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Thursday, February 2, 2023

The classic Devo song inspired by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is one of modern American literature’s most revered and enigmatic figures. The mind behind works such as The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice, he has always kept out of the public eye, with rumours about his life and career in abundance since the 1960s. Pynchon has succeeded in maintaining his reclusive lifestyle, with only a handful of photographs of the novelist available in the public domain, adding authenticity to his mystifying prose.

Pynchon’s most famous work remains the 1973 effort Gravity’s Rainbow, a 760-page romp set in Europe at the end of World War II. Since its release, the book has polarised opinion, given its extensive length, complex plot and Pynchon’s notoriously impenetrable prose. However, because the material is so unique, the book also earned many prominent disciples, including new wave heroes Devo, who took great inspiration from Gravity’s Rainbow to create their most famous song.

‘Whip It’ is the hit single from their third album, 1980’s Freedom of Choice, and it consolidated the band’s disjointed form of new-wave. Co-written by bassist Gerald Casale and frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, the song is noted for the prominence of the synthesiser, funky rhythms, and off-kilter lyrics that centre around the ability to deal with problems by “whipping it”.

Whilst the music remains infectious, the lyrics have long been the main talking point of the track, containing motivational lines such as “go forward, move ahead” and “it’s not too late”. Casale conceived the lyrics as a satire of unabashed American optimism, which imbues the track with considerably more substance than the rather dorky music initially suggests. 

As it was written during the middle of the Cold War, to make his satire sting, Casale used two highlight controversial sources, Communist propaganda posters and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Regarding the latter, this is because it abounds with satirical limericks about the can-do clichés of capitalism. Casale composed his lyrics in such a way that they sound like motivational clichés when taken out of context.

When speaking to Flavorwire in 2009, Casale explained how he and Mothersbaugh wrote ‘Whip It’: “Everyone contributing ideas, sounds, and musical figures, and only developing the ones that everyone likes. With ‘Girl U Want,’ like so many of our songs, we could tell in the first five seconds that they were recognisable as non-generic. We develop from there. That’s always what I was good at, taking things from different influences. ‘Whip It’ was actually four songs, pieces of tape, and four different time signatures. There was the riff, chorus (a very slow, almost classical piece with no drums), and the bridge was a rock song, and the strange beat was an experiment that the drummer of Captain Beefheart, John French, would hang out with Mark [Mothersbaugh] and jam.”

Turning to the influence of Gravity’s Rainbow, he added: “A version of that beat that was too jazzy came out of that time. Once we had that beat, I had the idea of taking the other three pieces of music and unifying them. I had these ‘Whip It’ lyrics from my attempt at doing a Thomas Pynchon parody. He did a bunch of parodies in Gravity’s Rainbow, and I liked them so much that I wanted to do one. So for me, ‘Whip It’ was a parody of the whole Horatio Alger ‘You’re number one, there’s nobody else like you, you can do it’ thing.”

Later, when speaking to SongfactsCasale went into more detail about his desire to imitate Pynchon’s style: “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.”

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