In perhaps the most bizarre music story of 2008 to date, New Wave band Devo is suing greasy French fries, quasi-chicken nuggets, and mysterious meat substance McRib purveyor McDonald’s over alleged unauthorized use of the band’s likeness in a Happy Meal toy. The band claims that “New Wave Nigel,” which besides sporting an American Idol logo is also clad in a costume strangely similar to the one the band immortalized in the “Whip It” video, is little more than a mass-produced ripoff of the Devo image.
First, the easy part: that damn toy undeniably looks conspicuously similar to Devo. Anyone who’s even remotely aware of either the band or its most famous video (kids: back in the old days, MTV played videos and not just America’s Next Top Model on an endless loop) would agree. Nigel’s truly styling in both a jumpsuit and flowerpot hat; it’s likely not a coincidence that his wardrobe looks so similar to Devo’s. Either McDonald’s Marketing and Legal departments are musical Neanderthals devoid of even the most basic knowledge of music history, or they simply chose to take their chances with the toy anyway. Hell, Nike tried a similar approach with Minor Threat.
And while it’s likely that the Happy Meal chowhounds of today won’t associate Devo with the toy, it’s quite possible that said chowhounds’ parents (or grandparents, har har) will.
Devo is currently riding the artistic integrity highway in explaining its legal action. Bassist Gerald Casale, credited with creating the band’s unique look, is quoted as saying that McDonald’s “didn’t ask us anything. Plus, we don’t like McDonalds’, and we don’t like American Idol, so we’re doubly offended.”
Nevertheless, it’s somewhat difficult to accept this assertion at face value. Despite its carefully crafted image as a band that mocked and criticized commercialism, Devo hasn’t shied away from using its image or music in commercials. The band appeared in a 1984 ad for Honda scooters, and later recorded a new version of “Whip It” for Swiffer television commercials (though Casale has since stated the band regrets that decision). Clearly, Devo won’t ever be confused with Tom Waits regarding their views on licensing their songs (or themselves) for commercial use.
With this history in mind, Casale’s comment that McDonald’s “didn’t ask us anything” is curious. Those cynics among us could interpret that to mean that Devo might have approved the idea, had they been asked and, it can be inferred, been given a cut of that sweet Big Mac baksheesh.