Winter in America
I T'S 1987 DO YOU
KNOW WHERE YOUR CULTURE IS?
months ago, it seemed a refreshing and deliciously ironic moment
when Frank Zappa was spotted on television, testifying before a
Senate committee. He was dressed in a jacket and tie, much as he
was more than two decades ago for an appearance - in which he
musically played a bicycle - on the Steve Allen Show. Before the
committee, however, with the accumulated notoriety of the
intervening years in evidence only as subtext, the talkative,
knowledgeable and apparently incensed musician held forth as the
most reasonable voice of the afternoon.
the urgent problems you'll find on the front pages of even the
lamest paper, the committee was holding hearings on the non-issue
of applying ratings to rock records. Zappa had come to Washington
to help nip this bit of protofascism in the bud. Instigated by
the Parents' Music Resource Center, a well-connected group of
Washington wives with kids in school and time on their hands, the
committee was examining the possibility of a casual link between
rock music and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, Satanism, concert
violence and other things which no one could seem to recall
having existed before 1956.
how something as trivial as record-rating became the subject of a
Senate inquiry, Zappa simply remarked, "A couple of
blow-jobs here and there and Bingo! - you get a hearing." He
added that Tipper Gore - wife of Senator Albert Gore and a key
figure in the PMRC - had recently demanded that MTV president Tom
Freston go to Washington to discuss the rating of music videos.
While any legislation against the various music media doesn't
seem likely at this point, Zappa notes that the current
administration is doing what it can to further its own ideology,
such as reviewing all documentaries being produced by both
National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public
interest in politics extends beyond those issues that are music
related, though his perspective occasionally tends toward the
bizarre ("For all those cowboys who think that Star Wars is
gonna save us from alien attack: does it ever occur to you that
Star Wars doesn't kill germs?"). He is a most vocal critic
of the Reagan administration and its fundamentalist supporters.
Referring to items ranging from government obfuscation to the
bombing of abortion clinics, Zappa concludes, "We're seeing
the same terrorist techniques in the U.S. as those used by Moslem
fanatics in the Mideast - the difference is just a matter of
costume." He points out that although the fundamentalist
agitators may be a very small minority in the U.S., the Shiites
of the Islamic middle east also comprise a small part of the
about the Mideast (in a November 1986 conversation during the
turmoil of arms shipments to Iran), Zappa continues, "Where
was Bush during all this?" He refers to a recent trial of
arms dealers involved in a private, clandestine attempt to direct
arms to Iran: "They played a tape on CNN which went, `We
just got the green light - Bush says it's okay but Schultz
doesn't like it.'" Zappa's conclusion is that the cover-up
is far more insidious than it looks, with one object being to
protect Bush's presidential aspirations. "They're trying to
make the frontrunner look good."
Zappa faults the press for allowing things to go on as they have
been ("except for Sam Donaldson, the rest of the press has
been napping for the last five years"), he says he's
"optimistic." He feels the radical right is "on
the run", and notes that their contributions have been
dropping. But since the right wing agenda is still being pressed,
Zappa vows, "So long as I can keep talking I'm gonna do what
I can to stop 'em from getting their way." - ed.
interview took place in early '86 in Frank Zappa's home studio,
from 11 o'clock at night until sunrise the next morning. Zappa is
a disarmingly thoughtful, lucid and witty individual, and rather
warm in his own way. The following is an excerpt from that
Art in America
Magazine In the past you have said that "art is dying
in this country." What do you mean by this?
Zappa Much of the creative work I find interesting and
amusing has no basis in economic reality. Most decisions relevant
to expenditures for what gets produced and distributed are made
strictly on a bottom line basis. Nobody makes a move without
talking to their accountant first. There will always be people
who will take a chance, but their numbers are dwindling. Those
who are crazy enough to take the chance on spending money to make
some unusual object or event take place are an endangered
species. The spirit of adventurousness at any level of American
society has been pretty much legislatured away. In the eighties,
with a repressive Republican, yuppie-oriented administration
installed and ready to perpetuate itself with Supreme Court
appointments that will keep us in trouble for the next half
century, the prognosis is not good for things which differ from
the viewpoint of the conservative right.
