The Relevance Of Frank Zappa

[ Posted Monday, September 27th, 2010 – 17:30 UTC ]

First, I have to warn folks that I'm just kind of "phoning it in" today, as I'm still recovering from being sick over the weekend. Consider yourselves warned.

Frank Zappa was recently honored by the city of Baltimore (where he spent the first years of his life) by the erection of a bust in front of a public library. And, yes, I like to think Frank is up there somewhere smiling down on my usage of the words "erection" and "bust" in that sentence. More on that in a bit.

The bust was donated by music-lovers from Lithuania, and you can read the full story of the unveiling in the Baltimore Sun. But what caught my eye was the sentence: "It had been 25 years to the day since Zappa's testimony before Congress against music censorship."

This is relevant for two reasons to today's political scene. The first is the recent testimony (in character, for the most part) by Stephen Colbert before a House committee. This is being derided from politicians of both parties as an embarrassment and a stunt. I won't argue the point either way, because I haven't read Colbert's full testimony myself. But it did remind me of an earlier article I had written about Frank Zappa's testimony -- which was as serious as you can get. In my article, I reprinted Zappa's prepared statement to Congress, and provided a link to a transcript of his testimony. Particularly ironic is Senator Al Gore questioning Zappa, since Gore's wife Tipper was one of the main reasons Zappa was there (she was a member of a censorship-happy group called the "Parents' Music Resource Council").

Which brings me to my second point. Tipper Gore and her fellow PMRC folks started with the idea of instituting a ratings system on rock albums, much like the ratings system on movies. Each album would have a sticker giving a rating. But the question in such situations is always: "Who decides?" What would constitute grounds for barring an album from young children? This is where the PMRC seriously overreached, since they decided that "anything we don't like" was a proper answer to that question. This may have included things like violence (although, believe it or not, this was a minor concern at the time -- this was really before rap music had entered suburbanites' consciousness). But it also likely would have included things such as references to Satan (which was -- again, believe it or not -- actually an overarching concern of the day back then) and Satanism.

And, of course, anything to do with sex. From Zappa's statement, where he references a song called "Sugar Walls" (sorry, I have no idea what artist sang this, although I believe it was from a female singer):

Is the PMRC attempting to save future generations from SEX ITSELF? The type, the amount, and the timing of sexual information given to a child should be determined by the parents, not by people who are involved in a tax scheme cover-up.

The PMRC has concocted a Mythical Beast, and compounds the chicanery by demanding 'consumer guidelines' to keep it from inviting your children inside its sugar walls. Is the next step the adoption of a "PMRC National Legal Age For Comprehension of Vaginal Arousal". Many people in this room would gladly support such legislation, but, before they start drafting their bill, I urge them to consider these facts:

(1) There is no conclusive scientific evidence to support the claim that exposure to any form of music will cause the listener to commit a crime or damn his soul to hell.

(2) Masturbation is not illegal. If it is not illegal to do it, why should it be illegal to sing about it?

(3) No medical evidence of hairy palms, warts, or blindness has been linked to masturbation or vaginal arousal, nor has it been proven that hearing references to either topic automatically turns the listener into a social liability.

(4) Enforcement of anti-masturbatory legislation could prove costly and time consuming.

(5) There is not enough prison space to hold all the children who do it.

The PMRC's proposal is most offensive in its "moral tone". It seems to enforce a set of implied religious values on its victims. Iran has a religious government. Good for them. I like having the capitol of the United States in Washington, DC, in spite of recent efforts to move it to Lynchburg, VA.

Fundamentalism is not a state religion. The PMRC's request for labels regarding sexually explicit lyrics, violence, drugs, alcohol, and especially occult content reads like a catalog of phenomena abhorrent to practitioners of that faith. How a person worships is a private matter, and should not be inflicted upon or exploited by others. Understanding the Fundamentalist leanings of this organization, I think it is fair to wonder if their rating system will eventually be extended to inform parents as to whether a musical group has homosexuals in it. Will the PMRC permit musical groups to exist, but only if gay members don't sing, and are not depicted on the album cover?

