The title of Frank Zappa’s silly, free form studio piece never seems to go away.
Almost nine minutes too long, it was a part of the Mothers of Invention’s first release, a two record album called Freak Out! What was a Freak Out? As a verb, to freak was hippie-speak for a reaction, typically drug-inspired, that ended in a change of hair style, clothing and political attitude.
Ironically, Zappa despised hippies almost as much as he loathed the “establishment” world of 1950’s conformity and racial repression. For him, freak outs could make you laugh, annoy you, or maybe just become what it truly was: an exuberant, innocent, blatantly adolescent exercise in social rebellion.
Zappa’s group, the Mothers of Invention, liked to stage their form of musical anarchy during live performances. As some of Zappa’s biographers pointed out, it wasn’t what it seemed: as arrogant, talented, disgusting, satiric, lewd and funny as Zappa could be, he equated artistic freedom with the ability to record and release anything, and everything, he composed. He’d churn out a record every three or four months with the hope that, sooner or later, something would connect with the mass culture and he’d finally get the freedom–and respect–he thought he deserved.
(I want to add parenthetically that I don’t feel, as some culture critics have insisted, that an artist must first master rules and conventions before breaking them. The truth is that most artists have a very short productive life span and it is the nature of our market-driven global economy to ignore just about everything that isn’t easily accessible, so, it’s more important to reach your creative goals quickly than to fret about split infinitives.)
As a pop culture denizen, Zappa exuded a wonderful arrogance: he modeled himself on the avante garde composers of the early 20th century whose experiments with varying rhythms and dissonance infamously shocked the bourgeoisie (as a birthday present, his parents permitted him to have a telephone conversation with one of his idols, Edgar Varese). Zappa had a fierce belief in his own necessity: he maintained that everything he wrote and performed–even if he was merely revising or re-editing old material, was a vital contribution to the human race. He composed constantly, even when he was ill. He railed against censorship of any kind, and wrote pieces calculated to offend, believing that art could, and should, change those who didn’t understand it.
His wish came true exactly twice: he got radio hits with a repellently silly novelty single called “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” and a goof that mocked teen slang, “Valley Girl.” He did not indulge in alcohol, marijuana or any of the illegal drugs of his generation. He liked cigarettes and coffee, and died from prostate cancer.
And he recorded, on his first album, a song about people repeating to themselves that “it can’t happen here,” that those who feel safe, be they hippies, adolescents or conforming adults anxiously raising their children in monotonous suburban paradises, eventually discover that what they fear, loathe or find discordant, can, and does happen, and that when it does, few people wonder why: they just say “who could have imagined…” until the next thing happens that captures their attention.
Zappa’s vision isn’t sophisticated in this piece. He presumed an inevitability: that harmless freak outs would continue to occur throughout American society and that, after a while, we would just become accustomed to them.
We have always lived in times that have shocked, amused and infuriated the complacent. Any historian would have difficulty finding a period in time when things were “just okay,” when the rigor of change did not greet us on so many mornings like a blast of cold air.
A glance at our nation’s coarse, crude and overwhelmingly current political disarray shows one remaining truth: as much as it may be a hoot to sing, or write about other people freaking out, it’s no fun when it happens to you.