Zappa Says No!

By Sam Rosenthal

Alternative Rhythms, November, 1985

Frank Zappa is angry.  He is angry because we saw Sen. Paula Hawkins on the evening news ranting about the explicitness of rock music. He is angry because we sat subservient, thinking that maybe she had a point. Maybe we should have a panel preventing our children from hearing naughty lyrics. Maybe records SHOULD be rated. MAYBE there should be security guards preventing little Johnny from entering the X-rated section of the record store.

In late September, Zappa spoke before a Senate Commerce Committee, answer such questions as does rock music corrupt children's morals, and what 'should the government do about it. Zappa feels, however, that the hearings did nothing to resolve the situation; it turned into a vote-gathering Event for the election-minded Republican Senators. It was "a chance to pump it up a little back home," Zappa reminds. "The hearings didn't accomplish anything, except to give some political advertising to a bunch of 'Congressional bozos."

The hearing also heard testimony from the Parents Music Resource Group (PMRC); a group who's prominent members are Tipper Gore (wife of Sen. Albert Gore, a member of the Commerce Committee) and Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker). Mrs. Gore said she had been taken aback when she realized the lyrics to Prince's "Darling Nikki" (which she had bought for her children) contained lines about masturbation. The PMRC has proposed a complete system of labeling, with letters denoting what was offensive about the album (X=Profane or Sexually explicit, O=Occult, D/A=Drugs or Alcohol, V=Violent).

Zappa stresses that the ''Washington Wives" are acting upon a mere 10,000 letters they have received. "Think about it," Zappa mused, "30 million people buy a Michael Jackson "album, and they are not worried that there is a song, on it about torture. Meanwhile, 10,000 people Write to the PNRC, and it goes to Congress! What is going on here? We have 220 million people in America, and they get 10,000 letters ... What are we suppose to do, Stop The World?'"

Fearing possible legislation, the Record Industry Association has "caved in" by suggesting a generic warning sticker ("Parental Guidance - Explicit Lyrics"). A move which has given some record companies a rude surprise. "Some retailers are not carrying marked product," Zappa reads from the pages of a recent Variety. "The stores are saying you put a sticker on it and we're not gonna buy it. Stores are already receiving pressure from outside groups. Which leaves us with two choices: Either the labels are not going to use stickers, or they are only going to record stuff that sounds like Pat Boone.


The whole concept of rating records, Zappa believes, "is for parents who are too lazy to take the time to listen to the albums, or read the lyrics for themselves." Zappa's proposed solution is a simple one: shrink-wrap a lyric sheet to the back cover of all albums, so that parents can decide what is proper, for their kids to hear. But they should not stop at the rock albums, every record with words should have them printed within clear view, because even as we speak "there are probably some paranoid geeks out there who might think that there is something sinister about a Smurf record!"

Zappa has devised his own WARNING/GUARANTEE sticker which can be found on his albums. It reads, in part, "in some socially retarded areas, religious fanatics and ultraconservatives violate your First Amendment rights, by attempting to censor rock and roll albums. We feel that this in un-Constitutional and un-American."

Ratings on albums strip us of our right to decide what is best for us. The First Amendment is based upon the principle that we have the right to choose between divergent points of view, even points of view which are wrong. And by taking the choice out of the consumer's hand, any ratings panel would be infringing upon our rights.

Zappa (the father of four) resents that there would be somebody in an office assessing how smart my kids are. If you are a parent, you know that some kids grow faster in their ability to deal with the real world, while some kids grow very slow. And to stick them all in a blender is not doing anyone any favors.

"It's not like you are listening to elevator music, where you don't have a choice -- where you are stuck in there and you have to listen to it. If the parent is purchasing the record, and they don't want to run the risk of having the young children hearing any mysterious lyrics, there are plenty of other musics to buy: Classical, Jazz, Bluegrass, Instrumental Pop, even Tomita albums! If you are that paranoid, skip the music with words altogether."

But if the child is old enough to put down their own money, they should be able to buy whatever they choose. "They have the right to make up their own mind," Zappa asserts, "and if parents are afraid that kids can't make their own decisions, then they should do something about THAT. That problem comes from the school system. What we need is logic and education. How can you make a sensible decision, unless someone has given you some tools to use? The education system is a joke!"

Another major social structure that Zappa feels needs an overhaul is our National legislature. They turned a serious discussion on major First Amendment infringements into an opportunity to jockey for media limelight. Zappa suggest that if you are old enough, you register to vote, and get these Senators out of office ("I can't do everything from California," he quips). If you are not of age, you should write to your representatives and let them know how you feel.

As a consumer aid, Zappa has set up an Anti-Censorship line. By phoning (818)-PUMPKIN, you will receive a package with info on the PMRC, and a list of the organizations they are lobbying -- so that you can counter-lobby. It has been set up for those of us who "oppose the wives of big brother, and their dangerous programs."

Whether legislation is passed, or not, the wheels are already turning. Record labels are voluntarily rating albums (so that the PMRC won't pester them). Some stores are not carrying rated records (so that their local religious fanatics don't bother them), and your more spineless artists are hiding their respective tales (wondering if they accidentally said something naughty on their last album).

True artists, Zappa contends, need not worry. "If you do art, you take risks. If you make a buck, you bend over.

Zappa believes that artists win over this attempt to censorship (though he warns that album prices will probably go up because of it). The whole situation resulted from a small number of complaints being blown out of proportion. "You know what this is like?" Zappa concludes. "It's not like the tail wagging the dog. This is the flea trying to wag the tail that wishes it could wag the dog!"