Frank Zappa In California
By Metro Times
METRO TIMES: You've been fighting anti-censorship battles since the Mothers of Invention days. What prompted you to begin attacking the "warning" to your albums?
Frank Zappa: Well, that's been on for about a year because I could smell this kind of Moral Majority aroma quite some time ago. I think the label that I put on my album is about as far as anybody should go in terms of stickering albums. Mine is not exactly what the Parents Music Resource Center had in mind. Theirs is: 'X' for sex or sexually explicit lyrics; 'P' for profanity; 'DIN' for drugs and alcohol; 'V' for violence; and an 'O' for occult.
How about the demand that record companies re-evaluate the contracts of those performers who do things in concert that they don't like? Look at the legal ramifications here. Their censors, or whatever you want to call them, would go to a concert and see a group. If one guy in the group is wiggling too much, does the whole group get an 'X'? If one guy wiggles and the group gets an 'X' and then during the record industry reevaluation process that group gets dropped from the label, do the other guys in the band who weren't wiggling get to sue the guy who wiggled because he blew their career for them?
Look at it from a retail standpoint. Does the retailer who inadvertently sells an 'O' rated record to somebody's little Johnny, does the FBI come after him with hot tweezers?
MT:In the '60s – and, in fact, throughout your career – you've been a kind of social satirist who has often used far-out and somewhat outlandish metaphors, especially for sexual images. Would you have been on the filth list if record ratings had existed in the '60s and '70s?
Zappa: Well, that depends – I think that considering that even liberal organizations have tried to keep Huckleberry Finn out of school libraries, you can never tell what's going to offend some people. And as far as the filth list goes, there's always an organization someplace that has their pet peeves as far as what the rest of society is not supposed to see, hear or read.
MT: You've implied that the PMRC is working through the White House to hammer down another plank of the Moral Majority's social platform.
Zappa: Well, I don't know whether they have a direct hot line to Jerry Falwell's office, but some of the things they're saying are right out of his pamphlets. Like the whole idea that sex is sin and that we have to protect people from this and protect people from that. It's the same sort of closed-minded petty stuff that was going on in the '50s when rock and roll first started up.
MT: Do you think the PMRC has a direct line to the president's ear?
Zappa: Well, they've got a direct line to something because if they weren't 'Washington Wives' as they call themselves, I'm sure the media wouldn't have paid any attention to their little program. Because if you look at it in terms of facts, what they're asking for is a violation of the First Amendment. It's a violation of the right of freedom of religion if they can actually put in some kind of legislation that controls what somebody thinks is occult. That opens the door for somebody saying yoga is occult, astrology is occult. Once you get the 'O' sticker on your record, it' not just on your record, it's on your name – the person who made the record gets the 'O'. There are also a lot of flaws in the mechanics of their proposal. There are so many problems with what they're asking for, it's not even funny. And because they have husbands who are elected officials, they've managed to get media attention
MT: Would you classify some of your music as porn rock?
Zappa: Well, first of all, there's the legal definition of pornography. A far as I can determine, it is: material designed to arouse prurient interest. Also, what's prurient is subject to community standards. I don't think there has ever been nor will there ever be any lyric or piece of music that qualifies under the law as porn rock or porn country or porn classical or porn anything else. It's not designed to arouse prurient interest.
MT: Are there different community standards of decency for Valley Girls versus Washington Wives? Is this group using a standard that maybe is appropriate for them, but in a larger or more sophisticated atmosphere, the same lyrical content may not be considered offensive?
Zappa: I wouldn't wish to intrude on what's going on in their minds, but I would suggest that there is a secret agenda here. First of all, they have not requested any labeling on country and western records. They have not requested a new labeling on comedy records. Comedy records have all the sexual references and the foul language that they've complained about, but they don't want to rate them. In country and western records you have sex, drugs, alcohol, violence and the devil. They don't want to rate these records.
One thing that strikes me is that the husband and wife team from Tennessee could in fact be enacting a piece of affirmative action legislation to benefit the suffering multitudes of Nashville. They're a special interest group – let's just put it bluntly – because country music is a major source of Tennessee state revenue. So once they've successfully covered all of the rock and roll albums with a plain wrapper and stuffed them under the counter, what's left to put on the counter in the record stores? Why, that good old country music.
