The Genius of Weirdness
What Frank Zappa Taught Me, and What We Can Still Learn
What does it mean to be “weird”? Growing up in rural Vermont, “weird” was a word other kids sometimes used to clarify my eccentricities and taste. And sure, the label was reasonably accurate — from a young age, I’ve never been particularly adept at appreciating pop culture or blending in with my peers, tending instead to amble along a more solitary, experimental path into the more niche corners of art, music, and literature. But in my early days, like most kids, I wanted to fit in—and so for a while, I tried to like not-weird stuff. But it just wasn’t working out. Lucky for me, I found Zappa.
“I never set out to be weird. It was always other people who called me weird.”
― Frank Zappa
Perhaps saying I “found Zappa” would be a lie, because he was hiding in plain sight: I grew up listening to Zappa. My dad’s a huge fan, and — while age-five me was unfortunately banned from listening to Zappa for a short period after reciting from memory some pretty not-age-appropriate lyrics from Joe’s Garage—he made sure my music education included a vast swath of Zappa’s discography. In the beginning, I simply found the music funny. Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow was a common refrain, and Dancin’ Fool was a go-to jam that never failed to crack me and my dad up.
By the time I was in high school, though, I had discovered some of the deeper Zappa jams, and was burning “Zappa for Dummies” mixed CDs for friends hoping they’d ditch Phish, the Postal Service, and Coldplay for something freakier. Despite few takers, I enjoyed preaching the Zappa gospel. All of a sudden, being into something none of my peers seemed to “get” felt meaningful, and even a bit powerful—like I was in on some secret that all the normals were left out of.
This is when I discovered the genius of weirdness, which is to say, the brilliance of counter culture.
In my teen days, Zappa’s music opened up a door through which I found a miraculously flexible and powerful duo: a curious mind, paired with an appreciation of art as a form for communicating ideas. At some point, I discovered that listening to Zappa was like taking a trip into another dimension where sounds and stories coalesced to form an alternate world—a world where the eccentric and absurd ruled all, and the oddities of being a human person on this grimy, grotesque planet were articulated in some cosmically profound way. Zappa didn’t spell it all out—rather, he gave me odd, cathartic ideas from which to catapult my own ideas and opinions.
For example, I remember the song I’m the Slime really got me thinking about mass media’s control on our collective conscious:
I am gross and perverted
I’m obsessed ‘n deranged
I have existed for years
But very little has changed
I’m the tool of the Government
And industry too
For I am destined to rule
And regulate you
I may be vile and pernicious
But you can’t look away
I make you think I’m delicious
With the stuff that I say
I’m the best you can get
Have you guessed me yet?
I’m the slime oozin’ out
From your TV set
Zappa’s illustrative lyrics exposed my teenage brain to some deeply disturbing truths, and re-focused my attention on the world around me to be much more critical, like, WTF is the world’s deal? While this way of thinking occupies a [pretty big] percentage of my brain space now, at the time, these were types of thoughts I hadn’t experienced before. When it comes down to it, Zappa’s music was my gateway drug to the magical world of art, critical thought, and the power of creative expression.
But Zappa’s influence on me didn’t stop there. For all his musical prodding and poking at the world’s ridiculousness, there was also a deeply practical side to Zappa—one which was not just critical of the world, but devoted to changing it for the better. He was one of those rare forces whose genius extended far beyond his main medium—composing music (Zappa released 62 albums in his lifetime, a prolific feat rivaled by few others)— into politics, philosophy, and advocacy. In fact, it’s worth deviating from the personal, sappy nature of this essay (sorry, I can’t help it) to list out just a couple of Zappa’s powerful acts of activism:
Zappa used his influence to encourage voter registration before “getting out the vote” was a thing.
Zappa made an epic PSA explaining why it’s so important to get out the vote. He even set up voter registration booths right at his live shows. Why? Because he hated apathy, and wanted people to feel empowered to use their noggins and not settle for the lame status quo.
Great works of art and music can allow viewers and listeners a window through which to see beyond whatever reality they’re stuck in, offering alternate perspectives on possible future realities. In that sense, freedom of expression gives us all the remarkable ability to see ourselves changing the world, one act of creativity at a time. A resonating Zappa quote:
“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, then you deserve it.”
Amen. We all have the power to stand up for what we believe in, and sometimes the best way to make ourselves heard is through creative expression. That’s why Frank’s next feat is so awe-inspiring:
Zappa championed freedom of expression for artists — and for everyone, really — at a time when those freedoms were being threatened.
In 1985, a committee called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was essentially looking to place lots of new restrictions on music they deemed not appropriate for children. Zappa saw their proposal as nothing more than watered-down censorship, and took center stage on the issue by testifying to a Senate committee. In his now-legendary testimony, he stood up for artists’ First Amendment rights:
The PMRC promotes their program as a harmless type of consumer information service providing “guidelines” which will assist baffled parents in the determination of the “suitability” of records listened to by “very young children.” The methods they propose have several unfortunate side effects, not the least of which is the reduction of all American Music, recorded and live, to the intellectual level of a Saturday morning cartoon show.
Boom. Nailed it. Thanks for saving music from the threat of bleached-out blandness, Frank.
After years of fandom, I still find it pretty daunting to try to articulate (or even understand) the awesomeness of Zappa’s oeuvre—it’s too nuanced and expansive to do it justice. But slowly, as the world catches up to his pioneering work, I hope that Zappa’s brilliance can inspire more people to stand up for art and culture, and to dare to traverse territories that fall far outside of mainstream culture. I pine for an alternate version of today’s reality where Frank Zappa is alive and well and still here— especially now, when we can use as many sharp-witted, outspoken advocates for thoughtful absurdism as possible. In his absence, I’m inspired by his words:
“Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”
There is a certain genius inscribed in these words; a rebellious notion that the world’s future lies in the hands of the weirdest, most creative, and least “normal” people out there. I believe in this future. In fact, it’s the only future I can get behind. Weirdos can change the world—so let’s make it happen.
Willa Köerner is Director of Curation & Engagement at Kickstarter, as well as a pretty devout Zappa fan. She was inspired to write this piece thanks to filmmaker Alex Winter’s now-live project to make the definitive Zappa documentary and to preserve the legend’s expansive private archives.
And, just in case any of you have a friend to whom you might like to preach the Zappa gospel, here’s an approximation of my high school “Zappa for Dummies” mixed CD on Spotify.