Magazine Do you think anything can be done to reverse the
Zappa Perhaps. I tend to view the whole thing as a
conspiracy. It is no accident that the public schools in the
United States are pure shit. It is no accident that masses of
drugs are available and openly used at all levels of society. In
a way, the real business of government is the business of
controlling the labor force.
pressure is placed on people to become a certain type of
individual, and then rewards are heaped on people who conform to
that stereotype. Take the pop music business, for example. Look
at the stereotypes held up by the media as great accomplishment.
You see guys who are making millions of dollars and selling
millions of units. And because they are making and selling
millions they are stamped with the seal of approval, and it is
the millions which make their work quality. Yet anyone can look
at what is being done and say, "Jesus, I can do that!"
You celebrate mediocrity, you get mediocrity. People who could
have achieved more won't, because they know that all they have to
do is be "that" and they too can sell millions and make
millions and have people love them because they're merely
mediocre. And that is reinforced over and over and over.
people who do anything excellent are ever heard of. You know why?
Because excellence, pure excellence, terrifies the fuck out of
Americans because they have been bred to appreciate the success
of the mediocre. People don't like to be reminded that lurking
somewhere there are people who can do some shit that you can't
do. They can think a way you can't think, they can dance a way
you can't dance. They are excellent. You aren't excellent. Most
Americans aren't excellent, they're only OK. And so to keep them
happy as a labor force, you say, "OK, let's take this
mediocre chump," and we say, "He is terrific!" All
the other mediocre chumps say, "Yeah, that's right and that
gives me hope, because one day as mediocre and chumpish as I am I
can..." It's smart labor relations. An MBA decision. That is
the orientation of most entertainment, politics, and religion. So
considering how firmly entrenched all that is right now, you
think it's going to turn around? Not without a genetic mutation
Magazine If you would focus on the message of pop music for
a moment, what do you see as the issues of the 1980's that music
can address today?
Zappa It can address anything it wants to, but it will only
address those topics that will sell. Musicians will not address
topics that are controversial if they want to have a hit. So
music will continue to address those things that really matter to
people who buy records: boy-girl relationships, boy-boy
relationships, boy-car relationships, girl-car relationships,
boy-girl-food relationships, perhaps. But safe. Every once in a
while somebody will say "War is Hell" or "Save the
Whales" or something bland. But if you talk about pop music
as a medium for expressing social attitudes, the medium expresses
the social attitude perfectly by avoiding contact with things
that are really there. That is the telling point about the
society that is consuming the product. If society wanted to hear
information of a specific nature in songs, about controversial
topics, they would buy them. But they don't. You are talking
about a record- buying audience which is interested in their
personal health and well-being, their ability to earn a living,
their ability to stay young at all costs forever, and not much
Magazine How about the role of music in society outside the
pop music industry? For example, Kent Nagano (conductor of the
Berkeley symphony) said in a recent interview that "a
composer has a job to do within a culture. Which is not to say a
composer should write what the public already wants to hear, but
rather that the public is employing the composer to lead them, to
show them a direction." What do you think of that?
Zappa I don't think a composer has any function in society
at all, especially in an industrial society, unless it is writing
music scores, advertising jingles, or stuff that is consumed by
industry. I respect Kent, however I think he takes a very
optimistic and naive attitude toward what it takes to be a
composer. If you walk down the street and ask anybody if a
composer is of any use to society, what kind of answer do you
think you would get? I mean, nobody gives a shit. If you decide
to become a composer, you seriously run the risk of becoming less
than a human being. Who the fuck needs you?
songwriter is different. [in a facetious sing-song voice] You
write a nice song, then you're important. Because with a song,
now we have a car, now we have love, now we have a this ... but a
composer? What the fuck do they do? All the good music's already
been written by people with wigs and stuff on.
