Few people had as much faith in the stupidity of humankind as Frank Zappa. From songs trashing everything from the religious right to censorship, drugs, and the hippie subculture, Zappa poured vitriol into almost every facet of postmodern America. And he did it with such shrewd, crude lyrics.
Frank Zappa (R.I.P.) was an artist in every sense of the word. He didn’t care what anyone thought about him. And he expressed that in all of his work. Not only did he inject it with beautiful, jazz-infused, electric guitar work that was second to none, but also his satirical wit. In the song “Flakes” he lampoons California workers, equating them with laziness. In “Bobby Brown Goes Down” he makes fun of the self-centered American male who epitomizes the “American Dream”, then later turns to homosexuality after a sexual encounter with a lesbian in the women’s liberation movement.
Some songs are downright disturbing, while funny. “Dinah-Moe Humm” is the story of a woman who dares a man to make her ejaculate. “The Legend Of The Illinois Enema Bandit” is based on a true story about a criminal who sexually assaulted his victims using…well, the title says it all. “Punky’s Whips” is about the latent homosexuality of a band member who becomes obsessed with a male guitarist.
A lot of his songs talk about sex in graphic detail. And chains. And S&M. And bodily functions that would probably appall any non-seasoned listener. Make no mistake: Frank Zappa is acquired taste. The lyrics will probably turn you off the first time you hear them. My friend, who introduced me, said “It takes a while to get into. First, you have to get past the lyrics.”
But that’s part of the genius: the way he injects himself personally into his work. With Frank, there’s no separation between art and artist. And he displays that sentiment many times. One need only look as far as the album “Thing Fish”. In it he parodies the AIDS epidemic, essentially saying that it was home-brewed conspiracy by the U.S. government, created in a laboratory, specifically designed to target black people (“highly rhythmic individuals”) and gays (“sissy boys”). Those aren’t my words: those are the lyrics.
Thing Fish is narrated by a minstrel character talking in jive, who puts on a Broadway stage production featuring a chorus of deformed testing subjects, known as “Mammy-Nuns”. Not quite weirded out enough? A couple named Rhonda and Harry attend the play, who both represent parodies of White America. Harry, like Bobby Brown, is an American male who becomes homosexual as a result of the women’s liberation movement, and Rhonda, his wife, engrossed with the movement, gradually becomes more and more “masculine” as the album goes on, even to the point having sexual relations with her briefcase and business documents.
It’s pretty confusing to try to explain. But this is the way Zappa tended to see American culture: as a clown show. He didn’t really take sides: he skewered the super liberal, as well as super conservative elements. One would only need to listen to “Dumb All Over” to get his views on religion, and a handful of other songs. In another, “Dummy Up” he talks about smoking a high school diploma, complete with a college degree. When a band member asks what that comes with on a menu, he says absolutely nothing: with a college degree you get absolutely nothing. So smoke it up.
His interviews say even more. During the 80s he took up a heavy stance against the censorship movement, insisting it was no more than an attempt by concerned, Christian parents to gain creative control over the music industry. There’s also the interview where he dismissed MTV as a corporate cash grab seeking to profit off of artists.
Frank was all about the artist owning their product. He was a businessman in that sense. He didn’t like other people telling him what he could and couldn’t say, no matter how repugnant. For him that was First Amendment: not just for politicians and flag burners, but musical artists, as well. Art should not be sanitized by Big Brother. Which is one of the reasons he had so much contempt for it.
And he took a pretty harsh view towards the Reagan administration. Check out pretty much any Frank Zappa interview from the 1980s. If he wasn’t busy railing against censorship on Capitol Hill, he was comparing the pro-religious Republican right to a “fascist theocracy”.
Human beings are best at screwing things up. This was Zappa’s primary belief on mankind. In another interview he was asked briefly about UFOs and alien life. Although a believer in the great unknown, he doesn’t think we should rush to discover it. Because of our faulty, destructive tendencies, humankind would only pollute things for the rest of the universe. He said that the best thing for a superior life form to do would be to wipe us all out. That would save the galaxy a huge favor. Aka, War of the World scenario, without the happy ending.
There’s really too much to write about. One could go on for days. And barely scratch the surface. But that’s the kind of artist he was: always skewering things relentlessly. Especially when he didn’t like them. He didn’t care who he offended. That takes dedication and ballsiness. It takes intelligence. Zappa had more than intelligence: he had genius.
That and incredible music skills. Put those two together and you’ve got yourself a badass.