Why Frank Zappa is the Voice America (Still) Needs

“It’s time for a revolution, but probably not in the terms that people imagine it.”

photo by Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

This December marks 25 years since the death of DIY genius, comical cynic, lyrical satirist, musical innovator, social commentator, sardonic iconoclast, political debater, and composer-slash-rock-star Frank Zappa.

Throughout his eyebrow-raising career, Zappa parodied the plastic people, brain police, valley girls, dancing fools, and hungry freaks across America. His prolific body of work is a symphony of observations of human absurdity, expressed through such mediums as political meetings in the Soviet Union and the former Czechoslovakia, experimental advertisements for razors and cough drops, a violin bow tickling a bicycle wheel, a surrealist claymation music video, and a grotesque potato-headed puppet named Thing-Fish. He aimed to “shake people out of their complacency… and make them question things.”

A quarter of a century after his death, many of Zappa’s philosophies still ring true. Has America crept closer to the cartoonish absurdist nation the musician lampooned for decades? Or is the state of the state more or less as askew as it has always been? Either way, if he were still alive, a 77-year-old Zappa would likely have a lot to say about what’s going on around here.

Zappa vs. Censorship

“Who are the brain police?” — Frank Zappa, “Who are the Brain Police?” (1966)

photo: Lana Harris/AP

On September 19, 1985, Zappa defended the First Amendment before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation opposite the “Washington Wives” who founded the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The group wanted to stick rating labels on rock records to beware parents of the satanic themes, drug references, and sexual innuendo contained therein. Zappa argued that it was these proposed regulations, not rock lyrics, that would debase young brains. In his statement to Congress, the musician likened the regulations to “treating dandruff by decapitation.” (Though no rating system was ultimately established, parental advisory warnings were.)

Since the release of his first album Freak Out! almost two decades prior, Zappa had had a routinely chopped and censored musical history. Record executives forbade him from naming the Mothers of Invention just “The Mothers” due to the latter’s supposed insinuation of a more impolite “motherfuckers.” Executives regularly extracted from the Mothers’ early records any lyrics that vexed or baffled them. When Zappa Records’ distributor Phonogram refused to release the Carter administration-protesting single “I Don’t Wanna Get Drafted,” the musician reclaimed control by establishing Barking Pumpkin Records and withdrawing into his Laurel Canyon cabin’s built-in studio, the Utility Muffin Research Kitchen.

An uncompromising workaholic until his death in 1993, Zappa released 62 albums in his lifetime. His cultural caricatures of presidential buffoonery, homosexual sadomasochism, golden showers, and jewish princesses may offend and outrage people just as much — if not more — in today’s eggshell-treading politically correct society. But he would likely defend controversial speech now with the same philosophy he applied to consumption of his music then: Take it or leave it, but allow it to exist freely. “I have no desire to inflict [my work] on people who don’t want to consume it,” he said. “It’s there if you like it. If you don’t like it, there’s all those other [groups] on the list.”

Zappa vs. Ideology

“Mister America, try to hide the product of your savage pride / The useful minds that it denied…” — Frank Zappa, “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” (1966)

photo: Lynn Goldsmith

Many uninformed observers saw — and perhaps still see — Zappa as a far-out liberal drug-crazed hippie and strictly zany mustachioed madman. This perception is far from the truth. Zappa thought of drugs and alcohol as stupidity enhancers, fueling instead with black coffee, peanut butter, and cigarettes. Even before he cut his hair and started wearing suits in the mid-1980s, he was a businessman whose viewpoints were as rational as they were radical. He identified as a “practical conservative” and “Constitutional fundamentalist,” favoring limited government and low taxes. “I was never a hippie,” he said. “Always a freak, but never a hippie.” His misconstrued reputation reflects the errors of assumptions and black-and-white judgments, and his approach to politics, music, and life reflected a defiance of such ideology.

Decades later, the American governing mentality seems to have settled decisively in ‘us vs. them’ territory: Political events and subsequent broadcast commentary are rife with Republican vs. Democrat diatribes, Capitol Hill often operates as a battleground for inflexible partisan thinking that leaves little room for compromise or progress, and party loyalty has morphed into closed-minded, distorted perceptions. According to a 2018 study by Pew Research Center, 78 percent of Republicans and Democrats agree that they don’t agree with each other — not only on political issues, but also on basic facts. Zappa vehemently encouraged and exemplified common sense, self-education, and independent thought. “If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit,” he said, “then you deserve it.”

