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 Do You Think We Are?"; "Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk"). Rock singer Sting also joins the band for 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 CIA? 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.
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 Václav 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.
- 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.