Winter In America
It's 1987. Do you know where your culture is?
Interview by Steve Lyons and Batya Friedman
Option, January/February 1987
Several months ago, it seemed a refreshing and deliciously ironic moment when Frank Zappa was spotted on television, testifying before a Senate committee. He was dressed in a jacket and tie, much as he was more than two decades ago for an appearance – in which he musically played a bicycle – on the Steve Allen Show. Before the committee, however, with the accumulated notoriety of the intervening years in evidence only as subtext, the talkative, knowledgeable and apparently incensed musician held forth as the most reasonable voice of the afternoon.
Considering the urgent problems you'll find on the front pages of even the lamest paper, the committee was holding hearings on the non-issue of applying ratings to rock records. Zappa had come to Washington to help nip this bit of proto-fascism in the bud. Instigated by the Parents' Music Resource Center, a well-connected group of Washington wives with kids in school and time on their hands, the committee was examining the possibility of a causal link between rock music and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, Satanism, concert violence and other things which no one could seem to recall having existed before 1956.
Asked how something as trivial as record-rating became the subject of a Senate inquiry, Zappa simply remarked, "A couple of blowjobs here and there and Bingo! – you get a hearing." He added that Tipper Gore – wife of Senator Albert Gore and a key figure in the PRMC – had recently "demanded" that MTV president Tom Freston go to Washington to discuss the rating of music videos. While any legislation against the various music media doesn't seem likely at this point, Zappa notes that the current administration is doing what it can to further its own ideology, such as reviewing all documentaries being produced by both National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Zappa's interest in politics extends beyond those issues that are music related, though his perspective occasionally tends toward the bizarre ("For all those cowboys who think that Star Wars is gonna save us from alien attack: does it ever occur to you that Star Wars doesn't kill germs?"). He is a most vocal critic of the Reagan administration and its fundamentalist supporters. Referring to items ranging from government obfuscation to the bombing of abortion clinics, Zappa concludes, "We're seeing the same terrorist techniques in the U.S. as those used by Moslem fanatics in the Mideast – the difference is just a matter of costume." He points out that although fundamentalist agitators may be a very small minority in the U.S., the Shiites of the Islamic middle east also comprise a small part of the Islamic community.
Going on about the Mideast (in a November 1986 conversation during the turmoil over arms shipments to Iran), Zappa continues, "Where was Bush during all this?" He refers to a recent trial of arms dealers involved in a private, clandestine attempt to direct arms to Iran: "They played a tape on CNN which went, 'We just got the green light – Bush says – it's okay but Schultz doesn't like it.'" Zappa's conclusion is that the cover-up is far more insidious than it looks, with one object being to protect Bush's presidential aspirations. "They're trying to make the front-runner look good."
Though Zappa faults the press for allowing things to go on as they have been ("except for Sam Donaldson, the rest of the press has been napping for the last five years"), he says he's "optimistic." He feels the radical right is "on the run," and notes that their contributions have been dropping. But since the right wing agenda is still being pressed, Zappa valiantly vows, "So long as I can keep on talking I'm gonna do what I can to stop 'em from getting their way." – ed.
This interview took place in early '86 in Frank Zappa's home studio, from 11 o'clock at night until sunrise the next morning. Zappa is a disarmingly thoughtful, lucid and witty individual, and rather warm in his own way. The following is an excerpt from that conversation.
ART IN AMERICA
• In the past you have said that "art is dying in this country." What do you mean by this?
Much of the creative work I find interesting and amusing has no basis in economic reality. Most decisions relevant to expenditures for what gets produced and distributed are made strictly on a bottom line basis. Nobody makes a move without talking to their accountant first. There will always be people who will take a chance, but their numbers are dwindling. Those who are crazy enough to take the chance on spending money to make some unusual object or event take place are an endangered species. The spirit of adventurousness at any level of American society has been pretty much legislated away. In the eighties, with a repressive Republican, yuppie-oriented administration installed and ready to perpetuate itself with Supreme Court appointments that will keep us in trouble for the next half century, the prognosis is not good for things which differ from the viewpoint of the conservative right.
• Do you think anything can be done to reverse the trend?
Perhaps. I tend to view the whole thing as a conspiracy. It is no accident that the public schools in the United States are pure shit. It is no accident that masses of drugs are available and openly used at all levels of society. In a way, the real business of government is the business of controlling the labor force.
Social pressure is placed on people to become a certain type of individual, and then rewards are heaped on people who conform to that stereotype. Take the pop music business, for example. Look at the stereotypes held up by the media as examples of great accomplishment. You see guys who are making millions of dollars and selling millions of units. And because they are making and selling millions they are stamped with the seal of approval, and it is the millions which make their work quality. Yet anyone can look at what is being done and say, "Jesus, I can do that!" You celebrate mediocrity, you get mediocrity. People who could have achieved more won't, because they know that all they have to do is be "that," and they too can sell millions and make millions and have people love them because they're merely mediocre. And that is reinforced over and over and over.
