writing life, writing process

Frank Zappa, Art, and The Frame

I was talking with a friend about Frank Zappa’s view of Art, and started listening to his band, The Mothers of Invention. I’d heard them before, but just little snippets of songs. Today, I listened straight through the first two albums in a kind of wondrous, outraged, joyful daze.

It’s totally weird. Stream of consciousness. Avant garde. Totally free self-expression. The first track in Freak Out! has a kazoo solo. In fact, I think all the tracks in Freak Out! have kazoo… I’ve never heard anything like this stuff.

A while back, I read a short essay by Zappa. In it, he loosens the definition of Art as anything with a frame around it.

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively– because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a “box” around it because otherwise, what is that s*** on the wall?

For example, he writes, the sound of a man swallowing juice is nothing. But if you record that sound and call it Art, then it has significance. We start to ask questions: What about this is art? What could this sound represent? How does it make me feel? And that’s what makes it art. That we think about it and find meaning based on it.

Frank Zappa put out over 60 albums in his lifetime, and I think this view of Art had something to do with that incredible amount of work. Whether or not you like them or love them or hate them, they exist. His vision exploded into the world and remains even after he’s gone. No matter how humble we pretend to be, all of us have these pearly dreams of being remembered after we die, of our work surviving us. That kind of immortality.

Here’s the problem. We don’t let our work out. I think it’s fair to say that Zappa didn’t worry too much about whether a track was perfectly recorded. The imperfections were just as much a part of the Art as the parts that sound more like what is typically called music.

At first I assumed that these were sort of first drafts of songs. Most of them sound very raw. Then The Mothers would sing in perfect four-part harmony. The parts that sound “bad” (whatever that means) were intentional. Planned. Just because something sounds like stream of consciousness doesn’t mean it popped out of someone’s brain that way.

Then again, I often fear we take ourselves too seriously. We think of our work as The Next Great Novel instead of the sound of a guy swallowing juice. If that’s the Art we can offer the world, the kind of sound effect that makes some Art-viewers uncomfortable, some Art-critics quit their jobs, the kind that’s controversial, the kind that might be considered “lesser” (whatever that means) by the general public, then we should offer it. 

Put a frame around it.

I’m not necessarily advocating for all of us to become the kind of person Zappa was, believe in what he believed in, or do the things he did. What I will say is, he got me to write a blog post I had given up on, in one sitting, with a pretty liberated feeling. His attitudes (and his music) take me outside The Box, The Status Quo. I’m thinking about how to write with his mentality, without self-doubt, without so much self-editing and -criticism. If he doesn’t do that for you, cool. Groovy. Whatever. I’m sure he wouldn’t care.

But when you stumble across other artists and work that pushes you into new territory, go there. Explore. Listen to people playing kazoos, bobby pins, and tweezers. Respect their Frame. Do your Art.


4 thoughts on “Frank Zappa, Art, and The Frame”

  1. Great blog post, Allison. I loved Zappa’s “stream of consciousness” style in his music. I saw him live in Vancouver and his concerts were like his concept of art. He never reproduced his songs in concert but would always add to them and change them. Zappa didn’t worry about imperfections or self-criticism, he expanded the “art” of his songs into new territory live. He was a master musician and I remember him one amazing song, where he lit a cigarette in the middle of the piece, safely put it in one of the guitar tuning peg holes, and played the most incredible electric guitar solo until the cigarette had burned down, then went back into the original song. Creative in the studio and creative on a live stage. Sometimes, as writers, we are too self-conscious, concerned about the “perfect” phrase or character and don’t let our words fly – Zappa never had those mental restrictions. Like him or hate him, his incredible body of work and creative genius still inspires people today…just like you, Allison!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, thank you for sharing that memory!! I feel pretty strongly that I missed out on so much by being born too late. I’m totally in awe of Zappa’s abilities, ideas, and ability to be himself with reckless abandon… ❤


  3. I saw Zappa in concert many years ago in Fayetteville, NC. He was playing with BB King, a great jazz/blues guitarist. But you may know that. I like the idea of just going with it, mistakes and all. Paranoia keeps me from posting without at least having my son or husband checking for typos, glaring error, and boredom. That makes me feel better.


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