“The biggest threat to America today is not communism. It’s moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything that’s happened during the Reagan administration is steering us right down that pipe.”
That’s Frank Zappa, a self-declared “conservative” battling a theocrat and two establishment pundits on this clip from a 1986 episode of political debate show Crossfire. It was one of many TV interviews Zappa did during the mid-‘80s when the “Parent Music Resource Center” headed by what he called “Washington Wives” got themselves overly concerned about rock music lyrics and, as usual, thought of the children. (One of those Wives was Tipper Gore, then-wife of Al Gore). There were congressional hearings, one of the only times Zappa was on the same team as Twisted Sister’s Dee Snyder and soft-folkie John Denver).
The whole kerfuffle was one and a piece with the rise of the Religious Right under Reagan’s administration, and eventually boiled down to a “Parental Advisory” sticker slapped on LP and CD covers. Zappa saw the move as a cynical ploy to introduce moralistic censorship to the arts while burnishing the careers of up-and-coming senators like Al Gore (and that certainly worked out for him).
The 20 minute clip is notable for the differences compared to the present. Watching this contentious debate between four men all sitting very close to each other is rare nowadays—the closest we get is on Bill Maher’s weekly show, whereas the rest of cable news is a collection of talking heads beaming in from separate studios. The mendacity and vitriol directed towards Zappa is also surprising, especially as Zappa’s own lyrics weren’t the ones being attacked—those of Madonna and Prince were instead. The hotheaded blather out of religious zealot John Lofton is a wonder to behold, a man so theocratic he later railed against Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin for leaving the kitchen and getting into politics. “I love it when you froth” quips Zappa, although even his stoicism is undone at one point. “Tell you what—kiss my ass!” Zappa blurts out after Lofton calls him an idiot.
Both Tom Braden and Robert Novak are stodgy beltway brothers, ostensibly on the left and right, and can’t help crack up a bit when Zappa points out Lofton’s lunacy. Nobody wins the debate; America and your own brain cells lose.
Zappa would later dedicate several songs and a whole album (Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention) to the charade. The music industry acquiesced and required warning labels that probably had zero percent effectiveness apart from uglying up album artwork, and a decade later mp3s would implode the industry.
Nobody frets about lyrics any more—how quaint!—but fear mongering and moral panic continue, including the recent non-starter issue over video game violence. Words are just words, Zappa says. That battle now appears to be taking place on Twitter instead between the left and the right, and Republicans have dropped all pretenses over foul language having nominated Trump. (Even the evangelicals seem to be okay with it.)
And then there’s this brief moment from the clip, which feels like part of a radio signal beaming into the present:
“What I tell kids, and I’ve been telling kids for quite some time,” says Zappa, “is first, register to vote, and second, as soon as you’re old enough, run for something.”
If that doesn’t sound like 2018 to you, I’ve got a W.A.S.P. CD to sell you.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.