In the liner notes for Acts II and III, Zappa cheekily evokes religion to illustrate our innate differences as individuals within a species by saying, “it was discovered that God did not want us to be all the same”, which he alludes was unwelcome news for the government. In response to this epiphany about the uniqueness and agency of mankind, the government, with the help of business, media, and religion, sought to bind mankind to more uniform standards. However, there were problems with the enforcement because people are not the same and, thus, demand freedoms that reinforce their individuality. So, in response, these institutions with overlapping interests in maintaining human uniformity advanced the principle of Total Criminalization, which forced the population to easily capitulate so as not to be seen as criminals and have other seemingly inalienable freedoms taken away. And that, as Zappa writes in the liner notes, is how music was eventually made illegal in the story of Joe’s Garage.
Zappa’s inherent messaging within the narrative of Joe’s Garage, how various institutions work together to ensure the legitimacy and advancement of their interests, can be rather difficult to ascertain on first listen. It depends on the angle from which you approach. Especially when you consider the album released in its time and juxtapose it with evolving modern ideas. However, it would be too easy and do Zappa and his commentary a huge disservice to just dismiss Joe’s Garage as a relic from its era with no lessons to glean from it in a modern context. As with all art, and certainly provocative art, something about the human condition can be revealed to help us understand complex modern cultural and social issues. Fostering an inclusive understanding of human creativity, which involves accurately contextualizing art in its time and assessing its reverberating impact on culture, is essential in deepening our collective humanity.
Zappa is notorious for being a satirist, having challenged social and cultural establishments for well over a decade by the time Joe’s Garage was released. Sheik Yerbouti. released earlier the same year, elicited controversy over several tracks for shocking and provocative material. “Bobby Brown Goes Down” was deemed unfit for American radio for its depictions of sexual fetishism and featuring lyrics about closeted homosexuality but would successfully chart in Europe. With the track “Jewish Princess”, Zappa earned the ire of the Anti-Defamation League with him refusing to apologize, saying “as if to say there is no such thing as a Jewish Princess. Like I invented this?” For Zappa, commenting on social and cultural issues and phenomena, whether directly damaging or not to minority groups, was non-negotiable because of his reverence for constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
As a practical and constitutional conservative, obscenity was protected speech as far as Zappa was concerned and something he relied on to convey his ideas, testing the limits of good taste and the First Amendment. So, when news reports surfaced about Khomeini’s consolidation of power and what it meant for the individual freedoms of the Iranian people, specifically their inability to hear music, this was a personal matter for him because that is how he earned his living. He saw how the tide of American politics and culture could change, in not so obvious ways, to elevate the rights of a fundamentalist religious minority over the rights of the majority by compromising constitutional freedoms. In essence, he feared that because those freedoms existed on paper they could be easily erased.
Joe’s Garage is definitely a work of satire from Zappa’s perspective and with an added sense of urgency. If we consider the concept of satire in a modern sense, specifically the idea that what makes good satire is the act of punching up versus punching down, we can see how effectively Zappa uses satire to punch up and condemn institutions and those with power in them. The album certainly shines a light on how major institutions implicitly contribute to the weakening, or even erasure, of artistic and individual freedoms.
In Act I, Joe’s musical ambitions are shut down by law enforcement, and he’s encouraged to participate in religious activities as a warning for his social improprieties. In Act II, Joe is financially taken advantage of by a fringe religious movement and acts in accordance with their doctrine amidst deep feelings of exposure and vulnerability before being subjected to inhumane treatment in prison. In Act III, after Joe is released into a world where music is made illegal, the institutional powers have completely subverted individuality, with Joe becoming another automaton providing labor that keeps the gears of industrial power moving.
