Frank Zappa Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Frank Zappa 1940–

American songwriter, composer, musician, filmmaker, record and film producer, and director.

Zappa is a unique figure in contemporary music. Both offensive and appealing, his work merges such seemingly opposite elements as classical music, avant-garde jazz, 1950s doo-wop, and underground rock with bitterly satirical, outlandish lyrics into what is an unarguably original style. Through his band, the Mothers of Invention, he has utilized a purposeful bizarreness to point up the absurdity of contemporary society. The intensity and intellectual complexity of Zappa's work is undercut by ribald, tongue-in-cheek humor, which has helped to make him especially popular with young people.

Zappa began his career by composing orchestral works and chamber music. Until he was twenty-one he listened exclusively to classical pieces and the works of such twentieth century composers as Igor Stravinsky and Edgar Varèse, his biggest influence. It was not until Zappa discovered rhythm and blues that he began developing his songwriting. In 1964 he formed the first in a series of Mothers, and in 1967 they released Freak Out, a double album which both represented and defined the developing counterculture. His other early albums were also iconoclastic: We're Only in It for the Money parodied the Beatles's celebrated Sgt. Pepper; and he released Ruben and the Jets as a classical exercise in doo-wop during the height of psychedelia.

Zappa and the Mothers were the first to effectively blend rock with theater, making dadaist statements on drugs, war, the business world, and, especially, sex. In their concerts they encouraged involvement between band and audience. Zappa used a free-form format, which often included grotesque elements, to shock his audience into understanding the depth of their emotions. In 1969 he disbanded the group due to a combination of expense and public apathy.

After the breakup of the Mothers, Zappa concentrated on record production and film work. Uncle Meat, his first film, was never released, although it did yield a soundtrack album. He also began releasing solo albums such as the instrumental Lumpy Gravy and Hot Rats, which are often considered his best work. In 1970 Zappa formed a new Mothers to play the score for his film 200 Motels, a saga of life on the road. The film received a mixed critical reception, but was awarded cult status by many young people. Zappa also performed with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an effort to combine rock and symphony material.

Recently Zappa has been criticized for his lack of fresh ideas, especially on Joe's Garage, a fantasy about the rise and fall of a rock band, and for his overuse of perversity and sophomoric silliness, as in his film Baby Snakes. For many of his critics, Zappa's notorious image has transcended his musical efforts; some, however, have called him a genius who is ahead of his time. Young people have always been Zappa's most faithful advocates, and have recognized the imagination he has consistently brought to his work. "My dreams," he has said, "are limited only by the size of my bank account."