Few people who do anything excellent are ever heard of. You know why? Because excellence, pure excellence, terrifies the fuck out Americans because they've been bred to appreciate the success of the mediocre. People don't wish to be reminded that lurking somewhere there are people who can do some shit you can't do. They can think a way you can't think, they can dance a way you can't dance. They are excellent. You aren't excellent. Most Americans aren't excellent, they're only OK. And so to keep them happy as a labor force, you say, "OK, let's take this mediocre chump." and we say. "He is terrific!" All the other mediocre chumps say, "Yeah, that's right and that gives me hope, because one day as mediocre and chumpish as I am I can... " It's smart labor relations. An MBA decision. That is the orientation of most entertainment, politics and religion. So considering how firmly entrenched all that is right now, you think it's going to turn around? Not without a genetic mutation it's not!
• If you would focus on the message of pop music for a moment, what do you see as the issues of the 1980s that music can address today?
It can address anything that it wants to, but it will only address those topics that will sell. Musicians will not address topics that are controversial if they want to have a hit. So music will continue to address those things that really matter to people who buy records: boy-girl relationships, boy-boy relationships, boy-car relationships, girl-car relationships, boy-girl-food relationships, perhaps. But safe. Every once in a while somebody will say "War is Hell" or "Save the Whales" or something bland. But if you talk about pop music as a medium for expressing social attitudes, the medium expresses the social attitude perfectly by avoiding contact with things that are really there. That is the telling point about the society that is consuming the product. If society wanted to hear information of a specific nature in songs, about controversial topics, they would buy them. But they don't. You are talking about a record-buying audience which is interested in their personal health and well-being, their ability to earn a living, their ability to stay young at all costs forever, and not much else.
• How about the role of music in society outside the pop music industry? For example, Kent Nagano (conductor of the Berkeley Symphony) said in a recent interview that "a composer has a job to do within a culture. Which is not to say a composer should write what the public already wants to hear, but rather that the public is employing the composer to lead them, to show them a direction." What do you think of that?
I don't think a composer has any function in society at all, especially in an industrial society, unless it is writing movie scores, advertising jingles, or stuff that is consumed by industry. I respect Kent, however I think he takes a very optimistic and naive attitude toward what it takes to be a composer. If you walk down the street and ask anybody if a composer is of any use to any society, what kind of answer do you think you would get? I mean, nobody gives a shit. If you decide to become a composer, you seriously run the risk of becoming less than a human being. Who the fuck needs you?
A songwriter is different. [In a facetious singsong voice] You write a nice song, then you're important. Because with a song, now we have a car, now we have love, now we have a this ... but a composer? What the fuck do they do? All the good music's already been written by people with wigs and stuff on.
• So, the public doesn't need composers. What about composers? Do they need a public? For example, [electronic music composer] Milton Babbit, in an essay entitled "Who Cares If You Listen?," has advocated the virtual exclusion of the general public from modern music concerts. What is your opinion on that?
That's unnecessary, they're already excluded; they don't go! Have you been to a modern music concert? Plenty of room, isn't there? Come on Milton, give yourself a break. I hope you're not going to spend money trying to exclude these people. What are you going to do, have it legislated in Congress like those assholes who wanted to make it a law that you couldn't put anything backwards, on a phonograph record?
• So, given all of this, what do you think art will be like 20 years from now?
Since I'm not in, that business, it's hard for me to really care. [Authors' note: Zappa does not think that his work is perceived as art.] I can lament its passing. I don't think anything that a reasonable person would describe as art is going to be around. Not here. I'm talking about art in terms of valued, beautiful stuff that is done not because of your ego but just because it is beautiful, just because it is the right thing to do. We will be told what is good and it will be mediocre. There's always a possibility that an anomaly will appear – some weird little twisted thing will happen and there will be somebody who's doing it. But who's going to know? In the dark ages there was art, but who knew?
THE MUSIC INDUSTRY
• How do unknown groups attract the attention of record companies?
Today record companies don't even listen to your tape. They look at your publicity photo. They look at your hair. They look at your zippers. How gay do you look? And if you've got the look then it really doesn't make a fucking bit of difference what's on the tape – they can always hire somebody to fix that. And they don't expect you to be around for 20 years. The business is not interested in developing artists. They want that fast buck because they realize that next week there's going to be another hairdo and another zipper. And they realize that the people are not listening, they're dancing, or they're driving, or something else. The business is more geared toward expandability today. That's because merchandising is so tied to "visually" now.
• How is music selected to be heard on pop radio? Is it determined by the taste of the listener or does the public listen to whatever the industry feeds them?
A little of both. Radio is consumed like wallpaper is consumed. You don't concentrate on the radio, you turn it on while you're working, you turn it on while you're driving. It's not like the old days when families sat around and looked at it. So the stations are formatted to provide a certain texture and ambience that will be consumed by people who view themselves in a certain way. Are you a yuppie? Well, you're going to listen to a certain texture because that reinforces the viewpoint you have of yourself and the viewpoint you want to project to other people of who and what you are. It's the same thing as what you leave on your coffee table for people to discover when they come to your apartment. It's not a musical medium, it's an advertising medium.
