Frank Zappa :: CNN Crossfire, 1986

Twenty-two and a half years ago, Frank Zappa sat down in a chair on a television set for a political debate show on a cable news network that was still fighting to be taken seriously. The previous fall, Zappa had appeared as a witness before a Congressional panel about the potential censorship of music that was found to contain questionable lyrical content or cover art. Zappa’s feelings about words, art and what exactly freedom of speech entails were laid out at the feet of one incredulous fellow guest and the somewhat amused, if not in agreement, co-hosts.

Music censorship is a curious topic as it does bring up the question of just how much words mean to people. Ignoring John Lofton’s automatic loss in the argument thanks to his citing of Hitler, does he not have a point that rhetoric, whether in poetic form or not, is a potential catalyst for socially irresponsible acts? Zappa argues that unrestricted speech is the only road that needs to be traveled. If you don’t want to hear something, don’t buy it, turn it off. But is he right to suggest that there not be any sort of ‘decency’ limits on public radio or television broadcasts? If we agree there’s a common set of standards, then, as Tom Braden asks Robert Novak at the end, “who’s to be the censor?” Who decides, by listening to something, that others aren’t allowed to hear it?

In the two decades since the adoption of the infamous warning stickers on records, the labels have become nothing more than a serving suggestion. To my knowledge, and correct me, fair readers, if you have had different experiences, a minor can purchase a record with that sticker on it without any sort of adult present. So what was really accomplished? I suppose that the sticker gives parents some guidelines to what the record might contain, but it isn’t very specific, unlike the Motion Picture Academy’s somewhat more helpful rating codes for films. Blur’s most recent album, Think Tank, received the “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” label. Why? After listening to the album numerous times through, the only thing I could locate were a few specific references to illegal drugs. By this logic, should anyone under 21 be allowed to buy a John Lee Hooker album that contains “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer?”

At the very least, this video is another sober reminder of what a great mind and great champion rock and art lost when Frank Zappa died in 1993. Leave your thoughts on censorship in the comments below. | j. neas

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13 thoughts on “Frank Zappa :: CNN Crossfire, 1986

  1. or better yet, how exactly does an “explicit” sticker work when kids are downloading music as opposed to purchasing it in a physical format? not that it necessarily “worked” in stores either…

    john lofton was pretty scary in terms of his desire to protect other people’s children. turn that scenario on its side just a bit and have him walk into an elementary school with the same frothing desire to teach and work with children, and he’d look like a pedophile in the eyes of most seasoned administrators.

    i love zappa’s response to lofton at 6:14: “you wanna spank me here, c’mon, what are you trying to do? … i love it when you froth like that.”

  2. Frank’s comment about the fascist theocracy was pretty prophetic considering where we are today. And I’m a conservative, for crying out loud. I no longer associate myself as a Republican any longer due to the theocratic ties that Frank was talking about way back on this clip. That’s what struck me, particularly.

  3. Re-action is rarely the way to go. It’s usually out of fear or lack of understanding, and it usually serves to give power to that which it’s against. That’s why eastern beliefs teach listening and letting through, as in judo, help the opponent carry a punch through ’til they fall on their face. Don’t fight back.

    So, censorship is a strong form of fighting back and only gives attention to that which it’s trying to deny attention. Those being censored are strengthened in their resolve that what they’re saying warrants response. This is what escalates conflict into war.


  4. His comment about putting sex vs violence in TV, and that violence usually wins out, is also very prescient. Check out “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” which discusses how in the US, lots of sex will get you a bad rating, but violence is fine, while in Europe, sex is more open but violence will get a film a more adult rating (I’m paraphrasing of course)

    It also talks about how completely aribritrary the MPAA’s decisions are, which is fascinating (and quite frightening)

  5. Frank’s insights were always pretty much on the mark. If he were alive today the world would almost certainly be a better place for all of us.

  6. I used to work on the floor in a record store that served a pretty diverse clientele. We sold tons of Garth Brooks and Ani Difranco. Anyway, what always surprised me was that people were more upset about the four letter words than the ideas that were expressed. The first Guns n Roses LP had a picture on the inside of a woman that was about to be raped by a robot. I never had a parent return that. What parents usually brought back was rap music with lots of swearing. They didn’t return radical stuff like Ani Difranco, who only swears occasionally (and doesn’t use the Parental Advisory label.) Any kid who listens to Ani Difranco is going to be a lot more free-spirited and “troublesome” than a kid that listens to the same rap every other kid likes.

    I loved FZ and even voted for him once right before he died. I think he missed the point in one way. He talked about free political speech, but all he seemed to be doing was trying to shock people by being dirty. I’m not sure if there is much of a difference between his “Stevie’s Spanking” and 2 Live Crew. Frank’s subversive stuff was back in the 60s and he didn’t need to swear to get his point across. Think about it. What’s going to turn a “normal” kid “rotten”–all that anti-consumerism stuff from the early Mothers albums, or the juvenile stuff about hookers and hairbrushes from the 80s? I think Frank’s arguments against the PA labels would have been much stronger if it was obvious to more people that there was a purpose to his swearing.

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