They complain about explicit covers – an explicit cover is the best warning as to what's inside. Realistically, eight and nine year – old kids do not go into a record store unescorted by a parent with $8.98 in their pocket. If they go to a store, the parent is there and the parent is buying the album. And it's very easy for a parent to look at a Wasp album cover and see Blackie Lawless with a buzz saw blade between his legs and determine that it is not suitable for little Johnny. You don't need legislation to insure this.
Meanwhile, the country and western covers have American flags and pictures of nice things on them. But inside is the same kind of stuff these people are complaining about. So what's going on here? Then they complain that the people in rock and roll are role models for the youth of America, and what's coming out of their mouths is detrimental to the minds of children. Well, how many people in rock and roll have actually been in a penitentiary? Not many. I know many people in country and western are convicted felons and trade on the fact that they have been in prison and that's part of the appeal that makes them a bona fide country star?
MT: The PMRC calls the issue of rating records and tapes a consumer issue – not a censorship one.
Zappa: It's the case of the emperor's new clothes here. Jesse Jackson reminded Jerry Falwell in a recent Cable network news debate that you do not judge a tree by the bark it wears but by the fruit it bears. What kind of a consumer issue is it, anyway? How are they helping a consumer? Realistically, this program helps country and western musicians more than it helps children or helps parents.
The other thing that hasn't really been dealt with is the illegality of this group of people who are performing a lobbying function. Lobbyists in Washington are required to be registered. They are an unregistered lobbying organization behaving outrageously. They have made no bones about the connection they have to the committee which hears the record industry legislation. Look at the extortion here! There are two bills important to the record industry that have to go through the Thurmond committee. And the hints have not been too subtle that if the record industry doesn't bend over and do what these wives want, their bills are going to die in this committee.
MT: If the content of record lyrics is such a pressing problem that the recording industry association has been negotiating with PMRC and has come up with a compromise solution, why didn't the record industry regulate itself prior to this?
Zappa: It's not a problem. That's the thing that I'm really pissed off about, because the RIAA should have told these ladies to go jump in the river. But the RIAA is not stupid – they've got legislation they're trying to get through Congress; the women are threatening them. So they have to do something. So they pick the most innocuous thing – a generic rating which says parental guidance – explicit lyrics or some wording to that effect, hoping that that would grease the chute through the Thurmond committee. Well, it's not going to. PMRC already rejected that as being not enough and now they're pressing for regulatory legislation. What's worse, in making that first offer to them, the RIAA consulted no artists, no songwriters, no retailers – they acted purely in their self-interest to protect their own legislation, and threw away the civil rights of their people. Now, I'm not too enthusiastic about somebody taking my rights and tossing them in the direction of a bunch of Christians from Washington.
MT: If the PMRC can object to wiggling and what they see as the occult or drugs or violence, what happens when the message is political? What would they say about a song they don't agree with, like Springsteen's "Nebraska" or John Cougar Mellencamp's "Scarecrow," or Twisted Sister's "We're Not Going to Take It," arguably an anthem for a new generation? What, where and more importantly, who, will make these censorship decisions?
Zappa: They want to have what they describe as an official committee. First of all, who's paying for the committee? Second of all, what kind of credential must a person have to be on this committee? How are they going to listen to 25,000 individual songs released each year at an average four-minutes duration – what are they going to do? Even if they listen to it for just four minutes and make a snap decision on one hearing – that's an awful lot of listening, and everybody on the committee's got to hear it and then they've got to agree on it. That is a massive expenditure of energy to keep certain piece of information out of the American ear. What I've suggested in my Congressional testimony is: how long is it going to take before another group of Washington Wives finds it necessary to put a big yellow "J" on all records written or performed by Jews in order to protect unwary young consumers from secret Zionist messages tucked away in the album? How long is it going to take before they decide that anybody who has received one of these ratings must wear a special arm band at all times in public to warn people of what their rating is? If you're going to rate live concerts, you want to make sure that the audience knows what kind of group it is, so they'll have to wear this identification on stage, won't they?
Also, I try to remind these people that musical groups are made up of individuals, that maybe somebody in the group is just doing a job – he's a hired hand, He doesn't even listen to the lyrics that are being sung or even care about what's being sung. He's doing a job – he's the same as being a plumber. He can wind up being stigmatized because of something said or done by the lead vocalist.
MT: As a parent, do you care what your children listen to?
Zappa: I have four children, ranging in age from six to almost 18. I don't care what they listen to because ultimately the information on how to interpret it is something that the parent is supposed to provide.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net