Frank Zappa on Popular Songs & Popular Songwriters

“I don’t think the urge to be timeless permeates the pop tune marketplace,” said Zappa. “The urge to be rich permeates the pop tune marketplace.

The first major interview I ever did was with Frank Zappa. It was 1988. Zappa had put his guitar away by then and had stopped touring, devoting himself entirely to composition, mostlyti on the Synclavier then. It was then the best machine ever to reproduce any musical idea he imagined, and allow him to hear it immediately.

Zappa was a compostional genius, and one that drew a distinction between composer and songwriter. Although he appreciated the art of song, and loved certain songs always (the original “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen was one of the few he singled out.) But he recognized that hits were elevated not by quality, but by those hired to look only at numbers, not music.

“The boundary of your musical experience has been determined by accountants,” he said.

This was true, of course, and represented the inverse of the notion that great songs were elevated by timeless greatness, not because they fit the current formula.

“I don’t think the urge to be timeless necessarily permeates the pop tune marketplace,” he said. “The urge to be rich permeates the pop tune marketplace. “

The following passage from our interview came after we’d discussed songwriters who had no inclination to expand their musical knowledge.

Zappa & The Mothers. Photo by Henry Diltz

FRANK ZAPPA: I think that when you have award shows that glorify the most ignorant among us for doing things that are called excellent merely because they’ve achieved large numerical sales, it is not much of an incentive for a young songwriter to come along and say, “I want to learn how music works.”

Because there’s just no reason to participate in the construction of music on an intellectual level when all you have to do is just get lucky one time and then have the record company do the payola. Then you will be the next guy to be standing in line to get a major award. So that’s the message that is sent to the marketplace for all the new guys coming in. And there’s no glamour to doing the laborious job of developing a personal theory of harmony or a personal feel for how you want rhythm to function in your work.

See, I make a distinction between a songwriter and a composer. They’re not always the same kind of a guy because the goals of the two types of disciplines are not always the same. Composers may write songs, but it is a very seldom that a songwriter will do a composition.

A composition is when you’re dealing just in a theoretical and abstract way with the raw elements of music, and trying to do things with those basic elements which has not been done before. Instead of sitting down to write a hit, you’re going to the raw material to go in a new direction.

Songwriters tend not to do that. They tend to write in a song form. And if you compare it to architecture, it’s the difference between building a cathedral and building a Taco Bell. And fast food is important when you’re hungry. Fast music is important when you need something to drive to.

Is it your opinion that the state of songwriting is bad and getting worse?

No, the only thing that saves it is the fact that the American’s memory span is so short that they actually believe that when they hear the latest regurgitated version of a style that was prevalent five years ago, they believe it’s new.

I mean, I’m amazed that some of the stuff that is passing for New Wave music today is 1960’s semi-folk-rock chord changes that have been reorchestrated to use 1980’s technology. It really is the same.

Have you heard any songs recently that you thought were worthwhile?

I like “Living in a Box” by Living in a Box, and I like “Daddy’s Home” by Walk the Moon.

So it is possible to use that very restrictive song form and still create something good?

Sure, it is always possible. But when a guy sits down to write a song, he’s not sitting down to make history, he’s sitting down to make money.

Do you really believe that is always the case? Don’t you think there are some songwriters who want to write some timeless songs?

I don’t think the urge to be timeless necessarily permeates the pop tune marketplace. The urge to be rich permeates the pop tune marketplace.

That’s true, though I know the urge to be timeless does exist among some songwriters —

Any songwriter who had to choose between being rich and being timeless, if he chose timeless, he’s probably out of a job.

There are just too many commercial pressures on the guy at the end of the food chain, the guy who writes the song, because before he thinks about anything else, he’s already looking at airplay or looking at MTV. I think there’s got to be an inkling in the back of every songwriter’s mind like, “How will this shoot ? What will they do when they make a video of this one?” So what’s that got to do with writing a song?

Not much. But isn’t it possible for something new and great to be heard?

Not unless there’s a massive change of attitude at the distribution level, which includes the places where music is dispersed: radio, TV, jukeboxes, whatever, until current values disappear.

