Frank Zappa, Popular Music and Politics

Having recently returned from a fantastic conference on ‘music and protest’ at the University of Limerick’, it got me thinking about an unpublished Zappa paper that I wrote around 7 years ago. I have copied and pasted the unedited version here – alongside the powerpoint slide that can be downloaded and flicked through while reading the document. When I interviewed Sting recently he said that the world needs more protest singers like Zappa – and this paper alludes to this. I certainly did not agree with a lot of Zappa said – but he certainly spoke his mind. Anyway – paper below.

In addition to being one of the most prolific and versatile composers of the rock idiom, Frank Zappa was also an astute and outspoken political commentator. Described as ‘the most politically potent musical force since the collaborations of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’, Zappa’s music deals directly with a range of subject areas, ranging from trade unions, American presidents, immigration, freedom of speech and the importance of using the vote. In his autobiography Zappa stated that ‘the only thing that binds nations together is the incompetence of their governments,’ and his distrust of these authority figures manifested itself in numerous non musical ways, two of which included his much publicised confrontation with Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Recourse Centre (PMRC), and his encouragement and facilitating of young Americans’ voting rights. Zappa believed that ‘unless you have people registered so they can participate in the political process, you don’t really have democracy’, and that party officials in some States actually prohibited this process. As Zappa financed the administration of his voter registration campaign himself, it can be seen to represent an altruistic aspect of his character. However, his more pervasive ‘anti – authority’ stance was demonstrated in numerous ways, including a number of debates concerning music censorship on American television throughout the late 1980’s, where he described certain sections of the American government as a ‘fascist theocracy’. Although becoming noted for his stance against the ‘Christian values’ of the PMRC during the 1980s, his position against Christian fundamentalism had been apparent for a number of years, stating in a 1968 interview for Life Magazine that ‘a lot of things wrong with society today are directly attributable to the fact that people who make the law’s are sexually maladjusted’. These positions were also cuttingly portrayed musically in his 1967 song ‘Brown Shoes Don’t Make It’, and 1979’s Joe’s Garage, an eerie prophesy of a fascist government that had banned music. This paper examines the various means through which Frank Zappa’s political convictions are manifested musically by critically exploring two pieces related to American Presidents – ‘Dickie’s Such An Asshole’ and ‘Reagan At Bitzburg’.

According to David Walley, Frank Zappa’s music ‘inspired Czechoslovakian students in Prague to battle Soviet Tanks with rocks in the late 60’s’, with Soviet secret police muttering the words ‘I’m going to ‘beat the Zappa out of them’ during protest rallies. In an acknowledgment of his ‘debt’ to Zappa, president Václav Havel somewhat naively decided to employ him as Cultural Liaison officer for Czechoslovakia, a gesture which perhaps best encapsulates the impact that Zappa’s political views had on eastern bloc countries in particular during the 1970’s – 1980’s. Not surprisingly this appointment was not well received in Washington, with Secretary of State James Baker informing Havel that ‘if the appointment was not rescinded, there would be consequences’. Zappa was obviously considered an irritant by the Bush administration, with not only a track record of heated confrontations with Baker’s wife during music censorship debates when opposing the PMRC, but also an outspoken critic of Bush’s predecessors – Presidents Reagan and Nixon. Walley considered the PMRC debates a unique example of ‘the politics of entertainment and the politics of international diplomacy [being as] close as they’d ever been before or since’, and this is congruent to Zappa’s comment when describing politics as ‘the entertainment branch of industry’ in his autobiography.

Although Zappa’s early subject matter was to quote Barry Miles ‘a cartoon collage of American life’, his works became specifically focused during the 1970’s – 1980’s on political targets such as TV evangelists, Christian Fundamentalist Groups, and the focus of this paper, presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Zappa’s fascination and distrust of American presidents was a pervasive topic throughout the majority of his career, with Nixon and Reagan receiving particular attention in interviews, the written word, and of course his music. According to Miles, Zappa’s distrust of the American establishment commenced after his 10 day prison sentence in 1964 for recording an illegal sex tape, an entrapment that prompted him to ‘shove his pornographic tape down America’s mouth, time and time again’. Zappa’s negative view of American presidents is possibly best encapsulated in an 1989 Austrian documentary, he stated

The way I look at it, take a look at the people who have been president of the United States so far. Could I do any worse?

