Sunday, March 10, 2013

American Composer: Frank Zappa's Understanding America

“It's all one album,” Frank Zappa once told journalist Jerry Hopkins in characterizing his work during an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 1968. With only three releases to his credit, and long before he'd come to accumulate close to 100 records of satirical rock, orchestral, ballet, electronic and jazz scores, Zappa already fully grasped the “conceptual continuity” of his project/object. “I could take a razor blade and cut them apart and put it together again in a different order,” he said. “It still would make one piece of music you could listen to.” In 1993, a couple of years before he would die from prostate cancer, Zappa followed through on that suggestion. He took a razor blade to his back catalogue with the purpose of creating a caustic, but passionate musical portrait of the nation that produced him. Understanding America is a two-CD musical anthology unceremoniously put out last fall by Zappa Records through the distribution of Universal (who recently re-released, with huge sonic improvements, his large body of work). But given the little fanfare provided its arrival, you might as well call it The Mystery Disc. The CD comes with a stark 1975 black-and-white photo of the composer on the front cover, a didactic title, no track listing on the back cover, no accounting of the various musicians who play on it, no background notes on the songs (including which year they were recorded and what albums they first appeared on), and scant explanation concerning the context of the new album except for cryptic pronouncements that it's a record about “love, peace, justice and the American way.” (Its very design prompted a friend of mine who saw it to ask: “Is this a bootleg?”)

If the proposed audience for Understanding America is the Zappa fan, it might make sense to avoid redundancies by leaving out information that's already been absorbed into the DNA of the initiated. But what will the uninitiated make of this release? Some fans have already panned the album on websites and chat rooms complaining that it uses the old reverb-drenched digital mixes instead of the new cleaner and dryer ones (but what other mixes would he use since Zappa sequenced this release while he was still alive?). They're also arguing about the inclusions of some songs and the omissions of others (as if this were yet another 'greatest hits' package). How about the new listeners to Zappa's music? Since it's unlikely to get reviewed by contemporary pop critics, Understanding America not only doesn't stand a chance of being understood, it likely won't be realized either. And that would be a huge loss. Drawing from a vast and varied selection of Zappa's compositions, Understanding America is a musical jig-saw puzzle piecing together a political heritage embroidered with assassinations, deep racial divisions, religious zealotry, cultural elitism, and witch hunts. (The album traces chronologically – with a couple of detours – the dramatic changes in the political and social landscape from the era of Lyndon Johnson to the end of the first Bush presidency.) It also provides a unified field theory of Zappa's disparate selection of songs. Understanding America gives listeners a perceptively potent framework; one in which to examine the conflicting characteristics of American life, as well as providing a completely new contextual ground in which to experience Frank Zappa's music. One of the great ironies of Understanding America, however, is that the work included on it ended up embraced more by dissidents behind the original Iron Curtain (who even did prison time for embracing it) than by Americans deprived of his music by radio stations who censored it. Understanding America sets out to test the strengths of American democracy, too, by holding the country to the promises held in its founding documents by primarily shedding light on its failings. And because of Zappa's openness to such diverse musical genres, he draws from a huge storehouse of self-expression to do so.

By actually combining serious contemporary music with rock, jazz, and social and political satire, Frank Zappa became one of North America's most ambitious artists. No musical ghetto could contain or define him, and no sacred cow or social group was beyond his reach. Zappa created a unique and sophisticated form of musical comedy by integrating into the canon of 20th-Century music the scabrous wit of comedian Lenny Bruce and added to it the irreverent clowning of Spike Jones. His body of work, both solo and with his band, The Mothers of Invention, presented musical history through the kaleidoscopic lens of social satire, and then he turned it into farce. Zappa poked fun at middle-class conformity (Freak Out!), the Sixties counter-culture (We're Only in it for the Money), disco (Sheik Yerbouti), the rock industry (Tinsel Town Rebellion), and the Reagan era (You Are What You Is). He was just as content writing inspired orchestral compositions – performed by the London Symphony and the Ensemble Modern – as he was writing seemingly dumb little ditties like “Dinah-Moe Humm” or “Valley Girl.” He could just as readily quote contemporary classical giants like Igor Stravinsky, Charles Ives, Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern; or blues greats like Johnny 'Guitar' Watson and 'Guitar' Slim; not to mention, doo-wop groups like The Channels and Jackie & The Starlites. Yet it was these paradoxical elements that the North American mass audience rarely had the chance to engage. The name Frank Zappa instead conjured up the image of a deranged, cynical, and obscene satirist rather than a composer with an impious, yet utopian, ambition to close the divide between high and low culture. People preferred, usually out of ignorance (and often contempt), to portray Zappa as a fetishist with a predilection for adolescent humour (“Don't Eat the Yellow Snow”), and one who possessed a leering smugness (“Broken Hearts are for Assholes”), rather than deal with the specific points of what these individual songs were actually about.

