Getting into the iconic American composer in the age of “cancel culture”
I became a Frank Zappa fan in 2020. This happened instantly after watching the documentary ZAPPA, 27 years after his death in 1993, 54 years after the release of his first album in 1966.
What won me over were Zappa’s strong stands and beliefs—not to mention his steadfast drug-free policy—delivered with mic drop timeless quotes articulated with honesty. For instance, “If you want to be a composer in the United States, you must write for the media. You can’t write music just because you write music. You have to have some other kind of job to support your habit. It’s a sad story, but it’s true.”
ZAPPA didn’t convert me to the music as much as it converted me to the man. Still, I had to face the man’s music with songs like “Teen-age Prostitute,” “Crew Slut,” “I Promise Not to Come in Your Mouth,” “Disco Boy,” “He’s So Gay,” “Bobbie Brown (Goes Down)” and “Jewish Princess.” The surface implications of these songs are that Zappa is a misogynist, a homophobe, a racist.
A deeper look into these songs and a few things become obvious to me: Zappa has an extreme sense of humor, Zappa is pissed off about lots of stuff, Zappa talks about the elements in his immediate orbit, Zappa is a bit juvenile.
AUDIO: Frank Zappa “Dinah-Moe Humm”
Songs such as “Dinah-Moe Humm,” “Find Her Finer” and “Titties and Beer” are about trying to get the girl. The former is a sad tale about how Zappa can’t give the girl an orgasm, no matter how hard he tries or how many of his tricks he pulls out of his bag. It’s a little pitiful really and nowhere near as racy as the average Prince song. “Titties and Beer” sounds like a blackout story when you come to and either your girl is gone, or maybe you imagined her the whole time. “Teen-age Prostitute” is practically a PSA bringing attention to teenage runaways.
As far as songs like “Crew Slut” and “I Promise Not To Come in Your Mouth,” both of those are honest accounts of real-life experiences that (re)occurred often enough for Zappa to record them. Groupies have been around since the dawn of musician time—although in today’s setting, musicians run the risk of destroying their careers if they get anywhere near them. What Zappa speaks of in the crude rather than cruel “Crew Slut” is an accurate account of standard groupie behavior, which runs off to the artist’s crew, without coercion. The latter song is an instrumental, although there are lyrics provided. A glance through these are it seems the songs has less to do with its title and more to do with something that happens all the time: you are just not physically into the person you are dating anymore.
AUDIO: Frank Zappa “Crew Slut”
One of the signature characteristics of Zappa’s songs are the titles, which are always more offensive than the actual content. In his biography of Frank Zappa, regarding song titles author Barry Miles says Zappa was “testing his audience: if they can get past the title and still appreciate the music, then perhaps Frank can trust their opinion.”
The Anti-Defamation League came after Zappa for “Jewish Princess”—a term he did not coin and the characteristics of which he did not come up with. He just took what already existed and turned it into a song. This is exactly what he did with “Valley Girl,” which not only became a Top 40 hit, but also spawned a movie made based on the stereotype in 1983, which was remade in 2020.
VIDEO: Moon Zappa performing “Valley Girl” on TV
Zappa pushed back against the ADL according to his biographer Miles who quotes him as saying, “The ADL is a noisemaking organization that tries to apply pressure on people in order to manufacture a stereotype of Jews that suits their idea of a good time. They go around saying that other people are saying things that produce stereotype images of Jews.”
It’s clear that Zappa would reject any attempts at getting cancelled were he alive today, but he was used to people trying. As he says in the film, “My career has been, year after year, waiting to be disposed of.” But no one succeeded, which is a sharp contrast to the current time where artists are instantly backpedaling the second anyone challenges them in the slightest, terrified of losing their careers. Zappa never backed down from anything he did or said.
AUDIO: Frank Zappa “Jewish Princess”
This includes the misunderstood songs “Bobby Brown (Goes Down)” and “He’s So Gay,” which labelled him as a homophobe whereas the former is making fun of frat boys and the latter is a celebration of a gay lifestyle. Zappa spoke loudly and often about his theories on the AIDS epidemic, its causes and the lack of logic in the U.S. government’s explanations about the virus.
What he did do is fight a lot of battles that many other people didn’t want to fight—certainly not artists—most of which are still being fought now. His early cover band, the Blackouts in 1956 were a “racially mixed ensemble which did not go down well with the cowboys and other bigots who lived in this area,” Zappa says. The band had to break up because they were “regarded as a threat to the decency of the community.”
AUDIO: Frank Zappa “Bobby Brown Goes Down”
An equal opportunity employer and a notoriously hard task master, as long as Zappa felt you were a good enough musician to meet his high standards, he would bring you into the band—his only discrimination being if you had the chops. His band was always a “racially mixed ensemble,” and one of his earliest band members is percussionist Ruth Underwood who played with him from 1972. Says Underwood: “Many of the parts Frank wrote for me just suited me perfectly. It’s the music that I would have written for myself if I had had that talent. Frank knew how to do that for me. I think he knew how to do that for, really, everybody.”
Not only that, Zappa was the musician who gave legitimacy to the world-famous groupies of Los Angeles by moving them into his family home and building them into a band called the GTOs. This seemed ridiculous when I read it in I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie, the 1987 memoir of the most well-known member of this group, Pamela Des Barres. But the fact is, Zappa was ahead of his time as there weren’t any girl groups at the time according to Des Barres in the film.
He showed up at the Parents Music Resource Center senate hearing, and many other major media outlets, as one of the most vocal and musicians speaking against the censorship of the Parental Advisory labels the PMRC were proposing. According to his wife Gail in ZAPPA, “He became the “go-to guy for record rating. No one from the recording industry showed up.” During an appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show, Hall pointed out that the musicians who were being attacked didn’t speak up but Zappa was speaking up and his music wasn’t even under attack.
VIDEO: Frank Zappa on the Arsenio Hall Show
When asked about the music industry’s absence in this fight, Zappa says, “I don’t speak for the rest of the record industry. I speak as a private citizen. As a middle-aged Italian father of four. I got concerns here about the right to have free speech and the right to assemble and the right to have someone use your own words against you in a legal situation.”
In the film Gail says Zappa is the “first artist to go completely independent”—something that is only being exercised by musicians within the last 15 years, 30 years after he did it. Much like Prince, Zappa felt enslaved to Warner Brothers who wouldn’t let him release a four-album box set, so he split up the albums, delivered them as four separate ones and took his leave of the company.
He set up his own labels, one after the next and ran them from his home. Early in the film Zappa says, “Most of what the music business does is not musical,” and later he says, “The business of music is all about this fate list of who sold what. The whole idea of selling large number of items in order to determine quality to it, is what’s really repulsive about it.”
This is still the case today, which makes me feel like Zappa clearly identified problems and had the answers from the start. The quote I’ve been repeating since seeing the film the first time is when Zappa breaks down what is—or should be—at the core of every true musician: “My desires are simple: All I want is a good performance and a good recording of everything I ever wrote so I can hear it. And if anybody else wants to hear it, then that’s great too. Sounds easy, but it’s really hard to do.”
ZAPPA’s 68-song soundtrack featuring almost all of the songs in film—and none of the abovementioned “problematic ones—as well as 12 previously unreleased songs is available to stream, download or as a three-CD edition via Zappa Records/UME. A five-LP box set arrives on May 7th, 2021.
ZAPPA is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and digital.