I listened to Frank Zappa a lot in graduate school. He has a pretty varied discography from his work with the Mothers of Invention at the end of the 1960s to his more “gimmicky” pop work in the 80s. Despite cultivating a wild personal style he was a self-described workaholic who hated drug use and presented an atmosphere of being a major perfectionist around the quality of his performance. He passed away in the 90s from prostate cancer, with a lot of his later work being very peculiar classical arrangements.

Eat That Question is a movie which presents the arc of Frank Zappa’s career through interview footage, so you don’t have the usual talking heads describing how great he was, where he was in the context of the music scene at the time, how his work changed and how some personal life event changed his art. Instead you have a lot of interview footage that the film’s producers have tied together that’s presented without commentary running over the event.

It’s not clear that Frank Zappa really liked being interviewed, but he definitely loved to say things as part of his interviews. Part of the joy of Frank Zappa’s personality is him drawing a line around certain things in our culture (censorship, fakery), and how he won’t even treat these things are worth considering. In certain interviews he’s really tough on the interviewers, giving very short answers that lead the interviews to prompt him into longer explanations of his worldviews, which he obviously loved to talk about, whether or not the interviewer or his audience happened to agree with him. In footage of him from the “porn wars” Congressional hearings or his Crossfire appearance he’s clearly not interested in convincing anyone who didn’t already agree with him, but he makes standing around and railing about a “fascist theocracy” pretty fun.

Being a little older than during my last immersions in the Zappascape made for an interesting viewing experience. His sexually vulgar lyrics have really not aged well - songs like Bobby Brown Goes Down have lost their humor for me as I have a broader understanding of gender identity. An interview where he extols the cultural heritage of other countries was particularly frustrating (unfortunately, I can’t find online the part of quote where he talks about ethnic history):

“The thing that sets the Americans apart from the rest of the cultures in the world is we’re so fucking stupid. This country has been around for a couple of hundred years and we think we are hot shit, and they don’t even realize that other countries have thousands of years of history and culture and they are proud of it. And when we deal on an international level, with foreign policy and we’re going as this big American strong country, they must laugh up their sleeves at us because we are nothing.

I get what he’s going for here (he goes on to rail against American commercialism, always a fun and easy target), but these other countries certainly aren’t uniform in their culture and heritage, and America isn’t completely bankrupt in our own cultural history. It came off that Frank Zappa really hated Ronald Reagan and the people in charge of the government in the 1980s … so any way to get to talking about that contempt was okay.

Maybe the big difference between today’s America and the 80s culture that provoked such a strong reaction from Frank Zappa was how there’s much less of a monoculture. I think he might do well in today’s cultural landscape - there’s a lot more diversity in music due to the democratization brought on by technology (and the record industry he hated is dead). Still, it’s not obvious to me that he’d be able to resist the easier targets in today’s political landscape. The version of Frank Zappa that I like to think about is the one that’s a living example of diversity in his art and not the one sitting around railing against cultural norms.