Zappa vs. the Media

“I’m the tool of the government and industry too, for I am destined to rule and regulate you / Your mind is totally controlled, it has been stuffed into my mold, and you will do as you are told until the rights to you are sold…” — Frank Zappa, “I’m the Slime” (1973)

photo: still from “What’s My Line?”, 1971

In his 1973 song “I’m the Slime,” Zappa conceptualized a toxic slime that seeped from television sets into the homes of American families, crawled along living room floors, and wrapped itself around inhabitants’ brains to squish them into neat, government-issued molds.

Although he criticized mass media’s slippery secretions, Zappa submerged himself in the slime in order to push back against it. Through appearances on platforms from MTV to CNN, he told the world what he thought in an unapologetic, frank sort of way, promoting common sense and combatting stupidity. “The evils that affect [American] society, many of them were produced by TV,” he said in a 1970 German television interview. “All the poor information… the attitudes and the false values were brought to them through the television set, and they have to be altered by the same media.”

Since Zappa’s death, the rise of the Internet has brought about a major increase in quantity — not quality — of information paraded across America’s collective consciousness. Though he might scorn social media’s fostering of superficiality, groupthink, advertisements, and political propaganda, Zappa would likely appreciate its largely user-controlled nature. Beyond its flaws, social media can be used as Zappa used his TV appearances: to promote artistic expression, expose truths, inform opinions, conduct dialogues, propose potential solutions and modes of progress and, perhaps most importantly, to ignite political action.

Zappa vs. The Establishment

“Well, I seen the fires burnin’ / And the local people turnin’ / On the merchants and the shops / Who used to sell their brooms and mops…” — Frank Zappa, “Trouble Every Day” (1966)

photo: voter registration spot, 1988

“I believe that people have a right to decide their own destinies; people own themselves,” Zappa wrote in The Real Frank Zappa Book. “I also believe that, in a democracy, government exists because (and only so long as) individual citizens give it ‘a temporary license to exist’ — in exchange for a promise that it will behave itself. In a democracy, you own the government — it doesn’t own you.”

Zappa fiercely advocated for democratic participation. He encouraged voter registration on every album cover since the 18-year-old vote was passed in 1971; filmed voter registration spots which aired frequently on MTV; and set up voter registration tables at his live shows throughout 1988, ultimately registering approximately 11,000 people to vote. In the incendiary 2016 presidential election, less than half of eligible millennial voters cast their vote. “I think the potential is there in the younger generation,” Zappa said in 1971, “[but] right now… their political involvement is on a very superficial basis. They go out for the social aspects of a march or a rally rather than for what it could possibly accomplish.” Today, the musician would probably continue to criticize blazing riots as well as nonviolent but similarly futile political fashions — including hot pink, cat-eared “pussy hats”; safety pins intended to symbolize a vague sense of solidarity; and timely superimposed flags, images, and slogans upon Facebook profile pictures — and urge people to instead cast votes and actively permeate governmental and legislative efforts. “It’s time for a revolution,” he said, “but probably not in the terms that people imagine it… I thought that it might be nice if it was handled in a little bit more modern, efficient way… a matter of infiltration.”

Zappa put his money where his mouth was and sought to directly pervade the establishment. In 1987, he was approached by the Libertarian Party to run for president on their ticket, but ultimately refused because he meticulously studied their platform and disagreed with parts of it. In 1990, the then-president of then-Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, named him Czechoslovakia’s Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism. This title was later withdrawn due to Czech government pressure and Zappa was reassigned as an unofficial cultural attaché to the sovereign state. Then, in 1991, he told Spin magazine he had spoken with two Washington D.C. political consultants and was conducting a feasibility study of a 1992 presidential run, this time as an independent. His prostate cancer soon took full hold and brought any presidential plans to a halt. (Zappa died at home on December 4, 1993–17 days before his 53rd birthday.)

photo: Robert Davidson (contact sheet)

Members of the civilian branch of government may benefit from asking: What would Zappa do?

Zappa’s legacy proves that a potent way to affect change — or at least attract attention to issues that matter — is by challenging the world’s ugliness through nontraditional modes of thought and expression. “I think that progress is not possible without deviation,” he said. “I think that it’s important that people be aware of some of the creative ways in which some of their fellow men are deviating from the norm, because in some instances they may find these deviations inspiring and might suggest further deviations, which might cause progress.”

Between the opposite extremes of total ignorance or apathy and setting buildings aflame lies a more productive, Zappaesque approach: individual awareness and resistance of brain-numbing agents like mass media manipulation and spoonfed ideology; outspoken and/or abstract expression of informed viewpoints; and active civilian involvement in media and government to replace outdated systems of thought with fresh ones.

Beyond critical thinking and zealous vocalization, Zappa would argue that absurdity is the next logical step. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to rely on a giraffe filled with whipped cream.”