“One of the things that always impressed me about Zappa, besides just the delight with his rhythmic invention, was that he didn't allow anything to be beyond him – high culture, low culture,” said Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons. Whether it was in his most scatological songs like "Bobby Brown Goes Down," his political attacks on Christian fundamentalism ("Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk"), or even his testimony before Congress fighting the censorship apparatus known as the Parents' Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the Eighties, Zappa clearly identified the inherent contradictions in American democracy. (The censorship arm of the PMRC wasn't launched by Moral Majority Republicans, who would support it, but by liberal Democrats.) The songs on Understanding America provide an intricate map of those incongruities. But where popular political artists like Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg, U2, or Rage Against the Machine, tend to make their art explicitly partisan, Zappa's political music transcended the rallying nature of the topical song. He already understood how popular music, borne out of commercial and marketing demands, could always be co-opted by corporate interests who could sell listeners anything deemed fashionable. "Unlike Sting and U2, who ask us to admire their actions on our behalf, Zappa sets up a series of questions about meaning and its social control that encourage our speculation," wrote Ben Watson in his book, Frank Zappa's Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play. Which is why Zappa doesn't identify with the "correct" view in many of his songs; instead, he provides a setting that causes listeners to raise queries about what they are consuming. His music, according to Watson, is "an anathema to liberalism, which thinks that only commitment to certain pre-selected 'ideas' separates the the saved from the damned."

Zappa often picked subjects and people that unnerved listeners who wanted to strongly identify with the artist. “Frank persisted in discussing all those subjects that made people squirm – politics, sex, religion, whatever,” remarked Jill Christiansen, who was the catalogue development for Rykodisc (where Zappa's huge collection was made available on CD in the Eighties and Nineties). “He demanded that you think.” Understanding America makes similar demands on us to think because it isn't just a collection of favourite tunes that take you on a nostalgic tour down memory lane. The album provokes your involvement with its theme because even if you try to “squirm” away from the words, the music leaves you no room to escape. “Something happens...when satiric or erotic texts are sung to powerful music,” wrote poet Ed Sanders, the founder of The Fugs, on Zappa's satirical strategy. “[It] raises their ability both to thrill and excite as well as to prick censorious ears.” It's in those goals that Understanding America succeeds most.

Understanding America opens with “Hungry Freaks, Daddy,” the very first song on Zappa's debut album, Freak Out! (1966). It's a prophetic anthem that sets the tone for both the record and the composer's utopian goals. “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” begins with the inverse of the guitar chords that began The Rolling Stones' great hit “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction” and then launches into a full-frontal assault on America's stagnant culture (“Philosophy that turns away/From those who aren't afraid to say what's on their minds/The left-behinds of the Great Society”). The Great Society (a term invented by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to describe his ideal America) is already deemed false by 1966, so Zappa sees no reason to feel forsaken. But there is a significant difference in the perspective of both songs. “(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction,” released a year earlier in 1965, speaks basically to a state of alienation in the listener. Mick Jagger is expressing frustration at being betrayed by the promises of consumer culture. Zappa is talking directly to the disenfranchised listener, not an alienated one. Jagger may feel cheated because conforming to corporate ideals doesn't make him terribly happy, but the singer in “Hungry Freaks, Daddy” isn't betrayed by the false blandishments offered by the culture. He's already rejected them.

