. Then we started putting the lyrics over the top of it and liked the idea of how it was working out. We started practicing it every day, until we got it to the point where we really liked it and we thought it was really snappy. Then we recorded it. We didn't like it any better or any less than any of the other songs we were doing, and we had no idea it would become a hit."
This became a hit when it was picked up by a radio programmer from Florida. He played it on some stations there and created the buzz that made it a hit. Says Jerry: "It spread around the country. All the DJs and people hearing it assumed it was a song about beating off or sadomasochism, so we let them think that. We didn't want to ruin it and tell them the truth, because they just wouldn't get off on the truth."
When MTV launched in 1981, they had very few videos to choose from. Some European and Australian artists had been making videos, but very few came from US artists, and most of those were concert videos. Devo had been making interesting videos for a while because they thought Laser Discs were going to catch on and wanted to make film shorts with music soundtracks that people could watch on them. Laser Discs never caught on, but MTV did, which gave this video lots of exposure.
Casale: "We made a video to it for like $15,000 that was shot in our rehearsal studio. We kind of magnified that myth that this was a song about whipping and sadomasochism. We decided to make the video feed that popular misconception and had a lot of fun doing it. It was one of the few times Devo worked like that, usually we would start with a visual idea or story and write music to fit it. In this case, we didn't originally have a video idea for 'Whip It,' and when people started thinking it was a song about whacking off or sadomasochism, we had these quack books that we would collect from junk stores or vintage magazine stores that served as inspiration or jokes. There was this one magazine that I found in a store in Santa Monica. It was a 1962 men's girlie mag called Dude, I think. There was a feature article on a guy who had been an actor and fell on hard times, he wasn't getting parts anymore. He moved with his wife to Arizona, opened a dude ranch and charged people money to come hang out at the ranch. Every day at noon in the coral, for entertainment, he'd whip his wife's clothes off with a 12-foot bullwhip. She sewed the costumes and put them together with Velcro. The story was in the magazine about how good he was and how he never hurt her. We had such a big laugh about it, we said, 'OK, that's the basis for the video. We'll have these cowboys drinking beer and cheering Mark on as he's in the barnyard whipping this pioneer women's clothes off while the band plays in the corral.' Back then, nobody cared. MTV had just started up in 3 cities, we had already shot 5 videos before Whip It, and nobody cared. There was no industry around it, there were no gatekeepers, there was no pecking order, there were no video commissioners, there were no representatives going, 'No, you can't do that, we won't show that.' There wasn't enough money or power involved for anybody to care, so we were just considered crazy artists that went out and did whacko things. So we made the video and one day we started showing it in concerts and then MTV started playing it."
Mark Mothersbaugh told us: "We had just done our second world tour when we started writing our third album. The one thing that we were impressed with that we noticed everywhere around the world was that everybody was totally freaked out by American politics and American foreign policy. At the time, Jimmy Carter was in charge. I thought of 'Whip It' as kind of a Dale Carnegie, 'You Can Do It' song for Jimmy Carter."
This was one of the first hit songs that used a synthesizer as the lead instrument.
Devo's music and videos were based on the concept of "De-Evolution," meaning that mankind is regressing. They dressed alike in their videos to convey the lack of individuality in the world. Said Casale, "I think a lot of Devo is in 'Whip It.' There's Americana mixed with something menacing, there's irony and humor, there's a hook and a big dance beat, there are interesting synth parts, lyrics that aren't the typical lyrics about getting laid or losing your baby. Although we weren't trying, it was a pretty concentrated dose of Devo in Whip It."
Casale: "From the beginning, on purpose, Devo was a multimedia idea. There was no name for 'Performance Art' at the time. That term didn't exist, although I think that's what we were doing when I look back at it. It's exactly that, Devo represented an attitude, a point of view, a philosophy. It was like combining film-making and theatrics and cutting-edge kind of synthesizers and rock beats all rolled into one big performance with a lifestyle message behind it, which was basically to beware of illegitimate authority and think for yourself. Hardly a revolutionary idea, but it turns out to be more revolutionary as people's freedoms are slowly eaten away."
In 2003, this was used in a commercial for Swiffer wet mops. In the ad, a woman cleans the house with a Swiffer while doing robotic motions like Devo. When her daughter, who appears to be a junior-high Goth girl, sees her, she says, "I hope it's not genetic." Jerry's thoughts: "The concept of that commercial is a generation gap where 'Whip It' is being used as a put-down of the girl's mother. She's stuck in the '80s and swiffing away to Whip It and the kid thinks she's weird and is embarrassed by her. It's perfect that while Devo, when we came out we were a critical success and loved by people, we were pretty much overlooked by radio and MTV. MTV turned on Devo around 1981 and quit showing stuff and didn't want anything to do with us. They said, 'Unless your song's a hit, we're not playing your videos.' What's funny is, we never made any money, and only through publishing now are we making money, ironically for the wrong reason. But built into Devo was that comment on how society works and how people see things different ways and there is no one explanation of reality and that people do not share one logical idea of reality. This just proves it. We don't feel bad about the little bit of money that trickles to us now that we never got in the first place because they used these songs in a terrible way. It's almost more subversive because you go, 'This can't be, it's all wrong.' By misusing it so badly, they've created something that amuses us, entertains us."
Proctor & Gamble, who make the Swiffer, originally had them re-record this for the commercial as "You must swiff it," but their lawyers found out that copyrighting "Swiff It" and the product implications down the line could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, so they changed the lyrics to "You must Swiffer" so they wouldn't have to copyright "Swiff It."
Because of a bad publishing deal Devo made in 1978, they control only half the rights to their songs. When they allow their songs to be used in commercials, they insist on re-recording them so they can keep all the performance rights. In the Swiffer commercial, that is Mothersbaugh's vocal with lyrics written by Proctor & Gamble.
This has also been used in ads for Gateway, Twix and Pringles. In the Gateway commercial, the chairman of the company is driving an 18-wheeler with the Gateway cow riding shotgun. The cow produces a CD labeled "Cow Mix," and when they listen to it, this comes on and the chairman and the cow sing along. That ad is one of Mothersbaugh's favorites.
This was Devo's only hit, but they have a large cult following, and many of their songs have been resurrected for commercials. Members of Devo started a company called Mutato Muzika (www.mutato.com) that develops music for movies, TV shows and commercials. Jerry is a successful director, and has worked on videos by Rush, The Foo Fighters, Soundgarden and many others. (thanks to Jerry and Mark for speaking with us about this song - check out our Devo interview
This song is playable in Donkey Konga for the Nintendo Gamecube. (thanks, Matthew - Milford, MA)
Senior citizen singers the Del Rubio triplets made this song a big part of their stage show, performing it on acoustic guitars. They made many TV appearances in the '80s, usually performing in a campy style and wearing skimpy outfits.
The Brian Welch fronted Nu Metal band Love and Death covered this in 2013 for their Between Here & Lost
album. Their version features Matt Baird of the Arkanas hard rock band Spoken. Welch recalled to Noisecreep
: "He was just in town during the recording and Jaren (Rauch, producer) mentioned it. He said it would be cool to have a guy to scream on there and so I totally tried it. You wouldn't believe it, at nine in the morning, he got up - you're hearing him with morning voice and everything and we just threw him on there."