(Mothers of Invention * Rock/Blues/Jazz)
University of Kentucky
Citation: Rice, Jeff. “Frank Zappa.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 23, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/023.r10
Abstract: There is benefit in not presuming. There is a benefit in not acting as if knowledge is based on a presumed meaning. There is a benefit in writing and in thought to bracket assumptions and presumptions regarding those tropes and expectations we bring to rhetorical readings and exchanges. This short essay is a reflection on presumption. This is also a reflection on Frank Zappa. This, I note, is also a reflection on my own lack of interest in scholarship built upon what Roland Barthes once declared, “as if everything shudders with meaning.” Rhetoric, consumed with meaning, may simultaneously not always involve figuring out what something means or what it is. Rhetoric can also be about suggestion.
Keywords: Frank Zappa, Bracketing, Roland Barthes, Rhetoric, Suggestion.
I was 13 when I saw Frank Zappa’s Sheik Yerbouti sticking out from a record bin at Peaches Records and Tapes on South Dixie Highway in Miami, Florida. On the cover, Zappa is dressed as if he is an imagined Bedouin, a made up image conjured out of Lawrence of Arabia or someone’s stock photo idea regarding what an Arab “sheik” might look like. The album cover projects a stereotype, an aggregation of presumed meaning likely collected from B-movies, newspaper headlines, and imagination. When I saw this record in the bin, I had never heard a Frank Zappa song before. I barely knew who Frank Zappa was. Without any presumptions nor internal aggregations of Zappa and his discography, and simply not knowing why, I bought the record.
We live in an age where knowledge is presumed. Election results. Pandemic responses. University funding. Social injustice. Global conflict. Everything appears to us as pre-known. We witness these assumptions on Facebook and Twitter, but also in a considerable amount of academic scholarship which positions every problem’s root cause as a simple point that is obvious to the critic in question. Sometimes that simplicity is posed via keywords or what we might call stereotypes such as neoliberalism, capitalism or the colonial. Sometimes that simplicity is a recirculation of various tropes regarding the issues academia feels most important, such as the other stereotypical markers of race, class, and gender. These topoi are not faulty nor without importance, but their presumption positions them in spaces where they don’t necessarily explain anything even as they claim they do so. When I bought that Frank Zappa record at 13 years old, I acted from a position without presumption. I did not have any knowledge of Zappa’s musical output. I had no idea that the record I was purchasing may be among his best, or, as I can now say, my favorite of his discography. I did not need a trope of quality or success to motivate my act. I needed a hint or a suggestion. That suggestion said to me: there is someone named Frank Zappa who makes music. Hint hint. Buy this. You’ve heard the name, though you don’t know the music. Buy it. So, I bought the record.
There is benefit in not presuming. There is a benefit in not acting as if knowledge is based on a presumed meaning. There is a benefit in writing and in thought to bracket assumptions and presumptions regarding those tropes and expectations we bring to rhetorical readings and exchanges. This short essay is a reflection on presumption. This is also a reflection on Frank Zappa. This, I note, is also a reflection on my own lack of interest in scholarship built upon what Roland Barthes once declared, “as if everything shudders with meaning.” Rhetoric, consumed with meaning, may simultaneously not always involve figuring out what something means or what it is. Rhetoric can also be about suggestion.
I’ll begin then with a counter narrative to the contradiction I just posed and ask a question that I pretend I want to ask: What does Zappa mean?
Let’s consider some of Sheik Yerbouti’s track listings. “Flakes,” with its Dylanesque nasal voice interlude, Andrian Belew mimicking the great singer/songwriter Bob Dyaln, sings “They didn’t do nothing/but they charged me double for Sunday.” Or consider “Bobby Brown” with its possible critique of (or ode to) S&M and frat boy culture:
Oh, she tried to make me say when
She had my balls in a vice but she left the dick
I guess it’s still hooked on but now it shoots too quick
Maybe the question deserves a listen to “City of Tiny Lights,”
Talkin’ bout those tiny cookies
That the peoples eats
And, of course, we could listen to “Broken Hearts are for Assholes” where the lonely guy who is too tough to cry is described in all kinds of bizarre ways making it difficult to understand what Zappa means it is to be an asshole with a broken heart:
The whiskers sticking out from underneath of his
(And yet he was a beautiful lady)
Nearly drove you insane
(Let’s talk about leather)
And so you kissed a little sailor
Tex Abel, starring in the latest Shepperton Production:
Who had just blew in from Spain
I’m not sure if these songs offer any clarification to the question I pose: What does Zappa mean? And yet, I pull them from the album as if they offer some semblance of evidence. Asking what Zappa means is itself a complicated question. Rhetorical studies is largely based on this type of question – how and why something means what it does to specific audiences - and most of my research poses such a question as central to any inquiry, as I’ve done with the field’s history, Detroit, craft beer, and personal writing. But when I ask “what does this mean,” I seldom search for a definitive answer. I want suggestions. I don’t ask the question because I believe there is a hidden answer waiting to be uncovered through analysis or reading through lyrics. To read a musician or a song is typically to interpret one or the other. This type of reading asks us to practice hermeneutics. Bruno Latour challenged the assumptions connected to interpretation asking if critique, which is basically interpretation, has run out of steam. What is the difference between critique and conspiracy theory, Latour asks. If I were to interpret Zappa and the songs on Sheik Yerbouti, would I be, at some point, engaging in conspiracy theory? That is, would I be discovering a secret that unlocks a representation that we have failed to understand until now?