If the false promises of The Great Society are expressed in the opening track, we are introduced to the President himself in the next tune, "Plastic People," originally the first song on Absolutely Free (1967). As a drum roll kicks in, Zappa introduces Lyndon Johnson, just as singer Ray Collins, in the voice of LBJ, addresses the crowd: "Mah fella Americans..." We then hear the intrusive opening notes of Richard Berry's "Louie Louie." Zappa had incorporated "Louie Louie" (a staple for every bar band) as a stock idiom in just about every album he recorded, but it wasn't out of malice to Berry. On the contrary, it was included as a snide indictment of how this lovely Fifties R&B song (with its musical roots in Chuck Berry's lilting Latin melody of "Havana Moon") got turned into a ridiculous frat-house hit in 1963 by an Oregon group called The Kingsmen. (By mangling the words of Berry's song, The Kingsmen famously raised the possibilities of perverse sexual fantasies in the lyrics which drew the attention of the FBI and the FCC who conducted an obscenity investigation.) In doing his own variation of the Kingsmen version of the "Louie Louie," Zappa shows us that even the President of the United States isn't safe from this pervasive song – and neither is the rest of the nation. But "Plastic People" mostly addresses the conformity that Zappa saw creeping into the very counter-culture that he celebrated in "Hungry Freaks, Daddy." He also sees conformity infecting love affairs where truly romantic encounters start to fall victim to trendsetting. (Understanding America continually shifts from song to song, and even within each track, between the political and the personal, revealing that the dynamics of sexual and social politics are often one in the same.) Throughout the tune, Zappa doesn't mince words about how dangerous succumbing to authoritarian ideas can be. In retrospect, "Plastic People" even has a chilling prescience. Just consider these lyrics written only a few years before American Nazis fought to win their Constitutional right to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois:

Take a day and walk around
Watch the Nazis run your town
Then go home and check yourself
You think we're singing about someone else.

"Plastic People" would take on a larger significance when countries in the Eastern bloc, living under authoritarian Communism, adopted it as their anthem. When Zappa was touring heavily in Europe after the song was recorded, a few fans from Czechoslovakia came across the Austrian border to hear his concerts in Vienna. They told Zappa after the show that the song was responsible for inspiring a whole movement of dissidents growing within their country. One of those rebels was Milan Hlavsa, a Czech rock star, who was the co-founder of an underground band called The Plastic People of the Universe. They supported various other democratic radicals in their music, including playwright Vaclav Havel, during the Seventies and Eighties.

In the next song, "Mom & Dad" (from We're Only in it for the Money), Zappa shifts his attention from the rebellion of adolescents to the complacency of the parents. In this case, it's about a middle-class couple sitting at home drinking who come to learn that their daughter has been shot dead by the police while protesting in the park. Zappa reveals a naked ambivalence towards simply taking sides in this mournful ballad. Yet he still manages to level with every stratum of the culture as he documents the cultural wars of the Sixties. The drinking parents, hiding behind their appearances, end up intrinsically linked to their drug-addled kids ("Ever tell your kids you're glad that they can think/Every say you love them/Ever let 'em watch you drink"). As if to anticipate the obvious question faced when the guns of the authorities get turned on their own citizens, he follows "Mom & Dad" with "It Can't Happen Here" (from Freak Out!). "It Can't Happen Here" is an absurdist a cappella number reminiscent of a barbershop quartet. But there is nothing harmonious in the sound, or in the content of the song. "It Can't Happen Here," not coincidently, is also the title of the 1935 anti-fascist novel by Sinclair Lewis. In the track, though, the tinge of romantic paranoia ends up inseparable from the absurdity of its social observations. "Who are the Brain Police?" (also from Freak Out!) then introduces with full portentousness why it can happen here: the acceptance of an authoritarian mindset ("What would you do if we let you go home?/And the plastic's all melted and so is the chrome"). As the bass throbs and creaking jail doors seem to surround singer Ray Collins, the idea of plastic also includes the record vinyl, addressing the fetishizing of the product itself in the age of LPs ("What will you do when the label comes off?"). Zappa satirizes the manner in which listeners identify with the music on the album in their quest to form an identity.

