It has been sixteen years as of December the 4th, 2009, that we lost arguably one of the most important and influential voices of the 20th century. His name was Frank ‘Vincent’ Zappa, an eccentric and highly debatable genius whose lifetime achievements included work as an American composer, electric guitarist, record producer, film director, political activist, and social critic. In a career spanning more then 30 years, Zappa took to writing music in the genres of rock, jazz, electronic, orchestral, and musique concrete. Zappa also made a name for himself directing films, shooting raw video footage, music videos, and designing his own album covers. A legendary workaholic and demanding musician, Zappa produced almost all of the more than 60 albums that he released while with the band, The Mothers of Invention, and as a self proclaimed solo artist. With such an extensive body of work, its obvious to see just how poignant a genius he was and why many believe he remains one of the most influential music icons of the 20th century.
Music, however, is not all Zappa is, and should be, remember for. The breadth of his influence extended into the political arena on a number of notable occasions, which perhaps has only lent to his legacy. In short, his outspoken political and social activism had a profound influence on American culture. This paper focuses on Zappa’s political influences. More specifically, his involvement with the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC), which took him all the way to the halls of Congress to testify against music censorship. His appointed role as special ambassador of Czechoslovakia to the west on trade, culture and tourism under president Vaclav Havel. And, lastly, his disapproval of conformity and continuous lampooning of the flower power idealism of the 60‘s hippie culture. Although there are undoubtedly more, these specific examples best illustrate how Frank Zappa’s political influence has had a lasting impression on the music industry, the people around him, and mainstream American culture.
Up until the late 1980’s, when he became a political defender of First Amendment Rights, Zappa used music and film as a medium to convey his political aspirations. It wasn’t until the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) set out to have all music albums rated by a board of censors (appointed by the PMRC), that Zappa took to more tangible social and political involvement.
The aforementioned PMRC was a committee shaped in 1985, lead by Tipper Gore and three fellow wives of congress. Also known and referred to as the “Washington Wives” because of there husbands’ connection to the federal government, the PMRC first garnered attention following their abhorrent and outspoken reaction to the violent nature of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” and Prince’s hit song, “Darling Nikki”, which made direct references to sex and masturbation. Both songs were, respectively, charged with increasing rates of violence against police officers in East Los Angeles and a degradation of social values amongst youth.
The PMRC, in efforts to censor and eliminate these new forms of controversial music, brought forth the idea of placing warning labels on music deemed as having explicit and potentially offensive content. They argued that the music was seriously “infecting the youth of the world with messages they cannot handle.” In an effort to counter the emerging threat of censorship against individual musical freedom, Frank Zappa spoke before congress and delivered a pointed and powerful speech against the guidelines and rating system the PMRC looked to introduce. In it, Zappa drew remarkable comparisons to the potential censorship of music and other types of censorship which have existed throughout history. Most famously, he stated:
“The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of Moral Quality Control Programs based on “Things Certain Christians Don’t Like”. What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow “J” on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to ‘concealed Zionist doctrine’?”
Zappa held little back in his attack, even alluding to the PMRC as “wives of big brother,” an obvious reference to Orwellian ideologies of a dystopian world in which governmental control engulfs society and eliminates individual thought and creativity.
Following the congressional hearing, the Recording Industry Association of America agreed to put generic “Parental Advisory” stickers on selected releases at their own discretion. This, however, was a compromise to the stringent categorization and evaluation criteria recommend by the PMRC. So while Zappa’s fight against censorship wasn’t a complete success, it’s probably fair to say that his political activism spared music from required labelling similar to video games (rated M) and TV programming, which specifies violent, sexual, and other controversial content. It is also important to mention that Zappa was not only merely representing himself as a musician, but rather himself as parental figure, stating in an interview on CBS morning news in 1985, “I have four children, and I want them to grow up in a country that has a working First Amendment.”
Fact: In a humorous twist, and undoubtedly connected to his involvement as an opposing witness, Zappa’s album “Jazz From Hell” received the “Parental Advisory” sticker despite the fact that it was a collection of instrumental pieces and contained no lyrics on it at all.
One of the most odd and surprising political endeavours of Frank Zappa’s career is his relationship with the Czech Republic and former Czechoslovakia. This began in the years leading up to 1989 and Czechoslovakia‘s Velvet Revolution – a non-violent movement that saw an increasingly frustrated and dissident portion of the population overthrow the Communist government in a call for democratic rights and ideals.
Prior to the revolution, the Communist party of Czechoslovakia, then under Russian rule, instituted intense censorship and blacklisting of artistic content in an effort to assume power and restrict western ideas from permeating the country. As many kinds of music, film, and literature were being banned, however, bootlegging proliferated. Oddly enough and unbeknown to him, Frank Zappa‘s albums turned quite popular amongst the dissident population. In fact, his albums gained so much popularity that they have even been accredited as a major inspiration to the anti-communist movement leading up to the revolution.
One could argue that Frank Zappa’s music, having been specifically blacklisted, represented freedom and independent thinking to the Czech people. What the Czech people saw in Frank, was an unsuppressed free spirit, who wasn’t afraid to express himself on any grounds or subject matter; something unfounded of under communist rule. His musical influence even went as far as inspiring a new generation of Czech rockers, including the band Plastic People of the Universe, whose name derived from Zappa’s song “plastic people”.