So if you have a nation of people who refuse to face reality about themselves, about the rest of the world, about anything, they want reinforcement for the fantasy that they're living in. And these consulting services that format the station know that. Market research will show you that. So obviously you want to deliver to the public things that will reinforce that. A station loses money when somebody turns it off the air. So as long as your station sounds like the kind of swill that the yuppie needs to consume, you got it.
Could you give us your view of the process whereby a record becomes a hit?
It's simple. It's called "payola." You pay somebody to play your record.
Hits are OK. I think they're wonderful for people who want them. They're wonderful for people who like to listen to them. But then, hits shouldn't be the sum total of music history. Let's face it, Mozart had hits. Beethoven had hits. Did you ever look in the Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians? There are thousands of names of people who wrote music throughout history, yet we haven't heard one line they ever wrote. That doesn't mean it is bad music. It just means they didn't have hits.
In the old days, if the king didn't like you or the church didn't like you or whatever, you didn't have a hit. As a matter of fact you might even be dead. So now you can have a hit if you are willing to pay. So who's the new king? Who's the new church?
• Within the last year the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) has requested that record companies rate records they produce similar to the current rating of films. You've been involved in this recent controversy. What did the record industry finally agree to?
Well, to quote you from the Associated Press Wire Report, dated November 1, 1985, the basic points of the agreement between the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the PMRC are that "parents' groups will have no role in determining what is explicit." Next, "the record companies will determine what is explicit." When asked, "What is explicit?," Stanley Gortikov (president of the RIAA) replied, "What's explicit is explicit." Third, "those artists whose contracts give them control over their packaging are free to ignore the understanding." Does this sound like something you could enforce?
I think the record industry allowed the ladies to save a little face (by making a formal agreement at all), which just encourages them even more. The PMRC has moved to new quarters in Virginia; they are no longer in Washington, D.C. They have a new printed fund-raising package which heralds their victory while omitting those parts of the agreement that render it inoperable. The fund-raising package says that if you'll send them money, they will send you more examples of the horrors of these lyrics. They are making an industry out of this thing! Meanwhile, Reverend Jeff Ling, their consultant, has this new slide show which he is taking around.
• Are there any legislative attempts to require record ratings?
Last year the state of Maryland considered a bill which would make it illegal to sell a record declared "obscene" to a person under 18 years of age. The text of the bill stated that its purpose was to keep people from seeing or hearing references to illicit sex. And then it had a definition of what constitutes illicit sex in the state of Maryland. Sexual intercourse is the first thing on the list. What the legislators did was take the existing visual pornography law and just add the words "phonograph record, magnetic tape, compact disc" to it. Since the existing law in Maryland is already a bit vague, adding just those words isn't going to give you an enforceable regulation.
To give an example of how ridiculous this bill was, under this bill you were not allowed to advertise pornography. So let's say that somebody had decided that a Motley Crue album was obscene. If you were wearing a tee shirt that says Motley Crue on it you would be advertising pornography. You could be fined $1000 and/or go to jail for a year. If you wore the tee shirt twice, it is $5000 and three years in jail.
• Did the bill pass In Maryland?
It passed the House of Delegates with a 96 to 3 vote. When it was sent to the Maryland [Senate] Judiciary Committee, I went to testify. The bill was eventually killed in that committee. But because the issue was brought up, a number of other states have similar bills which they are considering. Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Mississippi have all considered similar bills.
• What interactions did you have with the Maryland legislators outside of the judiciary hearings?
The night before I testified in the State Senate, I attended a cocktail party that a bunch of legislators were invited to. The bill had already passed in the House of Delegates. My objective in this exercise was to keep the bill from going anyplace in the Senate because if the Senate approves the bill it becomes law. But if you kill the bill in the Senate, it's dead. Delegates and senators were coming to this cocktail party. Every time somebody would say, "Here's Delegate So-and-So," I would say, "Which way did you vote?" And of the ones who voted for the bill, I always asked them, "Why?" Most of them were embarrassed that they had. And I would say, "Would you care to apologize?," and hand them a piece of paper to get their apology in writing. I've got slips of paper of apologies from at least five delegates who voted for the thing with the most unbelievable quotes. I read the apologies in the Senate the following day. Here's some quotes: "I was swept away by the rhetoric." And "I had to vote that way because that's the way my district is." That guy came from a district where he might have had his legs badly mutilated if he hadn't done it.
• It seems reasonable for delegates to vote the way their districts want them to vote. After all, shouldn't they attempt to represent the viewpoint of their district?
Well, let's look at both sides of that. If you are representing the economic interest of your district, I suppose you should fight for that. But in terms of this piece of legislation, even if you agreed with the premise, the design of the bill was a disaster. I think elected officials have a certain amount of responsibility to give information to the people in their districts. I think that it is a cop-out not to inform their districts of the dangers of any stupid piece of legislation.
Portions of this interview have appeared in The Progressive. In our next issue, OPTION will run part two of this conversation, in which Zappa discusses composing, performing, and his past and present musical projects.
Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at) afka.net