"Who Needs the Peace Corps?" (from We're Only in it for the Money) is one of the funniest, yet stinging analysis of the hippie movement and the drug culture that immobilized them ("I'll love everyone/I'll love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street"). Since the hippie culture was born in San Francisco, the melody also carries the hopeful spirit of Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." However, Zappa dispenses with any romantic attachments and more boldly links the passivity of hippie altruism to its ultimate collusion with the authoritarian powers of government. "The single most important [lesson of the Sixties] is that LSD was a scam promoted by the CIA and the people in Haight-Ashbury, who were idols of people across the world as examples of revolution and outrage and progress, when they were mere dupes of the CIA," Zappa told biographer Neil Slaven reminding him of the government mind-altering experiments dosing people with LSD in sleep rooms beginning in the early Fifties. The government itself becomes the subject of the mini-opera "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" (from Absolutely Free) which is also about what Zappa called "people who run the governments, the people who make the laws that keep you from living the kind of life you know you should lead." "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" is a seven-and-a-half minute opus paced at the speed of a Loony Tunes cartoon, and is filled with enough musical quotes and references to inspire a dozen oratorios (the quotes range wildly from The Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" to Charles Ives). While "Brown Shoes Don't Make It" is a scathing indictment of how authoritarian attitudes are formed, it is also a jab at the sexual revolution of the late Sixties.

Zappa continues his assault on the government in "Concentration Moon" (from We're Only in it for the Money) which attacks the police for its blatant brutality against the hippies ("American Way/How did it start/Thousands of creeps/Killed in the park"). Where "Concentration Moon" significantly anticipated, three years before it happened, the tragic shooting and killing of four students by National Guardsmen at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, the next song, "Trouble Every Day" (from Freak Out!), was a response to the August 1965 race riot in the inner city of Watts – a revolt of such magnitude that it gained worldwide attention. The casual arrest of a black motorist in Los Angeles was the spark that set off this powder keg of frustration. The Watts uprising, brought on by neglect, black unemployment, discrimination, poverty, plus brutality by the L.A. police, raged on for six days. During that week, 10,000 angry people turned Watts into an inferno. As viewers watched on television, rioters burned cars and buildings and looted stores while the riot police were pelted with stones, attacked with knives, and shot at. The National Guard was finally called in, and by the time order was restored, thirty-four people were dead, hundreds were injured, and over 4,000 arrested. Although "Trouble Every Day" shares much of the outrage and purpose of the protests songs of the time, it is also a blistering blues track that spares neither side:

Well, I seen the fires burnin'
And the local people turnin'
On the merchants and the shops
Who used to sell their brooms and mops
And every other household item
Watched a mob just turn and bite 'em
And they say it served 'em right
Because a few of them are white,
And it's the same across the nation
Black and white discrimination
Yellin' "You can't understand me!"

Watts 1965

"Trouble Every Day" is filled with many unresolved contradictions – the kind that deprive the listener of the satisfaction of pumping a fist in the air out of solidarity. Heard today, it's just as relevant to understanding the Rodney King riots of the Nineties as it was to capturing Watts in 1965. (It's amazing that no rap artist has ever covered this tune because the lyrics, which are set in the blues, have the propulsive vocal rhythms of a great rap song.) The following number, "You're Probably Wondering Why I'm Here" (from Freak Out!) blows raspberries (in the form of kazoos) in the direction of the uncritical pop audiences at concerts. But what it actually does more successfully is set up the next song, "We're Turning Again" (from Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention), a riposte aimed at the counter-culture of the Sixties. It's here that Understanding America takes its first chronological detour from the music of that turbulent decade by introducing a song recorded in the Eighties. "We're Turning Again," as music critic Chris Federico correctly implied in his work Zappology, is a play on Pete Seeger/The Byrds' "Turn, Turn, Turn," a staple of Sixties idealism. The significance of "We're Turning Again," besides satirizing the failure of the Sixties idealism, is to also remind us that it was Ronald Reagan who was committed to wiping out Sixties reform (even back during that period when he was governor of California). Zappa unleashes an unsparing attack, however, on the pseudo-innocence of the hippie counter-culture, with its naive belief in the goodness of putting flowers in the National Guardsmen's guns:

They're walkin' 'round 
With stupid flowers in their hair
They tried to stuff 'em up the guns
Of all the cops and other servants of the law
Who tried to push 'em around
And later mowed 'em down.

