It seems like one of the most divisive issues in the United States right now is freedom of speech and expression. Nobody is blatantly coming out and saying they are ‘against the first amendment, but confusion about what defines the line between a mere liberty of ideas and harmful rhetoric has resurfaced in the mainstream. The debate about freedom of speech has been around long before its prevalence today, and one of the pivotal fighters in the advocacy of un-regulated discourse is the experimental musician Frank Zappa.
Though his relevance has diminished in recent years, Frank,, was, at one point, an important figure in the debate over bureaucratic censorship of words and opinions. He even went so far as to testify in front of the Senate Commerce Committee against any regulations on the rights of musical expression. Not only was he adamantly a proponent of the First Amendment, but he used his music to stretch the boundaries of what could be said in the medium. There is virtually nothing controversial that he had not touched upon in his music by the time of his death in 1993. Just listen to his song Bobby Brown Goes Down and you will understand what I am referring to. His musical message can act as a blueprint to how our contemporary culture can handle the spreading of hate and vulgarity.
Zappa started his musical career as a composer for film scores. He was a serious composer of classical music in a time when rock and roll was the dominant force in the popular domain. He started the rock band The Mothers of Invention to bring his message to a wider audience and explore a new medium of musical expression.
Right out of the gate The Mothers had a message that challenged what was prevalent in the mainstream. While most bands were singing about romantic ideas like love and relationships, The Mothers were offering a cynic’s criticism of the 1950’s-60’s lifestyle. In the song Brown Shoes Don't Make It off of their 1967 album Absolutely Free, Zappa portrays the time period as a fake materialistic world of TV dinners and inauthentic relationships. He even goes so far as to describe the politicians who run city hall as rapists who use their wives as trophies to win elections. These lyrics challenged what many people accepted as their ‘perfect American society’:
“TV dinner by the pool watch your brother grow a beard got another year of school you're okay, he's too weird be a plumber/ he's a bummer every summer be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care”
Brown Shoes Don't Make It (1967)
Though the lyrics in the song are incredibly salacious, it conveyed a message to his listeners that was only achievable with this level of crudeness. The message being portrayed was that people are not fulfilled by this shallow, materialistic lifestyle and that it leads to evil men manipulating the public though their so-called ‘normality’.
Though in ‘67 he was criticizing the modern way of life, Zappa expanded his realm of criticism the next year by parodying the counter culture for the exact same thing: its lack of authenticity. His 1968 album We’re Only in it For the Money, Zappa and The Mothers took on the hippies and examined their way of life. He stated that the entire movement was only a trend for status and popularity, the same driving force behind the phony materialistic ‘Leave it to Beaver’ idealism.
“First I'll buy some beads/and then perhaps a leather band to go around my head/Some feathers and bells and a book of Indian lore/ I will ask the Chamber Of Commerce how to get to Haight Street/and smoke an awful lot of dope”
Who Needs the Peace Corps (1968)
His lyrics are not poetic at all. In fact, at first glance they may appear sophomoric. But if you dig into the reason they were written, it was apparent that they were designed make people think. A hilarious example of this is Oh in the Sky by The Mothers. A video of their live performance of this is available on YouTube. At first watch you might laugh or just be dumbfounded that this was ever allowed on TV. A strange bass player sings in the most irritating high pitched voice “oh in the sky” for several minutes to the backing of a 50’s ballad. It almost seems like there is no point to it. But at the end of the video Zappa gives an explanation of the strange charade that we just witnessed:
“We're involved in a low-key war against apathy. I don't know how you're doing on apathy over there (in England) but we've got a lot of it... A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point that they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. As long as they don't feel their environment, they won't worry about it to do anything to change it. And something's got to be done, before America scarfs up the world and shit’s on it."
Through the next decade, Zappa went on to berate everything that he found a significant problem with in modern society. He rebuked the way TV indoctrinates people in the song The Slime. He lambasts the way humans conform to fit in with others in the song Plastic People. He reprimands the distant way that parents treat their children and how it creates monsters in song Mom & Dad. He even parodies how cheap monster movies are low budget ways to make money in the song Cheepnis. Without his freedom of speech, his ability to criticize these issues would be suppressed.