Magazine So the public doesn't need composers. What about
composers? Do they need a public? For example [electronic music
composer] Milton Babbit, in an essay titled "Who cares if
you listen?" has advocated the virtual exclusion of the
general public from modern music concerts. What is your opinion
on that ?
Zappa That's unnecessary, they're already excluded; they
don't go! Have you been to a modern music concert? Plenty of
room, isn't there? Come on Milton, give yourself a break. I hope
you're not going to spend money trying to exclude these people.
What are you going to do, have it legislated in Congress, like
those assholes who wanted to make it a law that you couldn't put
anything backwards on a phonograph record?
Magazine So, given all this, what do you think art will be
like 20 years from now?
Zappa Since I'm not in that business, it's hard for me to
really care. [Author's note: Zappa does not think that his work
is perceived as art.] I can lament its passing. I don't think
anything that a reasonable person would describe as art will be
around. Not here. I'm talking about art in terms of valued,
beautiful stuff that is done not because of your ego but just
because it is beautiful, just because it is the right thing to
do. We will be told what is good and it will be mediocre. There's
always a possibility that an anomaly will appear - some weird
little twisted thing will happen and there will be somebody who's
doing it. But who's going to know? In the dark ages there was
art, but who knew?
The Music Industry
Magazine How do unknown groups attract the attention of
Zappa Today record companies don't even listen to your tape.
They look at you publicity photo. They look at your hair. They
look at your zippers. How gay do you look? And if you've got the
look then it really doesn't make a fucking bit of difference
what's on the tape - they can always hire somebody to fix that.
And they don't expect you to be around for 20 years. The business
is not interested in developing artists. They want that fast buck
because they realize that next week there's going to be another
hairdo and another zipper. And they realize that the people are
not listening, they're dancing, or they're driving, or something
else. The business is more geared to expendability today. That's
because merchandising is so tied to "visuals" now.
Magazine How is music selected to be heard on pop radio? Is
it determined by the taste of the listener or does the public
listen to whatever the industry feeds them?
Zappa A little of both. Radio is consumed like wallpaper is
consumed. You don't concentrate on the radio, you turn it on
while you're working, you turn it on while you're driving. It's
not like the old days when families sat around and looked at it.
So the stations are formatted to provide a certain texture and
ambience that will be consumed by people who view themselves in a
certain way. Are you a yuppie? Well, you're going to listen to a
certain texture because that reinforces the viewpoint you want to
project to other people of who and what you are. It's the same
thing as what you leave on your coffee table for people to
discover when they come to your apartment. It's not a musical
medium, it's an advertising medium.
you have a nation of people who refuse to face reality about
themselves, about the rest of the world, about anything, they
want reinforcement for the fantasy that they're living in. And
these consulting services that format the station know that.
Market research will show that. So obviously you want to deliver
to the public things that will reinforce that. A station loses
money when somebody turns it off like the air. So as long as your
station sounds like the kind of swill that the yuppie needs to
consume, you got it.
Magazine Could you give us your view of the process whereby
a record becomes a hit?
Zappa It's simple. It's called "payola". You pay
somebody to play your record.
OK. I think they're wonderful for people who like to listen to
them. But then, hits shouldn't be the sum total of music history.
Let's face it. Mozart had hits. Beethoven had hits. Did you ever
look in the Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians? There are
thousands of names of people who wrote music throughout history,
yet we haven't heard one line they ever wrote. That doesn't mean
it is bad music. It just means they didn't have hits.
old days, if the king didn't like you, or the church didn't like
you or whatever,you didn't have a hit. As a matter of fact you
might even be dead. So now you can have a hit if you are willing
to pay. So who's the new king. Who's the new church?
Magazine Within the last year the Parents' Music Resource
Center (PMRC) has requested that record companies rate records
they produce similar to the current rating of films. You've been
involved in this recent controversy. What did the record industry
finally agree to?
Zappa Well, to quote you from the Associated Press Wire
Report, dated November 1, 1985, the basic points of the agreement
between the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the
PMRC are that "parents' groups will have no role in
determining what is explicit." Next, "the record
companies will determine what is explicit." When asked,
"What is explicit?," Stanley Gortikov (president of the
RIAA) replied, "What's explicit is explicit." Third,
"those artists whose contracts give them control over their
packaging are free to ignore the understanding." Does this
sound like something you could enforce?
the record industry allowed the ladies to save a little face (by
making a formal agreement at all), which just encourages them
more. The PMRC has moved to new quarters in Virginia; they are no
longer in Washington D.C. They have a new printed fund-raising
package which heralds their victory while omitting those parts of
the agreement that render it inoperable. The fund-raising package
says that if you'll send them money, they will send you more
examples of the horrors of these lyrics. They are making an
industry out of this thing! Meanwhile, Reverend Jeff Ling, their
consultant, has this new slide show that he is taking around.
Magazine Are there any legislative attempts to require
Zappa Last year the state of Maryland considered a bill
which would make it illegal to sell a record declared
"obscene" to a person under 18 years of age. The text
of the bill stated that its purpose was to keep people from
seeing or hearing references to illicit sex. And then it had a
definition of what constitutes illicit sex in the state of
Maryland. Sexual intercourse is the first thing on the list. What
the legislators did was take the existing visual pornography law
and just add the words "phonograph record, magnetic tape,
compact disc" to it. Since the existing law in Maryland is
already a bit vague, adding just those words isn't going to give
you an enforceable regulation.
an example of how ridiculous this bill was, under this bill you
were not allowed to advertise pornography. So let's say that
somebody decided that a Motley Crue album was obscene. If you
were wearing a tee shirt that says Motley Crue on it you would be
advertising pornography. You could be fined $1000 and/or go to
jail for a year. If you wore the tee shirt it is $5000 and three
years in jail.
Magazine Did the bill pass in Maryland?
Zappa It passed the House of Delegates with a 96 to 3 vote.
When it was sent to the Maryland State Judiciary Committee, I
went to testify. The bill was eventually killed in that
committee. But because the issue was brought up, a number of
other states have similar bills which they are considering.
Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Mississippi
have all considered similar bills.
Magazine What interactions did you have with the Maryland
legislators outside of the judiciary hearings?
Zappa The night before I testified in the State Senate, I
attended a cocktail party that a bunch of legislators were
invited to. The bill had already passed in the House of
Delegates. My objective in this exercise was to keep the bill
from going anyplace in the Senate because if the Senate approves
the bill it becomes law. But if you kill the bill in the Senate,
it's dead. Delegates and Senators were coming to this cocktail
party. Every time somebody would say, "Here's Delegate
So-and-So," I would say, "Which way did you vote?"
And of the ones who voted for the bill, I always asked them,
"Why?" Most of them were embarrassed that they had. And
I would say, "Would you care to apologize?," and hand
them a piece of paper to get their apology in writing. I've got
slips of paper from at least five delegates who voted for the
thing with the most unbelievable quotes. I read the apologies in
the Senate the following day. Here's some quotes: "I was
swept away by the rhetoric." And "I had to vote that
way because that's the way my district is." That guy came
from a district where he might have had his legs badly mutilated
if he hadn't done it.
Magazine It seems reasonable for delegates to vote the way
their districts want them to vote. After all, shouldn't they
attempt to represent the viewpoint of their district?
Zappa Well, let's look at both sides of that. If you are
representing the economic interest of your district, I suppose
you should fight for that. But in terms of this piece of
legislation, even if you agreed with the premise, the design of
the bill was a disaster. I think elected officials have a certain
amount of responsibility to the people in their districts. I
think that it is a cop-out not to inform their districts of the
dangers of any piece of stupid legislation.