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Everything Wrong With America, in One Fun Album

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Frank Zappa was an unruly figure of 1960s rock, a free-speech advocate and devout parodist defined by his opposition to authority. His albums assembled the bones of rock and roll into an idiosyncratic style coursing with disbelief at just about every aspect of the American zeitgeist: hippies, cars, college, drugs, California, and, eventually, yuppies. He also hated record labels, government, and the police, positions stoked by a brief jail stint at age 24 due to charges of “conspiracy to commit pornography,” after an undercover vice cop entrapped him into making a fake, audio-only sex tape. The experience changed his life: Zappa became as vehement in his morals as he was flamboyant in his presentation, a wide-eyed, comically bearded Lady Justice weighing the country’s dark side against its silliness.

Of his 100-plus albums, none distills his sardonicism quite like the newly reissued Over-Nite Sensation, a 1973 LP with his band the Mothers of Invention. It’s not Zappa’s most influential work—his 1966 debut, Freak Out!, basically invented the concept album, incorporating consistent characters and ad-libs from a whiny teenage narrator Zappa treated as a symbol of American conformity. But Over-Nite Sensation is his most inviting listen, forging a muscular, funk-inflected sound that couches the denseness of his more avant-garde music in pop hooks. Meanwhile, Zappa’s lyrics scrutinized his then-youthful fan base, caricaturing the counterculture with the cartoonish strokes of a melodic R. Crumb. Over-Nite Sensation is a triumph: a concentrated digest from perhaps the most popular stretch of his career, and a freeze-frame of his compositional flowering and ingenious lyrical ribaldry.

The young folks who populate these songs are not murderous world leaders, savage real-estate moguls, corrupt executives, or any of the other high-powered heels who Zappa pilloried when he became a television pundit during the last stretch of his life. They’re urban scenesters who dream of moving to Montana because they want to grow dental floss, and woo-woo romantics who talk about amulets and tarot cards as a form of foreplay. Zappa was ensconced in a milieu of groupies, hangers-on, and general weirdos in his Los Angeles neighborhood of Laurel Canyon, and the characters in Over-Nite Sensation are equal parts risible and innocent, occupying a surreal world of youthful fantasy. The album’s lyrics made a cutting statement about the flimsy values of its time—and the songs themselves were a tightly wound coil of Zappa’s musical ideas.

Over-Nite Sensation leads with its sense of humor and its equally waggish arrangements. The speed of the Mothers’ rhythms, and the fact that many of Zappa’s busiest parts are played on atypical rock instruments such as the marimba or the vibraphone, can make his music itself sound funny—he sends up symphonic largesse with his thoroughly rehearsed yet gleefully preposterous ensemble. But the Mothers’ melodies are gorgeous, and Zappa’s lyrics lucid. There are vibrant allegories for the evils of television (“I’m the Slime”) and songs that offer whimsical imagery to match the sparkling weave of electric guitar, reeds, horns, and pitched percussion (“Camarillo Brillo” and “Zomby Woof”). Zappa prods at a ludicrous cast of early-’70s hipsters, suggesting that their sense of authenticity is based on thin visions of consumerism. “Is that a real poncho?” he asks in a sultry baritone during the glammed-out “Camarillo Brillo,” wherein a starry-eyed narrator recounts his one-night stand with a hippie lover. During so many of his ad-libs, Zappa sounds like a parody of sleazy TV presenters. Here, we can’t tell whether he’s playing himself or someone trying to gatekeep participation in the counterculture: “I mean, is that a Mexican poncho, or a Sears poncho?”

The madcap narrative of “Dinah-Moe Humm” is beloved by Zappa-tistas thanks to its bawdiness: A marvel of cracked logic, the track follows a woman who bets a man “a $40 bill” that he can’t make her orgasm, losing the money when her sister hooks up with him instead. The song’s honky-tonk piano feels like period Rolling Stones; Zappa’s loping, singsong phrasing places it in the wide vernacular of Americana. But the lyrics mock everyone and everything—including the three lovers, Zappa’s folksy argot, and, implicitly, those who respond positively to its pitch-perfect rock pastiche. Tina Turner and the Ikettes provide backing vocals, as campy as Turner’s later appearance in the rock flick Tommy. “Got a spot that gets me hot,” she sings, “and you ain’t been to it.”

Eventually, the scope of Zappa’s satire widens: Both this track and the following one, “Montana,” transform into an advertisement for an absurd consumer product (Zircon-encrusted tweezers). This zaniness evokes John Waters, a filmmaker with a shock value to match Zappa’s. The latter, however, is much more likely to be mistaken for his characters, a symptom of the misconception that songwriting, unlike directing movies, is necessarily confessional. In this composer’s case—and for so many musicians—reading autobiography into his lyrics is a mistake. Even Zappa’s long hair and beard, which resembled a fermata, were conceivably more farcical than personally expressive. As layered as he was ostentatious, Zappa never wanted to let us into his mind. His dead seriousness about music didn’t mean he filled it with his feelings or convictions—lyrically, his songs were like wind chimes in the crosscurrents of the American id, twinkling along to the country’s breezes.

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Today, it’s easy to think of Zappa as a simple provocateur. Satire has become a tough gambit: Since Donald Trump’s election, the type of authority figures who Zappa used to deride have become crushingly obvious and too scary for humorous scorn to land its punches. Scandalizing for its own sake has run its course, and comedic music seems like the province of very online teenagers or novelty acts (or both)—not the kind of material that a brilliant, if cheeky, composer excavates for their entire career.

But Zappa’s satire is so effective because his music sharpened alongside it. In the 1980s, he stopped entertaining pop sensibilities as he turned to writing instrumental guitar compositions, symphonic pieces, and music for a digital synthesizer called the synclavier. Much of this work felt like an extension of the mischievous energy that Zappa had harnessed for decades, and it continued to unveil new degrees of his absurdity—and his righteous fury. Zappa accused racists and homophobes of enabling the AIDS pandemic on his courageous, often puerile 1984 fake Broadway cast recording, Thing-Fish, and he never targeted the young quite like he did those ’70s kids. There were, to be sure, bigger fish to fry.

In the ’80s, he also played a complicated role in public discourse: Zappa became a pop intellectual, like the devious offspring of the writers Gore Vidal or William F. Buckley, adapting to this role rather quickly because of the years he had already spent in the spotlight. Though his music was fastened to his sense of humor, Zappa was more of a moralist than a troll. He wanted to push society away from a cultural and civic stupidity based in valuing “the bottom line”—a condition that he felt had afflicted America long enough ago that the youths he lampooned on Over-Nite Sensation were born with it. Today, the country is speeding faster and faster in the direction that Zappa anticipated. Politics has grown progressively difficult to distinguish from reality TV, artists are underfunded, and the so-called culture industries have become even more brazen about valuing profit over quality.

Like much satire, Zappa’s catalog endures because it both criticizes and stands outside clear-cut stances. His songs don’t preach; he defined himself by what he found worth ridiculing, and he always worked in contrasts, swathing his acerbic, flippant lyrics within serpentine music. Zappa’s best albums, among them Over-Nite Sensation, exposed a wider and more dangerous consciousness than his own, which listeners could disregard at their peril: the fickle, perverse mind of America as a whole.

Source: The Atlantic

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