In 1990, under the invitation of president Vaclav Havel, Zappa was invited for a meeting in Prague, to which he was, indeed, greeted like rock star. Engineer, Dave Dondorf, recalls the moments:
“Frank was shocked at the adulation, if you will. It was well over the top. It wasn’t subtle, it wasn’t blasé, it wasn’t cool. I mean these people went nuts. It was like the ‘King of Freedom’ had showed up. It was pretty strange.”
Vaclav Havel was, himself, a lifelong fan of Zappa’s music himself. Havel felt that “Frank Zappa was one of the gods of the Czech underground.” “I thought of him as a friend,” said Havel, “Whenever I feel like escaping from the world of the Presidency, I think of him.” In a move to show his true appreciation, Havel appointed Zappa as the Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism, to which he accepted.
Following there first meeting, Zappa met again to discuss ideas about increasing tourism within the country, introducing credit cards and television shopping networks with Havel, his Finance ministers, and the Ministry of Culture and Trade. Havel was hoping that Zappa could help Czechoslovakia get western goods and services within the country.
Just as Zappa was embracing his new position as special ambassador, his previous political past caught up with him. U.S. Secretary of State, James Baker, intervened, advising Havel he could either do business with the United States and receive continued economic aid, or continue his association with Frank Zappa. Badly in need of aid at the time, Havel had no choice but to side with the American government and cut political ties with Frank Zappa. Believed to be behind this ultimatum, was James Baker, husband to wife Susan Baker, a member of the not-so-Zappa-friendly PMRC. Surprisingly, Zappa did little to oppose the matter, backing away entirely upon realizing he was in over his head. Zappa’s acceptance of Bakers actions signified Zappa’s understanding of the political climate at the time, and the fragility of Czechoslovakia at such a crucial stage in its early democratic development. Regardless of Frank Zappa’s short reign as Special Ambassador, his influence on Czechoslovakia helped shape the county’s history forever.
Although many artists throughout the 1960’s promoted and contributed to the hippie flower power and psychedelic movements, Zappa stood staunchly against many of the values they represented. This was a direct example of Zappa’s tendency to resist conformity where many others around him wouldn’t. Found in much of his music during the 1960’s were social and political views against the conformity of middle class American youth and their “vegetable” like qualities; absorbing all and questioning nothing. On August 26, 1967, in a British interview, Zappa said:
“I believe in love – but not phoney bullshit love – it makes me feel sick, it makes me feel bad to see these kids walking about in the streets. It’s a waste of kids. They’re misguided and deluded. I see them blindly accepting anything offered to them by the hippie machine. Sing a song and put ‘love’ in it and take a picture of the group in a flower patch and the kids will buy. The flowers and love thing is just a new way of packaging a product.”
As a testament to his hatred for the flower power and psychedelic movements, Zappa released arguably his finest work, “We’re only in it for the money.” The cover of the album featured a parody of the Beatles, “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” in which vegetables replaced flowers, satirizing many aspects of the era’s culture. More specifically, Zappa noticed and realized the trending cultural effect that the flower power scene was continuing to have on popular culture, and looked negatively upon it. His main quarrel being the hypocrites and fakers who appeared to parade about something they knew little to nothing about. As he saw it, they were all conforming to an artificially manufactured fad without substance.
Due to his counter-cultural stance, Zappa increasingly pushed himself outside the mainstream. Inadvertently, this also spawned a movement all his own. Known as the L.A. Freaks, they were, to put it mildly, unlike the San Francisco hippie culture. Instead, the Freaks premised their movement on a more individualistic basis, striving to promote independent thought both politically and musically. As one commenter suggests on a Zappa forum:
“It always seemed to me (born in 52) that hippies were a media defined project, all form and little content. They visited the scene to “experience” it, while freaks inhabited the scene. Freaks seemed to fly below the radar a bit, had ideas to ponder, and didn’t care about hygiene. Hippies were McCartney; freaks were Lennon.”
Although it’s debatable what definitive political impact the L.A. Freak movement actually had, there is no questioning that it was political in nature. Zappa’s hope was to engage the young “vegetables” of America, inciting them to think and question government and corporate interests. To Zappa, the music was merely a medium to convey what were most definitely messages of a political ilk.
In conclusion, Zappa has made a lasting impression on American culture and the music industry, generating respect from all corners of society. His attempts to educate and engage the youth of America has paved the way for new perspectives within mainstream popular culture. His role as a social critic and activist established his illustrious career as much more than just his music. His willingness to break down conventional norms set him apart amongst his peers, and has helped shape American culture. His political involvement is apparent in his music and ideals, something he spoke and acted openly about, as we have learned. It is Zappa’s direct involvement in protesting the ambitions of the Parents Music Resource Centre, that helped contain the threat of censorship in the music industry and reserve American rights to the First Amendment. Secondly, his brief but influential role within Czechoslovakia has established him as a hero of the velvet revolution in the eyes of many Czech’s, because he was an advocate of freedom and independent thought. And, lastly, his continued denouncement of conformity in America and the 1960’s psychedelic hippie culture have cemented him as one of the most highly respected, influential, and brilliant minds of the 20th century. His conceptual continuity lays transparent in all his political endeavours, as well, has had a lasting impression on the music industry, the people around him, and mainstream American culture as we have explored.