In 1991 Zappa eventually decided that the answer to this question was ‘no’, and according to an article in The Boston Globe dated July 10th 1991, employed two political consultants to conduct a feasibility study into the viability of running for office in 1992. Although he never officially offered his candidature, his intentions were clear when informing Charles Amirkirkhanian – ‘if I do it, I would do it to win, not just to go there and be symbolic’. Zappa discussed this topic in numerous interviews, but a combination of ill health and realism prompted him to spend his remaining time focusing on music as opposed to his political ambitions.

Perhaps Zappa’s  most controversial presidential artwork was the satirical ‘You Are What You Is’ (1980), his only music video, and banned from American TV due to the portrayal of  a smiling Ronald Reagan being executed in the electric chair.  SLIDE 2 When this footage is analysed psycho-analytically, Zappa is not only satirizing one of the most popular American presidents of recent times, but also portraying him as receiving what he obviously considered a just punishment for war crimes. On a 1986 edition of Crossfire, Zappa’s contempt for Reagan continued on American TV, describing him as being responsible for steering America in the direction of a ‘Fascist Theocracy’. Of particular interest is Zappa’s musical depiction of Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg-Prüm district of Germany in 1985 to observe the 40th anniversary of V-E Day. Unlike other pieces that were composed to oppose the event such as The Ramones ‘My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes To Bitburg)’ (1985), Zappa’s ‘Reagan at Bitburg’ provides a programmatic instrumental account of Reagan’s ill-advised excursion. Recorded exclusively on the synclavier and conceptualised as an orchestral work, the piece commences with a ‘clumsy sounding’ opening motif played in melodic and rhythmic unison. The piece gradually gains contrapuntal momentum, with the faster tempo and disjointed nature of the middle section’s angular themes symbiotically depicting the criticisms and problems the presidential office faced once they had agreed to sanction a visit that not only was home to American and German soldiers, but also 49 graves of the Waffen SS! SLIDE 3 Play EXERPT This piece is clearly influenced melodically by Stravinsky, textually by Milton Babbitt’s electronic work, and harmonically by Edgard Varèse, but above all, in typical Zappa fashion, is a humorous and satirical account of the occasion.

This work is a direct continuation of Zappa’s earlier tribute (sic) to Richard Nixon, which is less complex musically, but equally as innovative in the means it conveys information.  It was common practice during the Roxy Tour in 1974 for Zappa to begin the song by initially encouraging the audience to sing the work’s principle motif and title – ‘Dickies Such An Asshole’.  PLAY EXERPT AND SLIDE 4 The colloquial use of the word ‘Dickie’ combined with the collective nature of audience participation somehow accentuates how Zappa believed everyone should feel about Nixons’s misdemeanours, which are progressively revealed as the piece progresses. It is noteworthy to elucidate how much of the work is superimposed over an altered blues, which somehow accentuates Zappa’s position regarding the state of American Politics at the time. Lyrically, the piece commences with a sarcastic plea to the audience that Nixon’s office was more sinister than what was portrayed on the surface. PLAY EXERPT AND SLIDE 5

One ‘n one is eleven!
Two ‘n two is twenty-two!
Won’t somebody kindly tell me,
What the government’s tryin’ t’ do . . .
Dickie’s just too tricky
For a chump like me to use
Well, you’d take that sub-committee serious, boy
You might get a seizure from the evenin’ news

