On Junk Food for the Soul
By Frank Zappa
This article was commissioned from the New Perspectives Quarterly as part of an issue on America's Cultural Decay.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were one of the strongest influences on early rock n' roll. In recent years, Zappa has publicly defended rock from cultural conservatives like Tipper Gore and her group, the Parents' Music Resource Center, which seeks greater parental control over what they consider the inordinate influence of sex and violence in rock music.
We asked Frank Zappa to respond to selected passages from The Closing of the American Mind, in which Allan Bloom laments "Parents' loss of control over their children's moral education,' and provocatively labels rock music "junk food for the soul."
The Nature of Music
Music is the soul's primitive and primary speech ... without articulate speech or reason. It is not only not reasonable, it is hostile to reason ... Civilization ... is the taming or domestication of the soul's raw passions ... Rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.
This is a puff pastry version of the belief that music is the work of The Devil: that the nasty ol' Devil plays his fiddle and people dance around and we don't want to see them twitching like that. In fact, if one wants to be a real artist in the United States today and comment on our culture, one would be very far off the track if one did something delicate or sublime. This is not a noble, delicate, sublime country. This is a mess run by criminals. Performers who are doing the crude, vulgar, repulsive things Bloom doesn't enjoy are only commenting on that fact.
In general, anti-rock propositions began when rock n' roll began, and most of these were racially motivated. In the 50s, petitions were circulated which said, "Don't allow your children to buy Negro records." The petitions referred to the "raw unbridled passion" of screaming people with dark skin who were going to drive our children wild. Some things never go out of fashion in certain ideological camps. They are like tenets of the faith.
Music's real effect on people is a new field of science called psychoacoustics – the way and organism deals with wiggling air molecules. Our ears decode the wiggling air molecules, and that gives us the information of a particular musical sound. Our brain says, "This is music, this is a structure," and we deal with it based on certain tools we have acquired.
I personally make music because I want to ask a question, and I want to get an answer. If that question and answer amuse me, then statistically, there are a certain number of other people out there who have the same amusement factor. If I present my work to them, they will be amused by it, and we will all have a good time.
I need to be amused because I get bored easily and being amused entertains me. If I could be easily amused, like many people who like beer and football, I would never do anything because everything that would be beautiful for my life would already be provided by American television.
But bear and television bore me, so what am I going to do? I am going to be alive for X number of years. I have to do something with my time besides sleep and eat. So, I devise little things to amuse myself. If I can amuse somebody else, great. And if I can amuse somebody else and earn a living while doing it, that is a true miracle in the 20th Century!
Music and the Dark Forces of the Soul
To Plato and Nietzsche, the history of music is a series of attempts to give form and beauty to the dark, chaotic, premonitory forces in the soul – to make them serve a higher purpose, and ideal, to give man's duties a fullness.
This is a man who has fallen for rock's fabricated image of itself. This is the worst kind of ivory tower intellectualism. Anybody who talks about dark forces is right on the fringe of mumbo jumbo. Dark forces? What is this, another product from Lucasfilm? The passions! When was the last time you saw an American exhibit any form of passion other than the desire to shoot a guy on the freeway? Those are the forces of evil as far as I'm concerned.
If there are dark forces hovering in the vicinity of the music business, they are mercantile forces. We meet the darkness when we meet the orchestra committees, when we get in touch with funding organizations, when we deal with people who give grants and when we get into the world of commerce that greets us when we arrive with our piece of art. Whether it's a rock n' roll record or a symphony, it's the same machinery lurking out there.
The reason a person writes a piece of music has got nothing to do with dark forces. I certainly don't have dark forces lurking around me when I'm writing. If someone is going to write a piece of music, in fact they are preoccupied with the boring labor and very hard work involved. That's what's really going on.
What Makes Music Classical
Rock music ... has risen to its current heights in the education of the young on the ashes of classical music, and in an atmosphere in which there is no intellectual resistance to attempts to tap the rawest passions ... Cultivation of the soul uses the passions and satisfies them while sublimating them and giving them an artistic unity. Bach's religious intentions and Beethoven's revolutionary and humane ones are clear enough examples.
This is such nonsense. All the people recognized as great classical composers are recognized at this point for two reasons:
One, during the time these composers were alive and writing they had patrons who liked what they did and who therefore paid them money or gave them a place to live so that the composers could stay alive by writing dots on pieces of paper. If any of the compositions these men wrote had not been pleasing to a church, a duke, or a king, they would have been out of work and their music would not have survived.
There is a book called Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, with thousands of names in it. You have never heard of most of the people in that book, nor have you heard their music. That doesn't mean they wrote awful music, it means they didn't have hits.
So basically, the people who are recognized as the geniuses of classical music had hits. And the person who determined whether or not it was a hit was a king, a duke, or the church or whoever paid the bill. The desire to get a sandwich or something to drink had a lot to do with it. And the content of what they wrote was to a degree determined by the musical predilections of the guy who was paying the bill.
Today, we have a similar situation in rock n' roll. We have kings, dukes, and popes: the A&R guy who spots a group or screens the tape when it comes in; the business affairs guy who writes the contract; the radio station programmers who choose what records get air play.