Through that modern lens of satire, we can see how elements within Joe’s Garage may be lacking, even outrightly punching down. Within Joe’s Garage, which features continuing ideas of provocative social and cultural commentary seen throughout Zappa’s work up to that point, we see elements where humor is made at the expense of marginalized groups through the use of often sexist, racist, and homophobic language and tropes. “Catholic Girls”, Crew Slut”, and “Fembot in a Wet T-Shirt” contain lyrics that objectify young women as sexual objects whose purpose is to fulfill the desire of the male gaze. The character of Father Riley, a Catholic priest, is described as a “fairy” in “Catholic Girls” and the word “faggot” is used in “Dong Work for Yuda”, relying on language and stereotypes that have negatively impacted the gay community. Prison rape drives the narrative of “Keep It Greasy”. “Packard Goose” uses performing blowjobs for shekels as imagery to convey Zappa’s ideas about the complicity of journalists to subvert their integrity for financial gain, an image that reminds one of his conflict with the Anti-Defamation League that easily conflates with his own personal disdain for rock journalists.
And, of course, there is the cover of Joe’s Garage itself, which features Zappa’s face darkened with grease. It can be understandably construed as him performing blackface, a peculiar creative move considering that Ike Willis, who plays Joe on the album and was a regular feature in Zappa’s band for many years, is Black. The question becomes, when does satire cease being effective before it contributes to the systemic issues that reinforce racism, sexism, and homophobia?
When considering the provocative elements of Joe’s Garage at face value, it can become difficult to rationalize their effectiveness as satire. It would be too easy, and rather intellectually lazy, to consider these tropes as products of their time and therefore grant them a pass for that. While they may not be appealing at face value when examined through a modern lens, it is just as lazy to throw Joe’s Garage in the dustbin of history as a cultural relic. To properly analyze the satire of Joe’s Garage and its effectiveness, one has to consider larger social and political factors to examine from when the album was released and now.
When Joe’s Garage was released in the fall of 1979, Jimmy Carter’s presidency was in turmoil. Following his victory during the 1976 presidential race, Carter became president during a time when the United States was healing from the trauma of the Nixon era, which the Vietnam War and Watergate controversy tarnished. Carter’s status as an outsider and the popular goodwill earned with voters soon faded as he failed to deal with the energy and stagflation crises that defined his presidency. Frustrated with the economic problems they were facing, such as rising gas prices caused by the drop in oil production due to the Iranian Revolution, voters rejected Carter’s progressive principles and ideals when he sought reelection.
Instead, by carrying 44 states, Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election. Reagan was the face of a new brand of conservatism, one that stoked fears within a fundamentalist Christian minority about the perils of progressive politics and emboldened them to apply efforts to systematically, over the years, fight to elevate their brand of misguided traditional cultural and social values over the will of the majority.
In 1979, there were far fewer avenues to have your music distributed and heard than there are today with the advent of the Internet and streaming media. However, Zappa was a noteworthy figure in the world of rock music. If you had an average understanding of rock music at the time, you at least knew his name. However, with an artist and album that had limited commercial radio viability because of perceived obscene content, it is understandable how themes denouncing ideologically driven authoritarianism would be lost amongst the general music-consuming public during the late ’70s.
While the lack of commercial radio appeal should never discourage an artist from communicating socially and culturally difficult themes and ideas, it should come as no surprise if those themes and ideas do not rise to the level of public awareness as does more popular and accessible entertainment of the era. Those already in the know got what Zappa was dishing out. For many others, well, they likely didn’t know or even care. So, it becomes a question of, if audience size plays a role, or if it even matters at all, in determining how effective satire can be.
Zappa was disturbed by the rise of this new brand of conservatism. It conflicted with his politics, which prioritized individual freedoms. With the news coming from Iran about a fundamentalist religious minority enforcing their philosophy of traditional cultural and social values on a majority population, Zappa saw the connection and how the systems of the United States could be manipulated in the same way. With that context in mind and the political shift that would occur during the late ’70s and early ’80s, it becomes a matter of determining whether sexist, racist, and homophobic tropes can elevate or hinder the quality of satire if the implication of the satire is to address concerns and fears about increasingly accelerated efforts to rescind freedoms for all people regardless of their background.