This piece was only recorded live, which indicates that Zappa was initially more interested in spreading his message via a live audience as a gesture of political theatre. The work continues to depict direct reference to Watergate in particular, with allusions to the FBI being out to ‘get your number’, the  consequences of the misuse of microphones, and principally the impact this practice could have on the American peoples’ capacity to have ‘private conversations’ if left uncovered. All of the lyrical content up to this point is principally in first person narrative, but this intensifies when Zappa begins to quote directly from both Nixon’s Resignation Speech of August 8th 1974, and his 1952 Checkers speech, when as the Republican Vice Presidential candidate he defended himself on national television against financial improprieties, twenty years before Watergate. After Zappa’s blues based guitar solo, the work proceeds to alternate direct quotations or allusions from Nixon’s history with Zappa’s own rhetoric as follows. PLAY EXERPT SLIDE 6

Let me tell you one thing right now
Let me tell you one thing right here
Let me make this perfectly clear
Let me tell you ’bout this right here
You know you put me in office
So you must have wanted me in office
I’ve did you no harm
You know I’m not a crook
You know I’m innocent

Zappa then continues, this time portraying a humorous version of the missing Watergate tapes, from Nixon’s perspective PLAY EXERPT SLIDE 7

I had twenty-five tapes
I only have ten
I don’t know what happened to the rest
Musta gave ’em to a friend
Was it?

The piece finishes with a short phrase that includes the opening motif taught to the audience PLAY EXCERPT SLIDE 8

Here It Comes Ladies And Gentleman, Sing Right Along

Dickie’s Such An Asshole

Sincerely Dick We Mean it

Much of the final section of this piece is conducted over a ‘Stop-Time’ backing, a practice that was pervasive in blues and R & B during the 1940’s – 1950’s, with examples ranging from the secular, (James Brown’ ‘That’s Life’) to the religious (Mahalia Jackson ‘Search Me Lord’). When analysing these lyrics, of particular interest is the phrase ‘Let me make this perfectly clear’, a quintessential example of  Nixon’s use of a ‘pointer phrase’ –  ‘a term for verbal signs that underscore essential points of speech’.  As verified in a 1971 edition of Life Magazine, the author notes how Nixon ‘stopped using this pervasive wording, just as John Kennedy stopped utilising the words vigour when it became the target of impressionists’ parody. This of course would have been precisely the reason Zappa used it, and it is apparent that there were also a number of other sources using the expression in the early 1970’s. Examples include early 1970’s editions of Marvel Comics,  SHOW SLIDES 9 and 10 The Hartford Times SLIDE 11  and Advertising (Kosher Wine), SLIDE 12, all of which use the phrase in a similar fashion to Zappa. Just as Nixon appropriated the use of a catchphrase from John F Kennedy’s inaugural speech –  ‘My Fellow Americans’,  it is fascinating to note that Barak Obarma also adapted ‘let me make this perfectly clear’, SLIDE 13 and Zappa would consider this a perfect example of his self titled ‘conceptual continuity’, where extracts from his previous portfolio were used in later recordings. Indeed in this work, Zappa’s juxtapositioning of Nixon’s 1952 and 1974 speeches is a microcosmic example of the way he experimented with time and space. In addition to the blues based progression of this work, it is important to outline that Zappa carefully crafted a range of subliminal musical fragments into the piece that indoctrinates the lyrics with additional meaning. Entitling these fragments ‘Archetypical American Musical Icons’, he commented

I can put sounds together that tell more than the story in the lyrics, especially to American listeners, [who are] raised on these subliminal clichés, shaping their audio reality from the cradle to the elevator (Zappa 1989: 171).

Two bootleg recordings dated October 26th 1973  and November 11th 1973 indicates that Zappa experimented with a range of semiotic devices to indoctrinate the music with specific meanings. For example both of these shows include a short do-wop style I – vi – ii – V progression that accompanies words related heavily to the words ‘cheatin’’ and ‘lyin’’. According to Phillip Tagg, this ‘turnaround’ progression has inherent associations with ‘lost unrequited love’ for ‘certain people of a certain generation’, a factor that gives the meaning of the entire section an ironic, but deeply ambiguous duplicitous nature. This may be influenced by the common practice of blues musicians incorporating double entendre into their lyrics, but is more likely focused on the deliberate confluence of the harsh realities of Nixon’s administration, against the media’s utopian view of reality Slide 14

It is difficult to precisely ascertain where Zappa’s political convictions came from. A child of the 1940’s and adolescent of the 1950’, with Italian and French ancestry, his family was an obvious target during the McCarthy era of the 1950’s when Zappa was growing up. He commented

‘Every time I would get in trouble at school [my father] would flip out because he worried that it would effect in some roundabout way, his security clearance.

