Frank Zappa Debates Whether the Government Should Censor Music in a Heated Episode of Crossfire: Why Are People Afraid of Words? (1986)

“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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Musi­cal Evo­lu­tion of Frank Zap­pa in 401 Songs

Frank Zap­pa Explains the Decline of the Music Busi­ness (1987)

Ani­mat­ed: Frank Zap­pa on Why the Cul­tur­al­ly-Bereft Unit­ed States Is So Sus­cep­ti­ble to Fads (1971)

The Bizarre Time When Frank Zappa’s Entire­ly Instru­men­tal Album Received an “Explic­it Lyrics” Stick­er

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 and/or watch his films here.

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Comments (3)
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  • Fred says:

    My favorite Zap­pa quote about cen­sor­ship is “There are more love songs than any­thing else. If songs could make you do some­thing we’d all love one anoth­er.”

  • Gerald says:

    I sus­pect the sti­fling atmos­phere on today’s col­lege cam­pus­es has pre­cip­i­tat­ed sev­er­al rev­o­lu­tions in Mr. Zap­pa’s grave.

  • Will Hobbs says:

    “The mod­ern day com­pos­er refus­es to die.”

    ‘Arf’, she said.

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