The only American chart single for Akron, OH, new wave pioneers Devo, "Whip It" was a substantial hit in 1980, never actually reaching the Top Ten but making up for it with chart longevity and sales of over one million copies (the latter an achievement duplicated by the accompanying album, Freedom of Choice). Driven by simple but catchy instrumental riffs, an up-tempo mechanical beat, and synthesized whipping sound effects, the song had an irresistibly odd novelty appeal that was enhanced by the visually striking video: Devo performed the robotic, synth-driven song in an incongruously natural and wholesome farm setting, wearing pseudo-futuristic "energy dome" hats (which resembled upside-down flowerpots with a stair-step design) while leader Mark Mothersbaugh -- the only member not penned up like livestock -- used his whip to remove articles of clothing from the audience. But even though most of the listening public took "Whip It" as just a catchy bit of weirdness with nonsensical lyrics about a vaguely sexy topic, the song's actual purpose -- like much of Devo's work -- was social satire. Putting the somewhat abstract lyrics together, "Whip It" emerges as a sardonic portrait of a general, problematic aspect of the American psyche: the predilection for using force and violence to solve problems, vent frustration, and prove oneself to others ("when something's going wrong, you must whip it/when a good time turns around, you must whip it/you will never live it down unless you whip it"). In fact, the first track on Devo's follow-up album, New Traditionalists, "Through Being Cool," betrays the band's resentment that most listeners didn't get the whole point behind "Whip It."
The song's main riff alternately ascends and descends, at first repeated by synth, guitar, and bass alike; minor variations occur as the song moves toward its chorus, with the synth beginning to hold some notes behind a busier, more prominent guitar lick that harmonizes with the main line instead of simply echoing it. Mothersbaugh and Casale alternate vocal lines, the latter's nasal drawl contrasting with the former's powerful cartoonishness. The chorus (if that's the appropriate word for a section that's less melodic than the verses) is composed of slogans that are more command than encouragement ("Now whip it into shape! Shape it up! Get straight! Go forward! Move ahead!"), which Mothersbaugh delivers in a sort of robot-drill-sergeant bark as the synth alternates between two notes half a step apart from each other, producing a disorienting aural effect. The instrumental interlude in the middle of the song squeezes the main riff into a 6/4 time signature (non-standard time being a Devo specialty), just different enough to throw the listener's ear off balance. The song has remained in the public consciousness thanks in part to MTV's extensive airplay for the video, as well as the "retro-'80s" new wave nostalgia that overtook twentysomething listeners during the late '90s, and it remains Devo's signature song, as well as one of the best arguments that punk ideology didn't necessarily lose its bite when placed in the more pop-oriented musical context of new wave.