Frank Zappa: Crap Detector


Date:    Tue, 07 Feb 1995 14:07:14 -0600 (CST)
[from]   PALMERI@vaxa.cis.uwosh.edu
Subject: Frank Zappa: Crap Detector

A student turned me on to a 1988 musical release by the
late Frank Zappa.  Below is a brief review/criticism of
the work.  During this shift to the "right," Zappa's work
seems especially missed today.

Tony Palmeri



              Comedic Crap Detection: Frank Zappa's

                     "Broadway The Hard Way"

                               by

                          Tony Palmeri


Described by the _Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music_
(1992) as a "sophisticated, serious composer . . . with a
remarkable sense of humor" (p. 2770), the late Frank Zappa
added a comic touch to a collection of issue-oriented songs
released in 1988 as "Broadway The Hard Way."  With biting
satire throughout, the album takes on America's obsession
with cultural icons ("Elvis Has Just Left The Building"),
shallow executives ("Planet of the Baritone Women"), Madison
Avenue exploitation of women ("Any Kind Of Pain"),
Republican party lies and liars ("Dickie's Such An Asshole";
"When The Lie's So Big"; "The Untouchables"), Jesse Jackson
as a "naughty Democrat" ("Rhymin' Man"), the AIDS mystery
("Promiscuous"), Michael Jackson's inflated ego ("Why Don't
You Like Me"), government opposition to Zappa's political
activities ("Bacon Fat"), double standards in prostitution-
prosecution ("Jezebel Boy"), twisted music industry
executives ("Outside Now"), homelessness ("Hot-Plate Heaven
At The Green Hotel"), and the hypocrisy of television
preachers ("What Kind Of Girl"; "Jesus Thinks You're A
Jerk").  Rock singer Sting also joins the band for a
performance of the Jimmy Swaggart condemned "Murder By
Numbers."  As a whole, the lyrical content of the songs
reveal Zappa as one of the great "comedic crap detectors" in
the tradition of Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Dick
Gregory.

Zappa's music adds a dimension to his message not found in
the straight comedy of the entertainers mentioned above.
From the beginning of his career, Zappa surrounded himself
with high-quality musicians.  The 12-piece outfit gathered
for "Broadway" is no exception.  The band is comfortable in
a variety of musical styles, including jazz, blues, rock,
and even hip-hop.  Most of the songs employ styles in ways
that help to emphasize the lyrical message.  For example,
Zappa's indictment of Iran/Contra characters is spoken
against Nelson Riddle's "Untouchables" theme.  Several songs
also lend support to the Guinness Encyclopedia's claim that
Zappa is " one of the great guitar players of our time" (p.
2770).


FRANK ZAPPA: COMEDIC CRAP DETECTOR

In _Teaching as a Subversive Activity_ (1969), Neil Postman
and Charles Weingartner argued that "crap detectors" have
played a key role in history:

     One way of looking at the history of the human
     group is that it has been a continuing struggle
     against the veneration of 'crap.'  Our
     intellectual history is a chronicle of the anguish
     and suffering of men who tried to help their
     contemporaries see that some part of their fondest
     beliefs were misconceptions, faulty assumptions,
     superstitions, and even outright lies. (p. 3).

In the progressive educational spirit of the late 60s,
Postman and Weingartner hoped that crap detection could
become a central doctrine of the "new education."  The new
education never did come to dominate the schools, which is
part of the reason why Zappa's common sense, comedic crap
detecting is still perceived as "controversial."

Zappa finds crap in America's most sacred institutions and
"respected individuals."  Of Jesse Jackson, he says:


     They say when Dr. King got shot,
     Jesse hatched an evil plot,
     Dipped his hands in the Doctor's blood
     and rubbed his shirt like playing with mud
     Looked round for all the press, and said
     'Check me out, my name is Jess'


Of more "conservative" television preachers, Zappa warns:


     If you let those tv preachers
     make a monkey out of you
     I said Jesus will think you're a jerk!
     And it will be true!


Of the AIDS crisis, Zappa offers this opinion:


     A little green monkey over there
     kills a million people?
     That's not fair!
     Did it really go that way?
     Did you ask the C.I.A?
     Would they take you serious,
     Or have THEY been
     Promiscuous


Zappa's songs assert his right of intellectual independence,
to not be bound to any particular set of "left" or "right"
ideas or icons.  Like all crap detectors, Zappa's message
ultimately encourages behaviors not conducive to the
maintenance of a couch-potato culture.  As a result,
commercial radio and Music Television--two of the "keepers
of the couch potato," effectively censor Zappa's comedic
crap detecting.

CONCLUSION:

Folk singer Arlo Guthrie has said that he pictures the
singing of social protest songs as a kind of holding of
one's hand out into the future to join with someone reaching
back into the past to locate an activist role-model.  Zappa
clearly serves such a role.  His activism went beyond the
making of political records: besides heavy involvement in
voter registration, he was one of the major voices against
calls for artistic censorship in the 1980s.  Much like the
late Paul Robeson, Zappa the politician was much more
respected outside the United States.  Long admired by Vaclav
Havel, in 1991 Zappa became the Czechoslovakian "Cultural
Liasison Officer" with the West.

"Broadway The Hard Way", and many other Zappa works,
deserve a much wider audience.  As the "right" gains wider
control of America's sociopolitical institutions, Zappa's
brand of crap detection is sorely missed.


References

Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1969).  _Teaching As A
     Subversive Activity_.  New York: Dell Publishing Co.,
     Inc.

"Zappa, Frank" in _The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular
     Music_.  Chester, CT: New England Publishing
     Associates, 1992, 2768- 2770.

Zappa, Frank (1989). "Broadway The Hard Way".  Barking
     Pumpkin Records.


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