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“”Frank governs with Elmore James on his left and Stravinsky on his right.
|—Tom Waits, 2005|
His lyrics were controversial, even by today's standards. Starting with the anti-establishment/anti-war zeitgeist of the 1960s, the message of his music changed over time, criticizing the United States government, religious conservatism, televangelists, and homophobia. While some of his lyrics superficially appeared to be blatantly anti-Semitic, sexist, racist, and/or homophobic, the keen ear will detect the ultimately satirical nature of the songs. Zappa was usually trying to ridicule narrow-mindedness in all its forms.
Zappa was no fan of politicians of any stripe; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were favorite targets. Two live albums, Broadway the Hard Way and Frank Zappa in New York, are good showcases of his politically-informed songs. His snark was not restricted to Republicans; Democrats like Jesse Jackson were also targets. That most of his political music criticized Republicans is more evident of the party's political dominance of the 1960s, 70s and 80s than any personal political convictions (he considered running for president in the 1980s)—the cause he championed was democracy.
Zappa described himself as a "practical conservative"; he was basically a libertarian (small government, lower taxes) though he was not known to call himself a libertarian and was a registered Democrat.
Zappa was also a notable example of an artist who desired to be judged on his works, not on image. He never made any Sexiest Man Alive rankings, except maybe his own.
Zappa was an outspoken opponent of the Christian Right from the outset, and in songs such as "Heavenly Bank Account" Zappa advocated removing the tax-exempt status from religious organizations. He was contemptuous of the hypocrisy of fundamentalists, as demonstrated in the song "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk" (1988):
Apart from the controversial nature of the lyrics, his compositions are extremely cerebral, many using alternate, changing or overlapping time signatures, strange chord progressions and unorthodox musical techniques. A throng of musicians toured and recorded with Zappa over his career, many of them making big names for themselves for having been "schooled" in Zappa's style of musical adeptness; these include Steve Vai and many of the musicians who performed in the excellent house band that appeared on Saturday Night Live during the first few years of the program's run.
Zappa testified before the U.S. Senate in 1985 about the dangers of a mandatory "explicit lyrics" warning label on records and tapes, as it would establish a dangerous precedent in violation of the First Amendment. As such, he was an outspoken critic of any legislation or groups such as the PMRC. Eventually the RIAA agreed to voluntarily place the warning labels on records, thus preventing the need for any government regulations, but Zappa was not a fan of this either, believing it to be just as bad. For a while in the 1980s and 90s, tapes and CDs featuring Zappa's music lacked the warning label. Interestingly enough, Zappa's 1986 album 'Jazz From Hell' is the only instrumental album since the hearings to carry the RIAA Parental Advisory sticker, due to some stores (allegedly Fred Meyer) objecting to some of the song titles:
The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design. It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC's demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation … The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of moral quality control programs based on things certain Christians do not like. What if the next bunch of Washington wives demands a large yellow "J" on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?
- Waits, Tom (March 22, 2005). "It's perfect madness". The Guardian (London). http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2005/mar/20/popandrock1.
- The religions and political views of Frank Zappa The Hollowverse
- web Interview with Mienfoking Films (4:50) on YouTube
- Frank argues against censorship by self-appointed defenders of The American Way on Larry King Live in 1985.
- Again, Zappa argues about lyric rating with a clueless host on CNN.
- "Record Labeling. Hearing before the committee on commerce, science and transportation". U.S. Government printing office. September 19, 1985. http://www.joesapt.net/superlink/shrg99-529/p51.html. .