The other reason the classical greats survived is their works are played over and over again by orchestras. The reasons they are played over and over again are: 1) all the musicians in the orchestra know how to play them because they learned them in the conservatory; 2) the orchestra management programs these pieces because the musicians already know them and therefore it costs less to rehearse them; 3) the composers are dead so the orchestras pay no royalties for the use of the music.
Today, survivability is based on the number of specimens in the market place- the sheer numbers of plastic objects. Many other compositions from this era will vanish, but Michael Jackson's Thriller album will survive because there are 30 million odd pieces of plastic out there. No matter what we may think of the content, a future generation may pick up that piece of plastic and say, "Oh, they were like this."
I suppose somewhere in the future there will be other men like Bloom certifying that the very narrow spectrum of rock n' roll which survives composes the great works of the later half of the 20th Century.
The Difference Between Classical Music and Rock Music
Rock music provides premature ecstasy and, in this respect, is like the drugs with which it is allied ... These are the three great lyrical themes: sex, hate and a smarmy, hypocritical version of brotherly love ... Nothing noble, sublime, profound, delicate, tasteful or even decent can find a place in such tableaux.
Again, Bloom is not looking at what is really going on here. The ugliness in this society is not a product of unrefined art, but of unrefined commerce, wild superstition and religious fanaticism.
The real difference between the classics and rock n' roll is mostly a matter of form. In order to say we have written a symphony, the design we put on a piece of paper has to conform to certain specifications. We have an exposition that lasts a certain amount of time, then modulation, development and recapitulation. It's like a box, like an egg carton. We must fill all the little spaces in the egg carton with the right forms. If we do, we can call it a symphony because it conforms to the spaces in that box.
Compare that creative process to rock n' roll. If we want to have an AM hit record, we have another egg carton to fill. We have an intro, a couple of verses, a bridge, another verse, and then a fade out. All of which requires a "hook." That's a very rigid form. If we wander away from that form, our song's not going to go on the radio because it doesn't sound like it fits in their format.
Now, whether the person writing the song graduated from a conservatory or whether they came out of a garage, they know that in order to finish a piece they have to do certain things to make it fit into a certain form. In the classical period the sonata or a concerto or symphony had to be that certain size and shape or else the king was not going to like it. One could die. These were literally matters of life and death, but not in the way Bloom defines them.
The Rock Business
The family spiritual void has left the field open to rock music ... The result is nothing less than parents' loss of control over their children's moral education at a time when no one else is seriously concerned with it. This has been achieved by an alliance of strange young males who have the gift of divining the mob's emergent wishes – our versions of Thrasymachus, Socrates' rhetorical adversary – and the record-company executives, the new robber barons, who mine gold out of rock.
There is some truth to that, but how did we get to this point and what do we do about it?
We got here because teenagers are the most sought after consumers. The whole idea of merchandising the pre-pubescent masturbational fantasy is not necessarily the work of the songwriter or the singer, but the work of the merchandiser who has elevated rock n' roll to the commercial enterprise it is.
In the beginning, rock n' roll was young kids singing to other kids about their girlfriends. That's all there was. The guys who made those records came from Manual Arts High School. They went into a recording studio, were given some wine, $25 and a bunch of records when their song came out as a single – which made them heroes at school. That was their career, not, "Well, we're not going to sing until we get a $125 thousand advance."
Today, rock n' roll is about getting a contract with a major company, and pretty much doing what the company tells you to do. The company promotes the image of rock n' roll as being wild and fun when in fact it's just a dismal business.
Record companies have people who claim to be experts on what the public really wants to hear. And they inflict their taste on the people who actually make the music. To be a big success, you need a really big company behind you because really big companies can make really big distribution deals.
Even people who are waiting to go into the business know it's a business. They spend a great deal of time planning what they will look like and getting a good publicity photo before they walk in the door with their tape. And the record companies tend to take the attitude that it doesn't make too much difference what the tape sounds like as long as the artists look right, because they can always hire a producer who will fix up the sound and make it the way they want it – so long as the people wear the right clothes and have the right hair.
Retaining Classical Music
Classical music is dead among the young ... Rock music is as unquestioned and unproblematic as the air the students breath, and very few have any acquaintance at all with classical music ... Classical music is now a special taste, like Greek language or pre-Columbian archeology, not a common culture of reciprocal communication and psychological shorthand.
On this point, Bloom and I can agree, but how can a child be blamed for consuming only that which is presented to him? Most kids have never been in contact with anything other than this highly merchandised stuff.
When I testified in front of the Senate, I pointed out that if they don't like the idea of young people buying certain kinds of music, why don't they stick a few dollars back into the school system to have music appreciation? There are kids today who have never heard a string quartet; they have never heard a symphony orchestra. I argued that the money for music appreciation courses, in terms of social good and other benefits such as improved behavior or uplifting the spirit, is far less than the cost of another set of uniforms for the football team. But I frankly don't see people waving banners in the streets saying more music appreciation in the schools.
When I was in school, we could go into a room and they had records there. I could hear anything I wanted by going in there and putting on a record. I won't say I enjoyed everything that was played for me, but I was curious, and if I had never heard any of that music I wouldn't know about it.
Once we're out of school, the time we can spend doing that type of research is limited because most of us are out looking for a job flipping hamburgers in the great tradition of the Reagan economic miracle. When all is said and done, that's the real source of America's barren and arid lives.