Over the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.
Next up: Evie Nagy, who will be bringing her substantial rock critic chops to bear on Devo’s Freedom of Choice. Nagy is the Music Editor at Billboard Magazine, has past written for Rolling Stone, and co-wrote the afterword to the excellent Out of the Vinyl Deeps, an anthology of rock writing by the late Ellen Willis, the New Yorker‘s first pop music critic. When she’s off the clock, Nagy spends her time “reading superhero comics and trying to ensure that her 1 1/2-year old daughter likes punk rock and weird food.” Devo’s 1980 album Freedom of Choice was her record of choice because it is, she says, “propelled by the new decade’s high-tech, free-market, pre-AIDS promise.” It’s the point, Nagy asserts, when Devo became Devo, “before an artistic and commercial decline that resulted in a 20-year gap between their last two studio records. Freedom of Choice made them curious, insurgent superstars, vindicated but ultimately betrayed by the birth of MTV. Their only platinum album represented the best of their unreplicable code: dead-serious tricksters, embracing conformity in order to destroy it with bullet-proof pop sensibility.”
What, in particular, drew you to writing about this album?
Evie Nagy: As a band, Devo to me is a perfect storm in terms of timely influence on me personally, thoroughly interesting philosophy and backstory, and straight up terrific songs. I think other critics might be more drawn to their debut album Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! as a writing subject (and I believe it has been proposed for the series at least once), because it really was a creative breakthrough both in rock music and in the cultural significance that a band like Devo could have. But to me, one of the central questions in the study of popular music is why is this thing popular? Why the hell do people like it? And Freedom of Choice, which was their third album, was the band’s most commercially successful album by far, while also being critically acclaimed. It was built around an exciting new musical direction for the band and includes the song that everyone knows is Devo if you know nothing else about them. And every song is great; if I have to listen to one Devo album hundreds of times to write about it, I wanted it to be this one.
Who will you be reaching out to during the writing process? Why?
EN: I have already had several conversations with co-founder Jerry Casale, and will be talking at least to the other three core members (Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Casale and Bob Mothersbaugh) who performed on Freedom of Choice and are all in the current reunited iteration of the band. I’m still compiling my list of potential other sources but needless to say I’ll want to get as complete a story as possible. I’m also hoping to talk to other musicians who were influenced by Devo in any number of ways, of which there are a ton. If you are one of those artists please feel free to get in touch.
“One of my purposes in choosing Freedom of Choice was to look closely at the most mainstream, corporate, mass-market moment in the life of a band founded on subversive anti-authority principles.”
Describe for us the process of coming up with and pitching your 33 1/3. Did anything surprise you? Did you start with one idea and end up with another? Be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
EN: This was my second proposal—my first was in 2008 for They Might Be Giants’ Flood (you can see a theme, probably), which I’m thrilled will also be a book in the series this time around. For that proposal, I decided to attempt it literally 48 hours before the deadline, and therefore chose an album that I knew I could throw something together for without a ton of research. That proposal made the first cut, and I thought maybe if I actually did the next one right I might have something. In 2010 I had spent about six months on the story of Devo’s comeback with their first album in 20 years, ultimately writing a feature in Billboard on their partnership with an ad agency for Something For Everybody. So I had that basis of research in addition to my decades of fandom, and I reached out to the band to get some interviews and background before even writing the proposal. As you know, this time around the proposal guidelines were much more involved, so a last-minute brain dump wasn’t even an option really. I still wrote it in 48 hours, because I had a two-month old at the time, but I did a lot of the groundwork first. I wouldn’t say that my original idea for the book changed much from the beginning of the proposal process to the end—more that I didn’t really have a specific idea until I had collected a critical mass of info and it sort of presented itself all at once.
What do you want to explore about this band/singer/artist that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
EN: Almost all of the critical and historical attention to Devo I am aware of focuses on the earlier part of their career and theory of De-evolution, in addition to their early influence on New Wave. This is all massively important, and I will obviously give attention to it, but one of my purposes in choosing Freedom of Choice was to look closely at the most mainstream, corporate, mass-market moment in the life of a band founded on subversive anti-authority principles.
What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favourites? Why?
EN: I’ve read at least 8-10 of them and it’s hard to choose a favorite in terms of sheer enjoyment, but I will say that Dan LeRoy’s Paul’s Boutique and Chris Weingarten’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back are the books that I’m most eager to emulate in some way with my own book. They are both impressively reported pieces, where the authors left themselves explicitly out of the story but still managed to convey deep enthusiasm and appreciation for their subjects through knowledge and humor.
What was your first concert?
EN: Olivia Newton John, San Diego Sports Arena, 1981. My mom took me for my fifth birthday. I subsequently named all my stuffed animals after her.
How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
EN: Honestly, almost entirely mp3. I’m just kind of OCD about it and like to be able to access whatever I’m in the mood for from the cloud or my phone.
Name a lyric from the album you’re writing about that encapsulates either a) the album itself, b) your experience in hearing the album for the first time, or c) your experience writing about the album, so far.
EN: In ancient Rome / There was a poem / about a dog / who found two bones / He picked at one / He licked the other / He went in circles / He dropped dead.
Next time: Jordan Ferguson on J. Dilla’s Donuts. Stay tuned.