Frank Zappa typifies a very particular time in the history of popular music – an era in which the social, political, and musical landscape took a completely different shape to the one it holds now. What would happen, then, if we were to transplant a young Zappa, his creative ambitions still unfulfilled, from the 1960s to 2021? Was his genius such that he would flourish and thrive regardless of the context in which he created his work, or would he be crushed by the combined threat of a crippled music business, the dominance of social media, and an alien political climate?
First of all, let’s consider how Frank Zappa made his name in the first place. Raised on a unique musical diet of doo-wop and avant-garde classical music, Zappa began his musical journey in high school, where he played in a variety of local bands while also writing, arranging, and conducting his own pieces for orchestra. At this time, he listened to anything he could get his ears on, from R&B to the early electronic music of Halim Abdul Messieh El-Dabh. With all its faults, the age of streaming has allowed musical adventurers like Zappa to delve into every corner of the musical map. In this respect, at least, he would have felt perfectly at home.
Then again, I doubt the availability of music would matter all that much to him, considering there are so few places for young musicians to perform live. In the early days, Zappa supported himself by performing in LA nightclubs with his group The Blackouts. He also moonlighted as a composer on low budget films in a bid to stay afloat and, indecently, this combination is still pretty common. Take LA-based Composer Emile Mosseri for example, who performed as a member of indie-rock outfit The Dig! for many years before landing scores for the likes of Minari and The Last Black Man In San Francisco.
For Zappa, the rotation of small grassroots venues around LA acted as an incubator and platform, allowing him to meet fellow musicians, develop a reputation on the live circuit, and hone his live shows. Unfortunately, these days, this “Toilet Circuit” (those venues that provide fertile ground for music scenes to flourish despite their grimy aesthetic) has been eradicated in most major city’s, leaving emerging artists with little opportunity to explore music as a feasible career option. Without this essential aspect of the musical ecosystem, it’s possible Zappa would have shut up shop before making a single record.
But, for the sake of debate, let’s say he doesn’t. Let’s say Zappa’s talent earns him some attention; what would he need to do to survive in the incredibly competitive marketplace that is the modern music business? First of all, he’d need to be making a buzz of some sort. The issue is, of course, that in an age in which most people learn about new artists via streaming services, it’s hard to say whether an artist such as Zappa, who placed so much emphasis on live performance and who famously hated the media, would be able to develop a fanbase through word of mouth alone. That being said, Black Midi, for example, managed to garner their early fanbase through the sheer originality of their music and the intensity of their live shows. The same could be said of Black Country, New Road, who – like Black Midi – emerged from the flourishing guitar scene embodied by The Windmill in south London. Equally, King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard were largely unknown outside of their native Australia before they decided to release five studio albums in one year, a concept that I’m sure the prolific Zappa would likely have attempted if he were trying to make his name today.
Of course, I doubt any of these bands would have been able to sustain their notoriety without utilising morning marketing tools like social media. If Zappa’s lyrics are to be trusted, it’s clear that he was a man who despised the ubiquity of invasive media. His 1966 track Trouble Every day’, for example, is a stunning inditement of modern tech-befuddled lethargy, while ‘I’m the Slime’ is no less vicious in its criticism of the media’s invasion of the private sphere. It’s hard to imagine Zappa tweeting fans or posting tour date reminders on his Instagram story, that’s for sure. I guess the real question isn’t ‘would Frank Zappa be famous today?’ but ‘would Frank Zappa even bother being famous today?’.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Zappa was allowed a level of creative freedom that isn’t afforded to musicians today, for whom everything from Google Analytics to Instagram followers determines when and how they release their material. Even though many musicians maintain the importance of personal expression, I wonder if these ideals have any meaning in a world where PR tactics hold such sway over their decision-making? It’s easy to imagine Zappa turning away in a haze of scorn and cigarette smoke, perhaps retreating to his private music studio, where his recordings would remain untainted by what he’d likely regard as the corrupting influence of social media.
Let’s take another hypothetical leap now. If we put aside the music business, would Zappa even be accepted by the public given today’s socio-political landscape? You don’t even need to listen to Joe’s Garage – the cover of which features Zappa in Blackface – to know that it would never be released today. Similarly, the lyrics of ‘Easy Meat’, in which Zappa sings: “She was so easy/
easy/saw her tiny titties/ through her see-through blouse/I just had to take/the girl to my house/ easy meat,” are very hard to stomach and would surely see him thrown to the dogs — and that’s to say nothing of the homophobia in tracks like ‘Broken Hearts Are For Arseholes’. But it’s not just minority groups that Zappa took a swipe at, he targeted practically everyone, filtering humanity through a layer of cynicism, pessimism, and spite that seems to reveal a man with very little love for the world around him. That cynicism may have won him fans in the punk era, in which nihilism was worn as a badge of honour, but today’s young people, contrary to popular belief, are anything but nihilistic.
In this sense, it’s helpful to imagine Zappa not as a musician but as a contemporary comedian of the Frankie Boyle or Dave Chapelle genre, an individual whose work is designed with the intention of disturbing the very notion of political correctness. When we think about Zappa in this way, the question of his success becomes even more complex because, while Dave Chapelle has been cancelled in light of his comments about transgender people, TV shows like South Park – which, like Chapelle and Zappa, also seek to dismantle and satirise widely held-beliefs – are still as popular as ever.
My feeling is that Zappa would have taken one look at the modern music business and ran for the hills. If not, then he certainly wouldn’t have pursued popular music in the way he did. The music of the 1960s and ’70s was unique precisely because pop music was regarded as having substantial cultural influence. It could inform the way people dressed, the drugs they took, and the way they voted, and so it was regarded as a way for people to express themselves artistically, but also politically and spiritually. While there are certainly remnants of that, I think we’re living through a period in which, on the whole, political expression is less of a focus for artists and fans. Perhaps, then, Zappa would have chosen to chase his conductorial ambitions or to establish himself as a theatre-maker or political activist, the latter of which is one of the last truly meaningful expressions of political dissent.