Defending Zappa?

In my youth, I felt like I had an easier time introducing my friends to Zappa. I used to simply play “Bobby Brown Goes Down,” because when you’re 14 or 15 years old, it’s the funniest thing you could possibly hear. It had swear words in it, he was making fun of the jocks we all collectively hated, and it was catchy as Hell! Similar cases could be made for other tunes like “Stick It Out,” “Catholic Girls,” and “Jewish Princess.”

This changed for me in college, specifically after I’d dated a girl who had been raped. Suddenly that line was no longer funny, and that mentality no longer seemed worth giving the time of day to lampoon. Now, nearly ten years later, the song is almost a guilty pleasure for me. In the event I do play this song for a friend, I introduce it with a long apologetic intro, saying that Frank was kidding, this wasn’t really how he felt, and that he was making a point by taking up the voice of his target.

As time goes on, it seems that Zappa’s more touchy material – mostly the stuff dealing with sex and gender roles – isn’t aging well at all. Kelley Fisher Lowe goes to extreme lengths discussing it in The Words and Music of…, but his views are tilted. He condemns “Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy” as being sick and unfunny, for example. I think it’s a beautiful song musically, and lyrically it’s nowhere near as brutal as “Venus In Furs” or even (to stick with Zappa) “Honey, Don’t You Want A Man Like Me?” or “Bamboozled By Love.”

The problem is the uncertainty of his satire. How much is he really kidding? With that said, does contemporary society still get the joke?

This brings me to the discussion question:
Do you find yourself having to make apologies for Zappa’s material when playing it for your friends? Are there songs you avoid playing for people? Or do you simply say, “Fuck it, if they don’t get it, it’s them, not me, and definitely not Frank!”

I’m eager to hear how fans of different walks of life, age, and gender feel about this.

PS – This is my first posting at KUR after my recent promotion from former comment troll to contributing writer. Bear with me as I learn HTML coding and all that fun stuff.

44 Responses to “Defending Zappa?”

  1. man with the woman head says:

    Good question. I gave up trying to get people to listen to ANY Zappa a long time ago. Much less his controversial stuff. I think his songs are pretty tame compared to most gangsta rap songs (although I think NWA’s “Just don’t bite it” is one of the funniest songs anywhere).

    Today, certainly, his homosexual references seem pretty dated — what, exactly, DID Freddie do poor Bobby’s balls, and why exactly did that turn him gay? I’m sure the answers were more clear in 1978, when gay men in movies and TV all wore flowered shirts and lisped.

    As a person, Zappa wasn’t exactly the best role model either — he ignored his family and children, cheated on his wife whenever he felt like it and abandoned his band after nearly a decade of hard work for no pay. Personally, I like him for his music first, his wit second, and lastly, for his social commentary — some of which was on the mark, and some of it (songs about gays, fat women, etc.) do not. I still think Jewish Princess is a classic — and I’m Jewish.

  2. Tim Tam says:

    @The Man with The Woman Head. Let he who has not sinned cast the first stone? The personal comments about the person is way off base IMHO.

    FZ always pointed out that the things he wrote about were reportage of things that actually happened in his world. He may have taken artistic licence with it but the message here must surely be “don’t shoot the messenger”. Blame the world if you must. IMHO the humor must be taken in that context – it is not an endorsement of the act of rape but a contextualisation of the act of rape. Does the world really need another insincere crass manipulative love song for disposable entertainment purposes? See George Benson.

  3. Dark Clothes says:

    Mike Barnes says that the only shocking thing about Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy is that an intelligent person like Zappa could conceive it as a funny song. It has a beautiful melody, of course, and that makes it hard to dismiss (as I’ve always tended to dismiss songs like Stick it Out, where I can live without both the lyrics and the music). A couple of clues, perhaps: His insensitivity was evenly spread out. And if you look at projects like Blood on the Canvas and FZ Meets the Mothers of Prevention, it’s clear that Frank had an absolute need to be provocative, to avoid blandness and acceptability. I think that’s the motivation for having We’re Turning Again on the MTMOP album, because he needed an uneasy song following his attack on censorship. Also note that his work after the conflict with Warner Bros took a radical turn in the red direction. Perhaps we should think of him more as a fiction writer to be compared with Burroughs or Jean Genet, and less as a singer-songwriter with a personal message. But this is still a moot point to me, and it’s good that you bring it up.