Kent State 1970 (Photo by John Paul Filo)
This portion of "We're Turning Again" refers specifically to Allison Krause, one of the victims of the Kent State shootings, who the day before her death, put a flower in the barrel of a Guardsman's rifle, saying, "Flowers are better than bullets." The earlier inclusion on Understanding America of "Mom & Dad" (which clearly anticipated Kent State) is echoed in "We're Turning Again" which more explicitly spells out how Kent State contributed to the death of the Sixties counter-culture. Zappa may be at his most sarcastic here, especially towards the decade's tragic icons – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Keith Moon and Mama Cass Elliot – but he's also aware that, compared to the music heard on radio stations in the Eighties, something of true value had also been lost:

Everybody come back
No one can do it like you used to
If you listen to the radio
And what they play today
You can tell right away
All those assholes really need you.

Zappa saw that, by the Eighties, radio formatting had changed the medium dramatically from a musical outlet into an advertising vehicle.

After "We're Turning Again," which puts the Sixties soundly to bed, the next couple of songs ("Road Ladies" and "What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?") usher in the post-Sixties hangover when Zappa turned to examine areas of self-gratification in the Seventies. When he first broke up the original Mothers of Invention, Zappa put together a new, vaudevillian band (featuring Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the former lead singers in The Turtles) whose satirical strategies centred more on the sexual exploits of rock stars and groupies. As well as recognizing the dramatic changes in the rock & roll culture, with its evolving folklore, he was also taking a page out of Lenny Bruce. Aside from his social criticism, Bruce had also radicalised stage comedy by bringing into his onstage routines the sleazy backstage world of stand-up (highlighted in his amazing "Palladium" number). This strategy gave his work a discomfiting vitality because it confronted audiences with routines that raised questions in them about what is funny and what isn't. Zappa would also do likewise as he chronicled the moribund state of rock culture in the Seventies, including the sexual desperation and megalomaniacal qualities of both stars and promoters. Critic Ben Watson accurately captured this new Zappa ensemble as "designed to expose backstage events at precisely the time when rock was turning into a patronizing spectacle of cosmic proportions." If the Sixties gave us performers who had (despite the drugs) imagined a better country in their music, the new rock in the Seventies gave us "sweaty, horny pop stars whose main interest was in getting laid." The criticism in the rock press towards songs like "Dinah Moe-Humm" (also included on Understanding America), where the goal of the singer is to bet a woman he meets on the road that he can make her cum, came from an exalted view of what rock should be. This is why they dismissed the song as juvenile. But what Zappa was doing was uncovering the reality of rock's low road as a way of exposing some of the hypocrisies in taking the high road.

The second disc of Understanding America opens with "I'm the Slime" (from Over-nite Sensation). The song's subject – television – was seen by many as too easy a target to criticise. But Zappa provides a compelling ambiguity here by identifying with the very object he's attacking. He portrays himself as the slime (even on the front cover of Over-nite Sensation, his scowling face is seen dripping from a TV tube). Singing in a menacing and reverberating whisper, Zappa plays havoc with the listener by assuming a devil-doll role not unlike Joel Gray's MC in Cabaret.

I'm vile and pernicious
But you can't look away
I make you think I'm delicious
With the stuff that I say.

Zappa follows that 1973 song with "Be in My Video" (from 1984's Them or Us album) where the pernicious slime has now distorted our intimate relationship with music in this hilarious swipe at MTV culture and rock videos. Cleverly, Zappa performs the song as a Fifties doo-wop number which reminds the listener of rock's hopeful beginnings in that decade before those ideals became corrupted. He fires barbs at the videos of Peter Gabriel ("I will rent a cage for you/With mi-j-i-nits dressed in white") and David Bowie ("Let'd dance the blues/Under the megawatt moonlight"), even though both artists actually worked imaginatively within the form. But his chief purpose behind "Be in My Video" was to expose the worst excesses of rock video narratives:

You can show your legs
While you're getting in the car
Then I will look repulsive
While I mangle my guitar.