Until then, there is little hope that a person who is doing anything other than formula swill will have an opportunity to have his music recorded, let alone transmitted.

Do you feel that there’s an inherent need among people to have serious, expressive music as a part of their lives?

The problem with that concept is, would they know it if they heard it? Would they like it or would they prefer it to other stuff?

See, an audience gets trained. They’re trained by their environment. And what they hear on the radio has nothing to do with life – it’s all freeze-dried and dead. It’s like dead artifacts that are repeated over and over again. The repetition helps to sell records, but the repetition reduces the composition to the level of wallpaper.

Does it?

Sure. Especially in the radio sense, you don’t hear it anymore. It’s a rock and roll atmosphere that you play in your car, that you hear in an elevator, that you experience in a boutique. It has reduced wallpaper to a lifestyle.

But a great song, even if I hear it a lot, doesn’t become wallpaper.

But let’s take a look at the broad spectrum of what everybody knows as common American coinage, the musical experience of being an American. The boundary of your musical experience has been determined by accountants. Unless you are going to seek out the newest and the finest of whatever is available in any field, what you are presented with as your set of alternatives that you will choose to inhabit your lifestyle is tiny.

Because of the way that the business is structured? If a record sells 50,000 copies, it’s considered a failure —

If you were a classical composer and you sold 50,000 albums, you’d be a hero. I mean, the regular pop industry spits at 50,000 records. I regularly do 50,000 records. The only album I ever had that was in the million plus category was Sheik Yerbouti and the only reason that it sold that much is because the song “Bobby Brown Goes Down” which could never be played in the U.S., was a hit all over Europe. The bulk of those sales were outside the U.S. so it was an unpredictable fluke.

Usually my record sales are in the 50,000 to 300,000 range depending on what the content of the album is.

Do you consider sales of 50,000 records to be a failure?

I think that that’s about the bottom margin for feeling okay given what it costs to make an album. You know, the success, if you’re going to look at it in financial terms, you have to look at the difference between what you spend to make it and what it nets you after it’s gone into the marketplace. And because I have my own studio and do my own stuff, I can actually make a profit at 50,000 records, where another guy probably could not.

So what would be your advice to the young songwriter when he sits down to write a song –

It depends on what he wants to do. If he just wants to make money, he should copy everybody else’s stuff, which is what everybody else is doing.

But you can only do that for so long.

That depends on how good a copier you are.

How about if you want a career in songwriting?

Basically, it’s a career in being a fraud.

It’s just like when someone says, “What would you advise a young composer?” I always say, “Get a real estate license.”

You can’t earn a living being a composer in the United States. But as far as being a songwriter goes, you can make a lot of money if you will listen for what everybody else has done that has been successful, and tweak it around to the point where you can convince an accountant at a record company that you’re fresh, new and original. This is usually accomplished by changing your hairdo periodically and having a good wardrobe. That’s basically the business you’re entering. The idea of writing a nice tune is the farthest thing from the minds of the people you will be doing business with, and that is the reality of the business.

Some have said there hasn’t been a great melody in about thirty years.

I’d say that’s probably true, because the basic thrust of today’s music is dance music, especially for Americans, who have an incredibly limited concept of what rhythm is. If you look at the typical dance rhythms that motivate an American dancer, you’re very close to march music. It’s boom-bap-boom-bap, and if there’s anything more than that, an American’s feet get tangled up.

So you start with a basic sort of fascist marching beat, and then you add a few parallel fifths to it (if you want it to be heavy metal) and make sure that your melodies don’t have anything shorter than an eighth note. Make sure that there is an incredible amount of repetition in the composition, because you’re presuming that when people are out there semi-marching and pumping their buttocks up and down that they couldn’t really comprehend any more than a five note melody.

If you were to were to do a statistical analysis of some of the most popular, big selling tunes that have been on the market in recent days, you’d see not too many notes, the chords don’t give you too many surprises, and the beat is boom-bap.

So if you want to do that and make a lot of money, it’s not too hard to learn. But if you want to write the great American tune, I would say to get a real estate license.

Frank Zappa with the Mike Douglas Orchestra, “Black Napkins,”
Live on The Mike Douglas TV show, 1976

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