  4. Barry's Imaginary Publisher says:

    As I live in a Non English Speaking Country™, I’ve found it harder to “defend” Zappa from a musical point of view, rather than lyrically.

    As an example: somewhere back in the late last century, I had the pleasure of acting as Bogus Temporary DJ for a “ZAPPA NITE” that took place in a local youth club. The kids, most of them into “alternative” music, rather liked the more rock/pop-oriented stuff (Muffin Man, Torture, Peaches) and yes, they all sang along to “Bobby Brown”. Then I thought I’d up the ante a bit and played “The Adventures of Greggery Peccary” followed by “Echidna’s Arf”. It was at this point that I started getting odd looks from the kids, and the club-owner eventually came over and said: “That was great. Could you play Muffin Man again? Oh, and turn it down a little if you can.”

    Hey Alex, great to have you aboard!

  5. Radioboy says:

    Well, I had “problems” being a Zappa-fan most of my life since 1967, when I first heard the MOI, although the situation seems to enlighten in the last ten years or so. Zappa’s MOI was in the late 60ies and early 70ies regarded as weird underground music. A “normal” person would not listen to it and overall Zappa’s music was regarded complex and too difficult to listen to by most people. Although Zappa and the MOI had a lot of fans in The Netherlands, where I live, most people did not like it and were not taking it serious. Zappa was a laugh!
    Being a fan of his music certainly wasn’t “normal” too and on top of that Zappa started using controversion lyrics to his music in the 70ies. Indeed his lyrics were social commentary to the American society (and not the European in many ways) and what he was singing about was not typically his family situation. But he enjoyed being extravert and it was part of his survival as a serious composer in the entertainment industry.
    And regarding the album covers: that too was really weird stuff in the eyes of a lot of people. A friend of mine advised me to put those in the toilet room, so we could enjoy them better over there…. There was this boyfriend of a girl I knew who had bought a copy of L. Shankar’s “Touch me there” that was produced by Frank. Every time we met he started a conversation on the lyrics of “Touch me There”. I was a fool listening to music like that and I had to defend myself for that. He really had a hangup on that.
    That made me realize that most people’s comments on Zappa’s music and lyrics are their own hangups! Zappa actually pointed out his philosophic view on life in the second album Absolutely Free: Unbind your mind! You’ll be absolutely free, only if you want to be. A song that in my opinion would actually be perfect for my funeral, but it’s not time for that yet 😉

  6. Andy Bean says:

    A good question, and one that’s bugged me for a long time. I tend to ignore many of the songs mentioned when attempting to introduce people to Zappa (“Oh, is he the guy who did “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee”?”)….something like ‘Montana’ has enough ‘lyricaL wackiness’ for those easily amused, but a healthy amount of the patented Zappa beautiful melody, and, of course, a kickass guitar solo.
    Apologising for other songs is occasionally a problem, though. The one that sticks in my craw is ‘He’s So Gay’ (particularly the version with Johnnny Guitar Watson’s disgusted interjections). The black members of the band’s feelings about ‘Thing-Fish’ et al have been documented here & there, but were any of Frank’s musicians gay, and if so, how did they feel about ‘He’s So Gay’, ‘Bobby Brown’, etc??

  7. jonnybutter says:

    The only lyric I ever had a problem with was the ‘I’m gonna ram it up your poop shoot’ one. I had a problem with it because I *didn’t* have a problem with the whole song ‘Broken Hearts’. He seems to have been trying to sort of de-mystify or de-mystique women, to make the point that, despite the advertising/marketing-fueled notion to the contrary, women are indeed merely human and can be assholes too. I get that, but anal rape is a thoroughly repellent – and yes, sexist – way of conveying it. For me, he stepped over the line there. I always found ‘Enema Bandit’ to be boring, but I’m not offended by it. a.) there really was an enema bandit, and b.) it must have been an irresistibly materialist metaphor for him (and for Threadgill, btw). I wouldn’t defend it to someone though, because I find it dull.

    Some songs are just crap all the way round – music and lyrics – so I just forget about them. ‘He’s So Gay’ is reactionary. But I would never play that for somebody anyway, and wouldn’t waste the time to listen to it myself. It’s trash. Zappa wrote a ton of good and great stuff, but he definitely wrote some trash. I also wouldn’t play the witless ‘Goblin Girl’ for anybody nor listen to it myself. I don’t feel the need to defend Zappa’s trash.

