December 5, 2008
Yesterday marked the start of Zappadan, that ought-to-be holiday devoted to celebrating the memory of composer, guitarist, bandleader and provocateur Frank Zappa. The observance begins Dec. 4, the anniversary of Zappa’s untimely death in 1993, and concludes on his Dec. 21 birthday.
Since this is primarily a political blog, I thought it best to mark the occasion with a salute to Zappa’s finest non-musical performance: his Senate testimony during the September 1985 hearings on “indecency” in music. The hearings saw members of the Parents Music Resource Center, an astroturf group founded by Sen. Al Gore’s wife Tipper, call for the record industry to label records and CDs for sexually explicit content and cursing. Zappa, an unyielding opponent of censorship, mocked the idea as “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”
It was great to have C-SPAN that fall. Zappa was joined by soft-country balladeer John Denver and heavy metal singer Dee Snider in opposing and, often, openly ridiculing the labeling proposal.
Zappa noted — correctly, I have to think — that the record industry was eager to go along with the labeling idea in order to court support for a tax on blank recording tape.
While I admire Al Gore and mourn for the thought of how much better off we’d all be if he hadn’t been robbed of the presidency, I don’t think anybody should forget his role in enabling the PMRC clown show. All of this guff started because Tipper happened to hear her daughter singing one of the raunchier songs on Prince’s Purple Rain, and the whole thing should have stopped with mother sitting her daughter down for a nice talk. You could say that Zappa, with his penchant for scatological humor, had everything to lose from indecency labels on music, but there’s no denying that he was the one talking the most sense at this hearing. If parents are worried about what their kids are hearing and seeing, then those parents should get more involved in what those kids are bringing into the house. Period. Piously saying you don’t want the government to regulate the music industry while using the implied threat of legislation to get your way simply reveals you as a power-abusing hypocrite.
Or, as Ice Cube put it more succinctly some years later: “If Ice Cube as a rapper has more influence in your house than you do as a father, then you need to start asking yourself some questions.”