His father’s position in chemical weaponry research also resulted in the Zappa family constantly moving house, a factor that possibly impacted his ability to conform and develop close friendships. Whatever the reason, it is apparent that Zappa preferred to be in a position of control throughout his career. This manifested itself in various ways, including what could described as amateur anthropology, where he would often record, document and release his band’s off stage activities, to his authoritarian live performances, to control over his intellectual property, to his manipulation of recording studio technology – where time and space itself would succumb to his authority. As outlined by Steve Jones (1992), the recording studio itself can facilitate political power in terms of decision making and in Zappa’s case, his autocratic approach to these other factors accentuate this ‘political position’. Indeed Zappa’s work on the synclavier in the last several years of his life takes this controlling power a stage further, the equivalent of an automated society where all ‘citizens’ are  under Zappa’s jurisdiction. Zappa often complained about the inadequacies of orchestral musicians, and this machine enabled him to automate his workforce. He stated

With the synclarier, any group of imaginary instruments can be invited to play the most difficult passages, and the little guys inside the machine play them with one millisecond accuracy – every time

Although this statement very much concurs with Edgard Varèse’s ‘Liberation of Sound’ lecture in 1939, this totalitarian approach conflicts with his view of American politics, where he very much emphasised the importance of freedom of speech, but this itself is another dimension of the conflictory nature of his music. Ultimately, the freedom in Zappa’s music reflects the way in which he viewed the First Amendment, and this is apparent in both his controversial subject matter and the uncompromising way he juxterpositioned musical styles and genres, and the freedom that his art give him. According to Kevin Courrier, Zappa’s capacity to draw ‘moustaches on the faces of America’s sacred cows’ made his work ‘formidably political, even if the subject matter was often sociological in nature’. Courrier continues to compare Zappa to other musicians/political commentators such as Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, U2 and Rage Against The Machine, but differentiated Zappa because he did not make his work explicitly partisan, but in a manner that ‘transcended the lyrics’. As outlined in this paper, Zappa’s music certainly transcended lyrical content and was also explicitly political, as indicated by his carefully crafted lyrics, his facilitation of voting rights, his political gestures in performance and recording studios and his pervasive outspoken media comments. Weinburg considers ‘all theatre, by virtue of it being a cultural construct as ideologically inscribed’ as political’, and considering the theatrical nature of Zappa’s portfolio it is not unreasonable to position him within the continuum of political theatre, alongside Erwin Piscator and Bertolt Brecht, even if critics in Zappa’s opinion described his work as ‘perverse’. As noted by Courrier, Zappa’s work was not explicitly partisan, but this is due to his personal affiliation to a political party being vague. Claiming to be neither Democrat or Republican on his 1984 video Does Humour Belong in Music, he described his position toward the end of his autobiography as a ‘practical conservative’. As noted by Delvile and Norris, ‘as long as people keep confusing avant-garde art with revolutionary politics, Zappa’s music will continue to be misunderstood by leftists and conservatives alike’. As discussed in this paper, what is apparent in Zappa’s work is the pervasiveness of his ideological tendencies. Even though they may not always manifest themselves in his lyrics, his politics are inextricably embedded into his art in numerous ways, and hopefully this paper has elucidated some of the means through which these tendencies were channelled to audiences.

powerpoint for conference

About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
This entry was posted in Frank Zappa, Musicology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Frank Zappa, Popular Music and Politics

  1. Pingback: FRANK ZAPPA MEETS THE MOTHERS OF PREVENTION! | Innovatorio musical

  2. Pingback: À atenção dos candidatos a Torquemada que enxameiam a imprensa, as universidades, a blogosfera e as redes sociais deste desgraçado país: Politicamente, Zappa considerava-se conservador, o Vaclav Havel não era comuna e o acutilante criador dos Simpso

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