On Understanding America's next track, "I Don't Even Care" (from Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention), Zappa reaches back again to the Fifties to resurrect one of his R&B heroes, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, to sing this propulsive number about a growing political and economic impoverishment.

Listen! Standin' in the bread line
Everybody learnin' lyin'
Ain't nobody doin' fine
Let me tell you why
I don't even care.

The song carries such an angry bite that it's obvious the singer indeed does care, which makes the track more faithful to the punk aesthetic of refusal than most punk songs celebrated for doing so. "Can't Afford No Shoes" (from One Size Fits All) further examines the Seventies economic recession while showing how the Seventies generation at root was simply looking to survive ("Can't afford no shoes/Maybe there's a bundle of rags that I could use/Hey anybody, can you spare a dime/If you're really hurtin', a nickel would be fine"). Out of the spiritual and economic depression, though, Zappa takes us into the Eighties with "Heavenly Bank Account" and "Dumb All Over" (from You Are What You Is). In these tracks, Zappa unveils the rise of the born again Christians. There had always been a strain of messianic preoccupation in the Sixties counter-culture (expressed in films like Easy Rider). During that time, Jesus became a symbolic hippie doomed to crucifixion by the power structure, as he was in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Songs like "Put Your Hand in the Hand" by Ocean, "Day by Day" from Godspell, "Signs" by the Five Man Electrical Band, and "Spirit in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum further drew the link that led many disillusioned social activists  instead to a life of religious deification. But Zappa recognizes also that this hippie romanticism had shifted in the Eighties: the hippie Christ had now been swallowed whole by the yuppie Christ. Those born again were now finding salvation in the mighty dollar. To exploit that desire, the Moral Majority, which was founded in 1979 (and whose name was drawn from Richard Nixon's silently conservative constituents), dedicated themselves to aligning the Church with the State.With the help of Ronald Reagan in 1980, they quickly infiltrated the Republican Party and began dictating policies that bore the strong influence of fundamentalist Christianity:

Cause he helps put The Fear of God
In the Common Man
Snatchin' up money
Everywhere he can
Oh yeah
Oh yeah

He's got twenty million dollars
In his Heavenly Bank Account.

"Dumb All Over,"a great rap number, goes further into showing how religion has done little to foster world harmony, but instead has created a litany of bloodshed:

You can't run a country
By a book of religion
Not by a heap
Or a lump or a smidgeon
Of foolish rules
Of ancient date
Designed to make
You all feel great
While you fold, spindle
And mutilate
Those unbelievers
From a neighbouring state.

If Marx once described religion as the opiate of the people, Zappa says in "Cocaine Decisions" (from The Man From Utopia) that another white powder would become the drug of choice in the Eighties ("Cocaine decisions/You are a person with a snow job/You got a fancy gotta-go job/Where the cocaine decision that you make today/Will mean that millions somewhere else/Will do it your way").Cultural critic Camille Paglia, in Sex, Art and American Culture, also examined the role of cocaine in the new yuppie revolution. "In the Sixties, LSD gave vision, while marijuana gave community," she writes. "But coke, pricey and jealously hoarded, is the power drug, giving a rush of omnipotent self-assurance. Work done under its influence is manic, febrile, choppy, disconnected." In "Cocaine Decisions," Zappa identifies the omnipotent culprit behind that incoherence expressed by those who would come to shape the nature of political and cultural power in the Eighties (and would eventually contribute to plummeting us into the global fiscal crisis in the 21st Century).

