A MUSICAL ICONOCLAST HONESTLY CHALLENGES THE MEDIA AND SOCIETY
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
What the world needs now is not “love, sweet love;” instead, we would be better served with a heaping dose of bracing cynicism, an honest desire to cut through all of the bullshit and posturing based on branding and pimping ourselves for clicks and views on the social media scoreboard. This is what you get when the world is totally fixated on “entertainers.”
And yet, this year, we have been reminded – through the loss of artists like David Bowie and Prince – that there was a time when artists understood and found ways to merge the competing interests of art and performance in the commercial realm to engage audiences. No one would question the talent of either of those iconic figures or their innate ability to tease and entice us with personae that blurred the lines between the private and the public and challenged social norms.
Intriguingly, there was also room for a truly alternative character like Frank Zappa, an avant-garde musician who heard and gave voice to surreal soundscapes, skewered mainstream standards in his lyrics, but proved to have little patience with the game of promotion as played by the media of his day and age. For all the talk of the counter-cultural revolution, society was still in flux, transitioning from the staid conformity of the 1950s to the new free love rock and roll vibe of the 1960s, and the early 1970s served as ground zero for the final battle. And Zappa stood defiantly between the two generations, giving both sides the middle finger.
Following closely on the heels of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s fascinating and comprehensive documentary on the life of filmmaker Brian De Palma, comes “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” from director Thorsten Schütte, a television-focused writer and director known for “I Was the King of Porn…The Adventurous Life of Lasse Braun.” Unfortunately, “Eat That Question” doesn’t have immediate access to its brilliantly eccentric subject, but Schütte makes the most of a treasure trove of archival footage capturing Zappa seemingly at each step along his surreal journey, offering honest commentary on his uncompromising battles with an industry not built for true creative originals. Zappa proves to be at his best in the role of the critic, taking pot shots, in both song and interviews, at society’s submissiveness to a cancerous commercial affliction.
First and foremost, Zappa saw himself as a musician and composer, interested only in immersing himself in the creative process. He was, in some ways, the mad scientist version of James Brown, an aural taskmaster of the highest order, honing a band into the kind of cohesive unit that could render the music he heard in his head in a way that audiences could appreciate it. It was structurally challenging work, and he didn’t feel the need to make the experience easy for listeners, which meant that, on top of the unfamiliar movements, Zappa packaged the presentation in an equally idiosyncratic form. His diverse collaboratives looked like alien castaways, uninterested in conquering new planets, so they settled for claiming islands of space where they could simply hang loose.
Such a stance confounded the media, which constantly questioned Zappa and his modus operandi. Why can’t you be like the other counter-cultural players, they seemed to ask, sending Zappa into his patented dead-eyed stare mode. We speak of certain types who will not gladly suffer fools, and Zappa deserves far more than most, to be seen in this light. He walked his chosen path and absolutely saw no need to compromise his vision or his defense of it.
Watching “Eat That Question” led me to wonder what Zappa, who died in 1993 at the age of 52, would think of today’s social media landscape. As a musician who embraced the changing dynamics of composing (adapting to the technological shifts in sound creation of his day) and delved into filmmaking as well, what kinds of sounds and vision would he be generating right now?
And, more importantly, how would we react to Zappa and his work? Genius, rarely, is ever appreciated within its own context; rather, it is processed by the culture in which it exists (which barely understands it, even with the benefit of perspective). I would guess that Zappa would continue to stand apart, brandishing his talent and opinions like blazing middle fingers, poking all of us squarely in the eye.
EAT THAT QUESTION Rating: [R]; Grade: A-