The PMRC has demanded that record companies "re-evaluate" the contracts of those groups who do things on stage that THEY find offensive. I remind the PMRC that groups are comprised of individuals. If one guy wiggles too much, does the whole band get an "X"? If the group gets dropped from the label as a result of this 're-evaluation' process, do the other guys in the group who weren't wiggling get to sue the guy who wiggled because he ruined their careers? Do the founders of the tax-exempt organization with no members plan to indemnify record companies for any losses incurred from unfavorably decided breach of contract suits, or is there a PMRC secret agent in the Justice Department?

Should individual musicians be rated? If so, who is qualified to determine if the guitar player is an "X", the vocalist is a "D/A" or the drummer is a "V". If the bass player (or his Senator) belongs to a religious group that dances around with poisonous snakes, does he get an "O"? What if he has an earring in one ear, wears an Italian Horn around his neck, sings about his astrological sign, practices yoga, reads the Quaballah, or owns a rosary? Will his "occult content" rating go into an old CoIntelPro computer, emerging later as a "fact", to determine if he qualifies for a home-owner loan? Will they tell you this is necessary to protect the folks next door from the possibility of 'devil-worship' lyrics creeping through the wall?

What hazards await the unfortunate retailer who accidently [sic] sells an "O" rated record to somebody's little Johnny? Nobody in Washington seemed to care when Christian Terrorists bombed abortion clinics in the name of Jesus. Will you care when the "Friends of the wives of big brother" blow up the shopping mall?

The PMRC wants ratings to start as of the date of their enactment. That leaves the current crop of 'objectionable material' untouched. What will be the status of recordings from that Golden Era to censorship? Do they become collector's items . . . or will another "fair and unbiased committee" order them destroyed in a public ceremony?

Bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality.

This is why Tipper Gore, to this day, occasionally gets booed by folks younger than her at public events she attends. Which she richly deserves, in my opinion.

The shoe is now on the other foot, and Democrats deride and ridicule Christine O'Donnell's stance on masturbation. She is the butt of many a Democratic joke these days for being "anti-masturbation." But it wasn't all that long ago that Al Gore's wife was essentially singing the same tune as O'Donnell. We would all do well to remember that.

And it is why it is entirely appropriate for a bust of Frank Zappa to be erected outside a public library in his hometown. Frank Zappa fought -- and won -- the battle for the First Amendment, and (incidentally) the battle to allow free expression about masturbation. Saturday Night Live, in its season opener this weekend, led off with a sketch poking fun at O'Donnell. They repeatedly used the word "masturbation," and ridiculed her stance on it. But if Tipper Gore had had her way back in the 1980s with the music industry, who knows what the PMRC would have set their sights on next? Would Tipper Gore have gone on to found a PTRC to deal with television? If so, would that sketch have even aired?

I'm glad we live in a world where those are rhetorical questions. And, in no small part, I'd like to thank Frank Zappa for helping make it possible. As well as the city of Baltimore for recognizing his achievements -- which extended far beyond the realm of his music.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “The Relevance Of Frank Zappa”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    And, of course, anything to do with sex. From Zappa's statement, where he references a song called "Sugar Walls" (sorry, I have no idea what artist sang this, although I believe it was from a female singer):

    Sheena Easton... :D

    It was a favorite song at... er... Lifestyle dances... :D


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    And it is why it is entirely appropriate for a bust of Frank Zappa to be erected outside a public library in his hometown.

    " He said, 'erected'.... huh hu...huh..."
    -Beavis & Butthead


  3. [3] 
    Michale wrote:

    Bad facts make bad law, and people who write bad laws are, in my opinion, more dangerous than songwriters who celebrate sexuality.

    If there is a more apropos statement for the world we live in, in the here and now, I have yet to see it...


  4. [4] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    Go back and read Zappa's complete statement and testimony. I bet you'll agree with a whole bunch of it. Zappa was quite erudite, and he pulled no punches about heaping scorn on the congressional wives (Tipper Gore wasn't the only one) who had nothing better to do...


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:


    Oh, I am sure I would agree with everything.

    Back in the Anita Hill days, I got into a big debate (OK, it was an argument) with my cousin over the Married With Children boycott..

    My cousin is one of those Tipper Gore type moms who would get riled over sexually explicit entertainment.

    I, of course, took the liberal position that everyone is entitled to enjoy the shows (or music or what have you) that the would like and no one should set themselves up as the morality police.

    This is simply another example of how I am more liberal than conservative.


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