Frank Zappa on Popular Songs and Popular Songwriters

“I don’t think the urge to be timeless pervades the pop music market,” Zappa said. “The desire to be rich permeates the pop music market.

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

Zappa was a genius at composition, and who distinguished between composer and songwriter. Although he enjoyed the art of song and always liked certain songs (The Kingsmen’s original “Louie Louie” was one of the few he singled out.) But he acknowledged that successes weren’t high by quality, but by those who were hired only by acts, not by music.

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

It was true, of course, and represented the reverse 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 music market,” he said. “The desire to be rich permeates the pop music market. “

The next bit of our interview came after we discussed songwriters who had no desire to expand their musical knowledge.

Zappa and the mothers. Photo by Henry Diltz

FRANCK ZAPPA: I think when you have discounts that glorify the most ignorant of us for doing things that are called great just because they’ve had big digital sales, that’s not really an incentive for a young songwriter to come and say, “I want to learn how music works.

Because there’s just no point in intellectually building the music when you just have to get lucky once and then the record company pays. Then you’ll be next in line for a major prize. This is therefore the message sent to the market for all newcomers. And there’s no glamor in doing the painstaking work of developing a personal theory of harmony or a personal idea of ​​how you want rhythm to work in your work.

You see, I make a distinction between a songwriter and a composer. It’s not always the same kind of guy because the objectives of the two types of disciplines are not always the same. Composers can write songs, but it is very rare for a songwriter to compose.

A composition is when you deal in a theoretical, abstract way with the raw elements of music, and try to do things with those basic elements that haven’t been done before. Instead of sitting down to write a hit, you’re going to raw material to go in a new direction.

Songwriters tend not to. They tend to write in 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.

Do you think the state of songwriting is bad and getting worse?

No, the only thing that saves it is the fact that Americans’ 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 think it’s new.

I mean, I’m amazed that some of the things that pass for New Wave music today are 1960s semi-folk-rock chord changes that have been re-orchestrated to use 1980s technology. really the same.

Have you heard any songs lately that felt worthwhile?

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

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

Of course, it’s always possible. But when a guy sits down to write a song, he doesn’t sit down to write the story, he sits down to make money.

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

I don’t think the urge to be timeless necessarily permeates the pop music market. The desire to be rich permeates the pop music market.

It’s true, although I know that the desire to be timeless exists among certain songwriters –

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

There’s too much commercial pressure 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 watching the broadcast or watching MTV. I think there must be an idea in the back of every songwriter’s mind like, “How’s it going to turn out?” What will they do when they make a video of this one? So what does this have to do with writing a song?

Not a lot. But isn’t it possible to hear something new and big?

Not unless there is a massive shift in attitude at the distribution level, which includes places where music is dispersed: radio, TV, jukebox, whatever, until current values disappear.

Until then, there is little hope that anyone who makes anything other than formula milk will have the ability to have their music recorded, let alone pass it on.

Do you think there is an inherent need in people to have serious and expressive music in their lives?

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

You see, an audience is formed. They are driven by their environment. And what they hear on the radio has nothing to do with life – everything is freeze-dried and dead. It’s like dead artifacts repeating themselves over and over again. Repetition helps sell records, but repetition reduces composition to the level of wallpaper.

Is that the case ?

Sure. Especially in the radio sense, we no longer hear it. It’s a rock and roll atmosphere that you play in your car, hear in an elevator, experience in a shop. He 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 everyone calls the common American currency, the musical experience of being an American. The limit of your musical experience has been determined by accountants. Unless you are looking for the latest and greatest of all available in any field, what is presented to you as your set of alternatives that you will choose to inhabit your lifestyle is miniscule.

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

If you were a classical composer and sold 50,000 albums, you would be a hero. I mean, the mainstream pop industry spits on 50,000 records. I regularly make 50,000 records. The only album I ever had that was in the million plus category was Sheikh Yerbouti and the only reason it sold so much was because the song “Bobby Brown Goes Down”, which never got to be played in the United States, was a hit all over Europe. Most of these sales were outside of the United States, so it was an unpredictable fluke.

Usually my record sales are between 50,000 and 300,000 depending on the content of the album.

Do you consider selling 50,000 records a failure?

I think that’s about the bottom margin to feel good considering how much it costs to make an album. You know, success, if you want to look at it in financial terms, you have to look at the difference between what you spend to make it and what you get for it once it hits the market. And because I have my own studio and do my own stuff, I can actually make a profit on 50,000 records where another guy probably couldn’t.

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

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

But you can only do it for so long.

It depends on your quality of copier.

What if you wanted to pursue a career in songwriting?

Basically, it’s a scam career.

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

You can’t make a living as a songwriter in the United States. But when it comes to being a songwriter, you can make a lot of money if you listen to what everyone else has done that’s been successful, and tweak it to the point where you can convince a accounting for a record company that you’re fresh, new and original. This is usually done by periodically changing your hairstyle and having a good wardrobe. It’s basically the business you’re entering. The idea of ​​writing a beautiful melody is the furthest thing from the minds of the people you will do business with, and it is the reality of the business.

Some said there hadn’t been a great melody for about thirty years.

I would say that’s probably true, because the big idea of ​​music today is dance music, especially for Americans, who have an incredibly limited concept of what rhythm is. If you look at the typical dance beats that drive an American dancer, you’re very close to marching music. It’s boom-bap-boom-bap, and if there’s anything more than that, an American’s feet are tangled.

So you start with some sort of basic fascist marching beat and then add some parallel fifths to it (if you want it to be heavy metal) and make sure your melodies are nothing shorter than a eighth note. Make sure there’s an incredible amount of repetition in the composition, because you’re assuming that when people are half-walking and pumping their butts up and down, they can’t really understand more than a five-note melody .

If you were to do a statistical analysis of some of the most popular and best-selling tracks on the market in recent days, you wouldn’t see too many notes, the chords don’t hold too many surprises, and the rhythm is boom-bap. .

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

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

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