Everything began to change in the 1980’s. During this decade, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was formed by the wives of members of congress in order to ‘protect’ children from the horrible forces of indecency in music. Their initial rhetoric was to advocate for recording companies to put rating systems on their albums in order to prevent children from buying albums that are vulgar. There was a series of senatorial hearings which Frank Zappa and other musicians attended to testify. The PMRC cited heavy metal as a cause of violence in children and corrupting the youth. Frank Zappa in a CNN debate on the subject stated:
“We're talking about words, I don't think that there is any word that needs to be suppressed"
As a result of the hearings, record companies began using the famous Parental Advisory sticker on their albums that featured concepts that were deemed too controversial for the population as a whole.
At a first glance this may seem like a small problem. A little sticker shouldn't change much right? Well, large record distributors, Wal-Mart being one of them, began to ban the selling of these records in their stores. For a time this hurt the artists who were creating music, forcing artists to conform to the way society wants their music to be. But then it backfired on the PMRC in a way that could have been predicted from a million miles away.
The forbidden fruit effect took hold, like with most things that are banned. Groups with controversial topics in their music began to have massive sales due to their ‘edgy’ nature. Teenagers started listening to the music with this label for the mere fact that they were deemed unfit for their consumption. In many cases they listened not for the quality of the music at all, but merely the fact that it was rebellious. This became a commodification tool by record companies, who started producing ‘controversial’ material just to boost sales.
Zappa himself was highly critical of the music that benefited from this. He parodied the sexuilization and vulgarity of music in the later years of his life. He outdid even the most raunchy of musicians with shock value humor for the sake of being crude.
His parodies of money grabbing initiatives led to more positive change against the commodification of vulgarity because instead of banning it outright, he ousted it for what it was; a fraud. It was nothing more than a cheap trick into getting kids to buy the music.
A major thesis of Zappa’s work was the notion that music will not create monsters, society will. Regulating discourse won't make hatred go away, but it will let it grow unchecked underground. Only the free exchange of ideas can prove and prevent the disaster of hateful rhetoric. Frank Zappa set the example for us to follow; fight your hardest to let all arguments be heard, but use it for good and not for the spread of hatred. Today, this idea is relevant considering our current political climate.
Though Zappa is not longer with us, I could imagine what would be coming out of his mouth in regards to the ‘alt-right’ vs ‘political correctness’ debate going on today. He would criticize both sides of the argument for different reasons. He would say that the new rise of white nationalism is not good for society. He essentially had the view that people should be allowed to do whatever they want as long as it doesn't harm others, therefore live in a society where everybody has the freedom to express themselves. Zappa also took the stance that word’s are words and nothing more. He would be an opponent of YouTube and Twitter who ban certain figures because they have controversial and hateful ideas. Instead, I would predict that Zappa would approach the new rise of white nationalism in the way he approached the issues prevalent during his lifetime. He would be a proponent of keeping anybody, no matter the political message, on social media without being banned. But still acknowledge that they need to be debunked and criticized. I could see him saying something like ‘The only way to stop the racists, is to show them that they are wrong. Banning them will only fuel their fire.’
As a musical figure, his legacy has drifted into obscurity, but his lesson is one that society should take to heart. The world should use Zappa’s parodies and music as an example of how a community should function when presented with opposing thoughts. Ideas need to be exchanged, that's how the ones that are flawed can be weeded out of the public discourse. If some ideas are banned, they will still exist but only in an environment without opposition. That's how such ideas grow, and Zappa knew that the only way to stop them from spreading was to criticize them.
“They won't go for no more…Philosophy that turns away from those who aren't afraid to say what's on their minds, the left behinds of the Great Society.” -Frank Zappa, The Mothers of Invention
Hungry Freaks, Daddy