    Something like ‘Sy Borg’ is very different, though. It’s clear to me that his target with that and some other songs of that era (including ‘Broken Hearts’) isn’t gay people, but sexually and emotionally incompetent people who aren’t *really* gay (‘I ain’t really queer, but..’), but who just sort of chicken out in whatever way is fashionable at the time (in this case, giving gay sex ‘a try’).

    ‘Carolina’ I also don’t find offensive. It’s definitely sad (and a really good song, musically) but…it’s probably a completely true story down to every detail (since it’s so weird) and, you know, she *wanted* to be stomped on. He calls it ‘abject misery’. I’d say it’s a song about extreme pathos. Zappa doesn’t believe in our traditionally conceived split between the mind and the body, and that notion scares some people. The ramifications of it *are* unsettling, but I don’t think that’s Zappa’s fault.

    Why would anyone be offended by ‘Touch Me There’, by the way?

    Of COURSE Zappa had gay musicians in the band! Plenty of em!

  8. PlotDevice says:

    I may be WAY WAY off-base, but I seem to remember that Warren Cuccurullo did porn for a while that wasn’t specifically gay, but primarily drew a gay male fanbase.

    Anyway, the lyrics. I think it’s a big stretch to find anything particularly “brutal” in FZ lyrics. What with endless wars and genocide and more than enough real-life horror to go around, it seems kind of weird to get worked up over some song lyrics. Even then, there’s plenty of stuff that’s mainstream today far more misogynistic and violent than anything FZ ever did.

    I too have ceased trying to inflict FZ on others, but it has nothing to do with the lyrics. My favorite FZ works tend to be things like the Synclavier stuff and the 9-minute guitar solos, and normal people aren’t very likely to be engaged by that sort of thing anyway.

  9. Dark Clothes says:

    I’ve never had a problem with Broken Hearts Are For Assholes, and I don’t think it advocates rape. It’s much more of an invitation to discover a hidden desire. Carolina Hard-Core Ecstasy is harder for me to accept, because it’s triter and less insistent. I realized the comic book esthetics of the song when I saw Napoleon Murphy Brock performing it with the Grandmothers some years back, but I just can’t figure out Zappa’s interest and position in those lyrics. The argument that it’s based on reality is weak, even if that’s what Zappa used to say. At least that doesn’t explain anything for me. Bamboozled By Love and especially Pick Me I’m Clean are two other songs that reveal an unempathic streak in his personality. I don’t know how Plot Device can not find anything brutal in Zappa. Brutality is surely one of his main modes. Brutality + Resolver. I can deal with my ambivalence towards some of the songs, because I love Zappa’s frankness and complexity.

  10. Radioboy says:

    I never had ANY problem myself with ANY lyrics except that being a Dutch person the meaning of context of some lyrics didn’t always become clear immediately. Many of FZ’s lyrics are references to American culture (walking through LA-Hollywood is like walking through Zappa-country for me). Also the language used is not the English that we are familiar with.

    For example “Mamalian protruberances” is something I definitely had to look up in a dictionary and even there it yould be hard to find. This is easy now, when you use the internet. But even without the real meaning of the words one could make out what was meant.

    It struck me that other people, yes even my friends, had a problem with a song about sex, sexual activities or sexual behaviour. Talking or singing about it, doesn’t mean that you agree to these things, and neither does listening to it. Zappa was always referring to real life things. He was not making these things up. Even the sex-tape that he made in his Cucamonga studio, with sex sounds, is a relevant document about American society. So the same goes for ‘In France’, or ‘Catholic Girls’, or ‘Sex’, or ‘I’m in you’. A song like ‘He’s so Gay’ is not reactionary, no on the contrary. It is commenting on songs that are!

    If FZ would have been a film maker, things would have been different. But as we know: his movies WERE different than what you’d expect…

    Not only did I have to DEFEND Zappa for his lyrics, but a lot of times for his music. An album with guitar solo’s was regarded as totally insane and unlistenable. And that goes for a lot of stuff that I would regard as simple songs as well. I am so very very glad to see that so many people and groups are playing Zappa music these days or make music that is influenced with his music. You can find so many gropus in MySpace of on YouTube. This was out of the question say 20 or 25 years ago.

  11. Blessedly Relieved says:

    I avoid playing Nig Biz to almost anybody. I hate that he had to use the N word in a song that would have been otherwise stellar. And please don’t come back with “Well he only meant this…” and “He only meant that…” It’s disgusting and unfortunate. I know he was cool racially but if there were one thing I could change regarding his music, it’s that.

  12. jonnybutter says: