Zappa On Rating Records

By Bill Templeton

Music, January 9, 1986

On November 1st, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) and the music industry came to an agreement on the controversy of rating .records. The issue has been splashed in papers and magazines· for months, culminating in Senate Sub-Committee Hearings held in September of last year.

In the center of all this was Frank Zappa, who had volunteered his time by testifying before the subcommittee and has been a relentless opponent of what he calls "right wing ignorance." He's been on an interview binge since September and spoke with MUSIC not long after an agreement to use generic labeling was ratified by both the PMRC and the record industry. Each side termed it a victory, but Zappa insists the industry merely gave in to committee pressure because of the upcoming "Blank Tape Tax" hearings.

Outspoken as always, here's Frank Zappa on everything from ratings to lyrics to Paula Hawkins.


Why are you so interested in this record rating issue to spend this much time doing interviews – something you've never liked to do?

I don't do it because I've suddenly taken up some wonderful love for doing interviews, but I do happen to think that the Constitution is worth fighting for and I think that's what these people are screwing around with.

If I could, let me play devil's advocate on some of these points.

Sure, go ahead. I've heard 'em all.

Do you really believe that this generic labeling agreement we ended up with is really some form of censorship?

Well, let's look at what the results are. Let's look at real facts. The November 1st press conference was not a resolution of a problem, because there is no problem. Right to the heart of the matter, what the PMRC suggests is "a major threat, to civilization," is utterly absurd. They claim that rock music causes murder, suicide, rape, excess teenage pregnancy, and relationships with the devil. Now, there's no science to back this crap up. And furthermore, the number of parents dumb enough to go along with what they were advertising was actually very small. As of September 19th, the date of the Senate Hearings, the PMRC says that they had received only 10,000 letters. Now, 10,000 letters doesn't stack up very well against thirty million units on the last Michael Jackson record.

They're like the Wizard of Oz. It's really just a little schmuck behind the curtain with, a big megaphone. No landslide of parental concern. Most of the people in the country don't give a shit or they think that this is stupid, and the ones that did send money are the same kind of cretins that would send money to a guy in a brown suit who's taking up a collection so that you can go to heaven. There are always people that will invest in that kind of right wing ignorance.

So basically, the issue is a non-issue. This is coupled with the fact that the settlement is a non-settlement. The November 1st press conference was a face-saving pile of PR and what they agreed to is unenforceable. I'll read you a copy of the November 1st Associated Press wire report:

It says: "The parents group will have no role in determining what is explicit Record companies will determine what it explicit. There are no guidelines. Those artists that have contractual control over their packaging are free to ignore the understanding."

So basically, we're talking severe bullshit here. But they have succeeded in placing – to a certain degree – in the mind of the public, the concept that music is the same as pornography. This is a deadly legal concept. Because it means that if music is pornography, then musicians are pornographers.

Now let's say you get a rating on your album which means, in the minds of some of these people, you're a pornographer. Well, you happen to be merely a bass player, right, but you're playing bass on the record of some guy who winds up with a rating or a generic warning. And you go to the bank to get a loan to buy another Volkswagen ... they already think that you're a bad security risk because you're a musician, but what kind of a risk are you if you're a musician/pornographer? It does stigmatize the people that make the music, there's no question about it. And it sets a legal precedent in, a way because it creates the impression that music is pornography and it should be regulated in the same way that an adult book store would be.

But doesn't it really just create that impression for those 10,000 people?

No, it creates an impression in the minds of people who are in a position to do legislation.

Which in this case, didn't really happen.

Wait a minute. You're not looking down the road, buddy. Even the RIAA as greedy as they were in this whole matter, realized right off the bat that one of the problems with the idea of ratings is that Sears and Penney's' won't take a record with a sticker on it. "We don't want these Christians picketing our store."

Well, now they have a generic label and you can still have Christians picketing the stores because it means it's "dirty." There's no end to it.

Isn't this more of a financial issue than a censorship issue?

Well, it's a combination of both. The record industry acted in their own self-interest by caving in because they want to protect the Mathias Bill & HR2911.

The blank tape tax?

Yes, that's the bottom line for them.

I understand the battle, but does this really concern you personally? You're not even stocked in Sears and Penney's.

It doesn't concern me personally in terms of my records because, first of all, they never even attacked any of my lyrics.

Were you surprised by that?

Well, it's a little incongruous. If they want explicit lyrics, I've got 'em coming out of my ears. And some of the things they quoted in there ... I mean, I had to laugh at the Senate when they had Paula Hawkins standing up there trying to shock people by showing them a Twisted Sister video. I mean, who do they think they're kidding?

Was it a circus atmosphere?

Oh, it was stupid. It was utterly stupid. When Paula Hawkins held up a cover of the Wendy O. Williams album, she knew so little about what was really going on there. If you look at the C-Span tapes of the hearings, you'll see her hold up this album and she doesn't know what to say about it. And this little voice in the background says "porn rock," and she says "porn rock". You know, how Ronald Reagan does? I was the same knee-jerk reaction. She was waiting for the cue: And then after she said "porn rock" she still didn't know what to do, so she started to read the names of the songs on the album and here's what comes out: "Porn rock, uh, it's my life and I like sex." I mean, that's how corny all this stuff was and people are supposed to take this kind of thing seriously? I mean, do kids really rush into the stores to buy a Wendy O. Williams album?

When, you got there and saw how stupid it all was, did you wish that you wouldn't have gotten involved in the first place?

No, I knew it was ridiculous before I went in there. But then again, I've done other ridiculous things like ... be a judge on Dance Fever, and I was a guest on What's My Line and Make Me Laugh, so what's ridiculous?

When did you first get the idea for the song "Porn Wars?"

About a week before the master tapes had to be at the plant. I did that whole thing in a week.

This is pretty unusual for you to be capitalizing on a situation like this in terms of publicity 'and' selling product, isn't it?

Why is this capitalizing on a situation? I'm doing the public a service for people who would never pay attention to what they really do in Washington. On this record they get to hear them ... to smell them.

What do you think will happen down the road because of all this? Do you think it will all evaporate or what?

Well, certain parts of it will and certain parts of it won't. You realize that the ordinance that I was raving about in the Hearings, that thing in San Antonio? Well, that passed. It's now a law on the books. A minimum age for a person to see a live rock show in San Antonio. It was drafted as a health ordinance and the minimum age is now thirteen to attend a live rock show.

Look, if you want to believe in the devil and live your life in terror of a guy with red skin, horns on his head, hooves on his feet a tail dangling out, and a pointed stick who wants to make you burn forever... if you want to live your life in fear of an absurdity like that, go ahead! But don't make me do it.

Do you remember your first run in with censorship?

Yeah, on my first album, Freak Out. MGM made me take out the word "psychedelic" on side four. And it's the same kind of crap they're trying to do today.

Read by OCR software. If you spot errors, let me know afka (at)