It’s a label Zappa openly embraced into the 1980s, staging a career rebrand that saw him asserting his fierce individualism along more conventionally political lines. In 1985, he became a regular feature in talk show junkets, speaking against the efforts of Parents Music Resource Center, the committee Tipper Gore co-founded to devise a movie-style ratings system for rock and pop records. Zappa devotes significant attention to its subject’s activism in this regard, as he chats with Ted Koppel, Larry King, Regis and Kathie Lee, Arsenio Hall, and the usual circuit of mid-’80s news magazine hosts. Despite his music not being explicitly targeted by the PMRC (which was probably a letdown), Zappa went to Congress defending Prince, Sheena Easton, Ozzy Osbourne, and others, decrying the censorious scheme as “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense,” which was true enough.
Shorn and clean-shaven, flecks of gray in his sideburns, swapping denim and frills for off-the-rack suit jackets, Zappa perfectly fit the image of the American civil libertarian. In a 1986 Crossfire debate with paleocon pundit John Lofton, Zappa raised eyebrows by squarely admitting: “I’m a conservative.” Elsewhere in the debate, Zappa pursues a line of free speech absolutism that borders on the self-parodic, insisting that offensive or “pornographic” rock lyrics are “just words” and thus incapable of harm. In Zappa, band member Scott Thunes attempts to frame these media appearances as yet another Zappaesque prank, a form of provocation by means of public service devil’s advocacy. Maybe. But even admirers may feel a bit betrayed by this late-career heel turn.
His music from the era provokes similar disappointment. The freaked-out provocations of the early Mothers of Invention records (and concerts) and the slicker experimentation of Zappa’s various ’70s bands settled into a mix of mean-spirited satire (“Jewish Princess,” “Bobby Brown Goes Down”), overly indulgent guitar solo compilations, and chart-topping novelty songs (1982’s “Valley Girl,” featuring Zappa’s teenage daughter, Moon Unit, proved his sole top 40 hit). That rigorous musical formalism ceded territory to sub–MAD magazine satirical broadsides. His attacks on hot-button subjects like Reaganism, televangelism, and MTV felt a little facile when hard-core punks half his age were lodging the same complaints with twice the ferocity. The PMRC-baiting 1985 record, Frank Zappa Meets the Mothers of Prevention, which came affixed with its own Zappa-designed parental warning sticker, plays like a self-martyring vanity project.
Zappa became a household boogeyman for all the wrong reasons: threatening to shock, not with deliberately ugly and alienating music, but with pitchy lectures—equal parts Jello Biafra and Dennis Miller—about the imminent threat of a Republican fascist theocracy. Zappa would reappear on Saturday Night Live in 1990, this time in the form of a Dana Carvey impersonation, warning against an America where “Nazi stormtrooper automatons feed us the party line, while Big Brother Bush and Reichsmarschall Tipper watch us on Tele-screens operated by Thought Police.” In 1991, Zappa publicly mulled the possibility of a presidential bid (eyeing Ross Perot as a running mate and Alan Dershowitz as prospective attorney general) on an independent, libertarian-minded platform of eliminating federal taxes and “getting the government out of people’s faces.”