"Promiscuous" (from Broadway the Hard Way) is Frank Zappa's first explicit rap song (but unfortunately it isn't as potent as "Trouble Every Day" or "Dumb All Over"). The track tackles the AIDs epidemic as explained by Ronald Reagan's Surgeon-General Everett Koop. In "Promiscuous," Zappa questions Koop's prognosis of the deadly disease. "He speculated about a native who wanted to eat a green monkey, who skinned it, cut his finger, and some of the green monkey's blood got into his blood. The next thing you know, you have this blood-to-blood transmission of the disease," he told Playboy. "I mean, this is awfully fucking thin. It's right up there with Grimm's Fairy Tales." What Zappa fails to acknowledge, however, is that even though Koop was an evangelical Christian conservative, he went against the grain of right-wing supporters by endorsing the use of condoms and sex education to slow the spread of AIDs. He even disturbed Reagan constituents by providing information on AIDs to over 100 million Americans in 1988. Koop also encouraged sex education for children beginning in the third grade.

Zappa's explanation for the AIDs epidemic (which he explores in the next track from his 1984 musical Thing-Fish) ties the epidemic to government experiments in genetic mutation. Fully aware of the LSD experiments conducted by the U.S. government on civilians in the Fifties and Sixties, Zappa felt that the government hadn't abandoned their covert experiments. Furthermore, they may have hatched a mutation of bacteria that inadvertently caused a strain that affected individuals by attacking their immune system. Since the epidemic arrived just when fundamentalist Christianity had found their legitimacy in the Republican Party, AIDs could then be perceived and sold by the Moral Majority as being part of God's plan to punish the wicked. (On television, during that decade, religious leaders like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell continuously claimed that AIDs was divine retribution from God on its very victims: homosexuals, prostitutes and intravenous drug users.)

After the "Thing-Fish Intro," Zappa goes back in time on Understanding America to his 1979 rock opera Joe's Garage and introduces us to the authoritarian Central Scrutinizer who passes government laws. Joe's Garage is about how the government might wish to do away with music because it is a cause of unwanted mass behaviour. "Environmental laws were not passed to protect our air and water...they were passed to get votes," Zappa writes in the album's liner notes. "Seasonal anti-smut campaigns are not conducted to rid our communities of moral rot...they are conducted to give an aura of saintliness to the office-seekers who demand them." He goes on to say that if listeners find the plot of Joe's Garage to be a bit too preposterous, "just be glad you don't live in one of those cheerful little countries where, at this very moment, music is either severely restricted...or, as it is in Iran, totally illegal." But, by 1985, Zappa found that the United States had become one of those "cheerful" countries where music could indeed be "severely restricted" by an organization called the PMRC.

The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) was a committee that had the stated goal of increasing parental control over the access of children to music deemed to be violent, or sexual, by labelling albums with Parental Advisory stickers. The group was founded by four women: Tipper Gore (the wife of senator and later Vice-President Al Gore); Pam Howar (wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar); Susan Baker (wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker); and Sally Nevius (wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius). The censorial activities of this group were originally inspired by a precociously gifted pop artist from Minneapolis named Prince, who caused a stir with a song from his Purple Rain soundtrack album called "Darling Nikki" (which had a reference to a young girl masturbating with a magazine). Tipper Gore, who bought the album for her eight-year-old daughter, was horrified when the lyric was brought to her attention. So she decided that something must be done through government legislation to protect children from what she found to be unacceptable music. "What we are talking about is a sick strain of rock music glorifying everything from forced sex to bondage to rape," she told Rolling Stone in 1985. The PMRC soon after put together a list of offending songs which included (along with "Darling Nikki"), Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls," Judas Priest's "Eat Me Alive," AC/DC's "Let Me Put My Love Into You," and W.A.S.P.'s "Animal (Fuck Like a Beast)." The list also reached absurd levels of musical ignorance when tunes like Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" and Captain and Tennille's "Do That to Me One More Time" also made the cut. 

The PMRC within a short time lobbied Congress for strict legislation on record labeling. But instead of having Prince, Bruce Springsteen, or Sheena Easton going on the warpath to Washington to defend their work, it was Frank Zappa, Dee Snider (of Twisted Sister) and folkie John Denver who took charge. (Zappa's songs didn't even appear on their list.) Out of the testimony he did before Congress in September 1985 came a piece called "Porn Wars" (from Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention). This extended piece of sophisticated sampling draws on taped excerpts from the hearings that are speeded up, looped, and layered over-top of one another. The electronic percussive sounds of a synclavier provide a musical bed for the vocal calamity. Zappa's tape experiments, which he first explored with a Dadaist splendour in the Sixties, came to anticipate the politically volatile work heard later in dub poetry, hip-hop and rap.