We seldom recognize critique as a form of conspiracy theory. Embedded within any text, we are told, is another hidden meaning. I don’t read Zappa that way. I don’t read texts that way. Critique is a call for representation. Zappa seems to not be about representation. Or, at least, not how I read him. For me, Zappa doesn’t represent anything. He suggests.
I’m thinking about that imagined Arab image on the cover of Sheik Yerbouti. Once, when lecturing on Buddhism, a student challenged Barthes over his knowledge of the subject. “Who said I was an expert on Buddhism” Barthes responds to the student. My understanding of Zappa is like Barthes’ understanding of Buddhism, Japan, Italian food, the autobiography or any other subject in which he never claims authenticity, representation, expertise, or even criticism. Just because I write about a subject, Barthes seems to say, that doesn’t mean I am writing about THE subject. There is a country called Japan. And then there is the imagination which conjures up Japan based on stereotypes, signifiers, commonplaces, and other tropes. There is someone who once lived and was called Frank Zappa. There is a recording he made called Sheik Yerbouti. I’m not writing about those two. I’m writing about what I imagine them to be. I am writing about what they suggest to me.
Because I am imaging Zappa and this recording, I’m also generating what Barthes calls “signification.” Signification is not exactly meaning. With signification, meaning is not within the thing itself. Meaning is generated out of my background, interests, biases, past imagery, understanding of music, stereotypes, ideologies, etc. If I ask what Sheik Yerbouti means, I’m asking what my imagination means. There is no meaning in Sheik Yerbouti the way there is no meaning in Frank Zappa. There is, however, what I imagine.
Consider “Jewish Princess.” In this song, Zappa generates a number of stereotypes about the supposedly iconic spoiled Jewish woman. He claims to want that image. He sings:
I want a darling little Jewish Princess
Who don't know shit about cooking and is arrogant looking
A vicious little Jewish Princess
To specifically happen with a pe-pee that's snapin’
All up inside I just want a princess to ride
One could be easily offended at these stereotypes and others in the song. Jewish women can’t cook. Jewish women have phony nails and big hair. They have titanic tits and sandblasted zits. The stereotypes, though, are so outrageous, so comedic, so hyperbolic, that I don’t see them as a statement attempting representation or as an answer to the question “What’s a Jewish princes and should I want her?” Instead, I read these lyrics as imaginative, suggestions regarding a certain part of 1970s New York culture that Zappa either participated in or scorned. Imagination, on its own, is neither good nor is it bad. It’s a suggestion of meaning. It’s not a presumption of meaning. I want a Jewish princess, Zappa says, based on what I imagine a Jewish princess to be.
Or we can look at “Dancin’ Fool,” in which Zappa declares: I don’t know much about dancing, that’s why I got this song.” As the song ends, Zappa imagines an attempt to pick up a girl at what is likely a late 1970s nightclub or disco:
Hey darlin’ can I buy ya a couple a drinks?
Looking for Mr. Goodbar? Well, here he is
Wait a minute, I've got it: you're an Italian
Huh? You’re Jewish?
Oh, love your nails.
You must be a Libra
Your place or mine?
In this exchange, there is an aggregation of stereotypes – Mr. Good Bar, Jewish, Italian, nails, horoscope – that are not representative of anything but an imagined moment or people who may be at a disco in the mid-1970s or may not. These signifiers are appropriated and taken out of context. That act provides an audience with a suggestion: what might take place at a disco in the 1970s? This moment? Another moment? A stereotype? An aggregation? Does it matter?
On my wall I have framed Zappa’s record We’re Only In It For the Money. The album cover replicates the cover of The Beatle’s Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. What does it mean to replicate or appropriate another image or moment, such as a 1970s disco or one of the most popular bands of all time? Is it parody? Homage? Theft? What act is represented? What does this cover suggest? In 1978, Zappa hosted Saturday Night Live and while performing “Dancin’ Fool,” Zappa brings up a very confused looking audience member and sings to her the “Hey darling can I buy you a drink” line I just mentioned. When he asks her “Your place or mine?” as he does in the song, she shrugs her shoulders as if she has no idea what is going on. Nothing about this moment represents the familiar to her. Nothing about this moment is a representation of something real. Zappa’s Jewish princess is not a real person. His 1970s disco is not a real disco. Whatever real may be, it is always some form of aggregation.
Listening to Zappa can be like admitting “I have no idea what is going on.” What exactly is being represented? By the end of his Saturday Night Light performance, Zappa is on stage with his shirt unbuttoned, his hairy chest exposed, beginning the song “The Purple Lagoon.” John Belushi joins him on stage dressed up as his Samurai character and plays the guitar. Belushi sings gibberish into a microphone connected to the guitar. What the hell is going on, we might ask. What is being represented? Nothing.
“Dancin’” Fool concludes with the line “I may be totally wrong but I’m a fool.” This feels like an appropriate response to presumption of meaning. With presumption, we are fools. And we are likely wrong. And we likely have no idea what is going on even when we claim we do or place our expertise front and center or draw upon academic tropes as if they are examples of meaning. We do, however, love the aggregation of stereotypes and tropes that fill our critical analysis and our social media feeds and are generic understandings of the world around us.
An old Onion headline reads “Zappa Fan Thinks You Just Haven’t Heard the Right Album.” I think there may not be a right album for Zappa or for anyone or any moment or any issue. Or a wrong album. Or any album, whether it is discovered by a 13 year old or an adult writing a short essay. There are suggestions. Hints. No conspiracies. Just a lack of presumption. A willingness to not believe everything shudders with meaning.