For Zappa, the issue of obscenity within the arts was a moot point primarily because of his unwavering support for the freedom of speech. With his art, using these tropes was a means of pressure testing the boundaries and limits of that freedom to ensure its stability and durability against ideological forces that come into power. To not consistently be committed to upholding the freedom of speech could result in losing it altogether. For Zappa, a couple of off-color jokes could not harm as much as total censorship.
I understand that oftentimes, especially today, relying so heavily on the freedom of speech to rationalize language potentially damaging to marginalized groups can easily become a crutch for people to reinforce dangerous systemic issues. Social media has no shortage of edgelord comedians and commentators – some of whom have been emboldened by Trump’s changing the cultural landscape – who say damaging things, get criticized by other users, and then rely on the same old scapegoat, “but it was just a joke.” Typically, in those instances, there isn’t any intellectual, artistic, or social value beyond the pathetic punchline. I consider Zappa separate from those people, and the reason comes from understanding how he evolved as an artist and used obscenity to fight back against the creeping influence of fundamentalist religious ideology and authoritarianism throughout the ’80s until his death in 1993.
Notably, in 1985, Zappa’s most famous effort as a free speech advocate was challenging the Parents Music Resource Center, a senate committee created to investigate the moral panic about obscenity in music lyrics. Zappa, along with John Denver and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider, testified before the committee to vocalize their concerns that political and religious ideologies antithetical to free speech were guiding the committee’s agenda and that any such legislation, or pressure on the music industry to implement warning labels, would harm the creative output and livelihood of musicians. Zappa, in his testimony, expressed concern about the extent of such actions, specifically how far they could overreach and be justified, saying, “The establishment of a rating system, voluntary or otherwise, opens the door to an endless parade of Moral Quality Control Programs based on ‘Things Certain Christians Don’t Like’. What if the next bunch of Washington Wives demands a large yellow ‘J’ on all material written or performed by Jews, in order to save helpless children from exposure to concealed Zionist doctrine?”
Throughout the ’80s, as Reagan’s brand of conservatism reverberated across American society, Zappa ramped up his efforts to push back against threats to artistic and individual freedoms. Zappa went on many news and panel discussion programs to advocate for the values of free speech amidst the influence of a fundamentalist religious minority, produced PSAs encouraging young people to register to vote, had voter registration information included in his albums, and hosted voter registration drives at his concerts. His message to audiences and listeners was simple: highly organized grassroots efforts, with support from business and media outlets, were targeting systems of government to irreversibly change the country’s direction to reflect their minority views, and the only way to stop them was to vote.
Even Zappa’s lyrics, which still contained offensive language and tropes, evolved to more directly and outrightly call out political and religious figures who were behind these efforts to hinder cultural and social progress in America. Released in 1988, Zappa’s album, Broadway the Hard Way, contained songs that criticized Reagan’s and Surgeon General C. Everett Koop’s stance on sexuality amidst the AIDS crisis (“Promiscuous”), the damaging influence of televangelists like Pat Robertson on legislation passing through Congress (“When the Lie’s So Big”), and the correlation between white supremacy and Christian evangelicals, more than three decades before the rise of Christian Nationalism as a platform for a major political party (“Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk”).
“Jesus Thinks You’re a Jerk” is especially considerable because, after singing about how Christian nationalists would justify lynching a Black person over aborting a fetus, Zappa displays an uncharacteristic sense of humility by singing, “And if you don’t know by now / The truth of what I’m tellin’ you / Then, surely I have failed somehow”, with him repeating the last line several times. With that messaging and delivery, one can get a sense that Zappa was aware of the limitations of his art as satire and that he questions his effectiveness. It is a poignant moment at the tail end of a career filled with provocative lyrics, and the feeling stays with you even after Zappa returns with humor closing the passage by singing “And Jesus will think I’m a jerk, just like you”.