Using the voices of the various senators at the hearing, in a manner that makes their grandiose statements sound robotic and dehumanizing, Zappa brings out the chilling implications of their intent. But he also deftly parodies the monotony of the endless fascination with the questionable lyrics, repeating loops (for instance) of Senator Paula Hawkins' talking about "fire and chains and other objectionable tools of gratifications." "Porn Wars" deserves a place alongside the work of other contemporary composers such as Steve Reich, who early in his career had worked ingeniously with tape-looped voices and music in "It's Gonna Rain" and "Come Out to Show Them" (where he created abstract music out of the timbre of the spoken word). On Understanding America, Zappa extends the original piece (titled here as "Porn Wars Deluxe") by inserting even more sections from the hearings. He also strategically edits into the work various songs from his catalogue (including snippets from tracks we have already heard earlier on Understanding America like "It Can't Happen Here" and "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"). The effect creates a fascinating full circle that further gives new contextual meaning to the very work we had just been re-experiencing in its new setting. Fans will no doubt also notice that some tracks on Understanding America have been edited down, or cut before they conclude, so that each song segues perfectly into the next.

The album could have successfully concluded here, but Zappa decides to go out on "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk" (from Broadway the Hard Way). In this song, he uses some of the same strategies once employed by Spike Jones (where Jones would use references to familiar songs to spring jokes). Zappa embroiders into this track iconic pieces of Americana like "The Old Rugged Cross," Stephen Foster's "Dixie," Franz von Suppe's "Light Cavalry Overture," the theme from The Twilight Zone, and (of course) "Louie Louie," to attack the piety of the Christian televangelists. Zappa even goes so far as to tie the Moral Majority's policies to what he sees as their Ku Klux Klan heritage by borrowing an unforgettable image from Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit":

If you ain't born again,
They wanna mess you up, screamin':
"No abortion, no-siree!"
"Life's too precious, can't you see!"
(What's that hangin' from a neighbor's tree?)
Why, it looks like 'colored folks' to me.

"Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk" is the shadow version of Elvis Presley's "An American Trilogy" (where songwriter Mickey Newbury included "Dixie," "Battle Hymn of the Republic" and "All My Trials"). Rather than nostalgically celebrate the country through a combined history of its songs, however, Zappa exposes the corruption he thinks those songs continue to hide.

I can't think of any other contemporary American composer who has reorganized his earlier work with the desire to tell a story about his country. Back in the late Seventies, in his 3-LP opus, Decade, Neil Young did something similar to Zappa. But on that album, Young drew for us a compelling picture of how he became the singer/songwriter we knew. On Understanding America, Zappa looks out into the nation itself rather inside himself to assess his own evolution as an artist. And though his judgements are as harsh as they are sometimes brutally funny, his views are anything but cynical about the electoral process. (At the end of "Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk," a live recording from the 1988 tour where he was registering people to vote, he encourages the audience to get out into the lobby at intermission and do so.) Greil Marcus, in his book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock 'n' Roll Music, once looked out at his country to examine its moral prerogatives through the music it created. "America is a trap: that its promises and dreams, all mixed up as love and politics and landscape, are too much to live up to and too much too escape," he wrote. Although the American political landscape is indeed deeply rooted in this Puritan heritage, Understanding America offers proof that America's best music, movies and paintings have always been brave attempts to refute it.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.


  1. Excellent treatise on this work, Kevin, I look forward to delving deeper into it....I will also re-listen to some of my favourite Zappa tracks with new "ears" .


  2. Great article, googled 'frank zappa rage against the machine' on the hopes of finding a correlation between the two (just finished watching zappa's and dee snider's testimonies at the PMRC trials (sp?)). Surprised to find this was only written just over a week ago. Power to the power of music! Gonna save this one, and then maybe make my own Great Statement in art or music. Peace!