Nuance is essential when considering the history of a storied artist with a long career. Zappa is known for being a provocateur with socially complicated lyrics and themes. And, rightfully so, because he earned that reputation and even relished it. However, if his career were exclusively offensive lyrics with determinedly no cultural value, Zappa would not be such an intriguing figure worthy of still being revered. As with all artists whose work comes from a different time, we have to continuously assess their art and determine if there is a value that speaks to collective humanity that is rather timeless. There’s a reason why someone like Al Jolson is not highly regarded today.
Zappa’s commitment to artistic and individual freedoms makes him a remarkable figure, even if some of his work rightfully elicits some occasional eye-rolling. His seminal 1979 rock opera, I believe, was his first serious commitment to the values he continued fighting for through the remainder of his life. From Joe’s Garage, Zappa consistently demonstrated his free speech advocacy in socially proactive ways and evolved his art to challenge hypocritical and dangerous ideas that violated his principles. These were principles shared by most people in a country being manipulated by a fundamentalist religious minority that sought to legitimize beliefs that oppressed women and people of color under the guise of a false and misleading sense of traditional values. Zappa, through Joe’s Garage and after, should be remembered and praised for that work more than for his provocative lyrics. If the Beastie Boys can be remembered and praised for reinventing themselves as progressive feminists following their most commercially successful work rooted in misogynistic themes and lyrics (1986’s Licensed to Ill), so can Zappa’s work as a political activist and satirist rise above his less accessible art.
A whole generation has grown up since Zappa’s death. It is impossible to know how he would feel about the direction the United States has gone over the last 30 years. We can only speculate how he would address, through his music and activism, such events as the War on Terror, the Great Recession, or the rise of Trumpism in American politics. To say the least, it is likely he wouldn’t approve. It is just as likely he wouldn’t even bother, given how surprised he was that the people of communist Czechoslovakia deeply revered his music after performing in Prague near the end of his life. For an artist driven to perform solely for his intended audience, maybe he would’ve abandoned the concept of America to escape a sinking ship and instead be with people he felt understood him better. We’ll never know.
However, I do know how prescient Zappa was back in 1979 when Joe’s Garage was released. In the current era that has seen Trump intentionally stoke white fear and embolden the rise of a Christian Nationalist movement, many Americans have only recently become aware of just how interconnected government, religion, and business are and how they work together to achieve their overlapping interests at the expense of individual freedoms. Social media companies have profited from misinformation that has motivated office seekers to enact legislation to dismiss legitimate elections. Extremist right-wing and fringe news outlets have furthered a dichotomy that encourages their viewers to think of others unlike them as not real Americans. The Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, and now millions of women in dozens of states can no longer safely seek an abortion – this is the first time in American history that a constitutional right has been revoked, with many fearing the security of other rights, like same-sex and interracial marriage, are in danger too. This is happening due to an emboldened fundamentalist minority who have figured out how to successfully manipulate institutions to impose their will over an unwitting majority.
When I think about Zappa’s music and the messaging I take from it, I’m grateful for him. When I listen to Joe’s Garage or his later political work derived from its themes, I feel a deep sense of rebellion. I like this feeling because it motivates me to challenge systems that embolden extremist principles at the expense of individual freedoms. If Zappa ever wondered to himself, toward the end of his career, if he had somehow failed in his art, the fact that people are still listening proves he did not. His music was not imaginary like it was for Joe. It was very real. As long as kids are still jamming in garages, it will stay real.
Kifner, John. “Khomeini Bans Broadcast Music, Saying It Corrupts Iranian Youth”. The New York Times. 24 July 1979.
“Man of the Year: The Mystic Who Lit the Fires of Hatred”. Time. 7 January 1980.
“Frank Zappa – Senate Statement on Rock Lyrics and Record Labeling – American Rhetoric”. Americanrhetoric.com. 2019.