Friday, 28 December 2007
37 - Frank Zappa: Bobby Brown Goes Down
From “Sheik Yerbouti”, 1979
Again, here’s another instance of what tries to be a string of coarse gags. When you try to tie them all together they contradict each other though and it all becomes rather scurrilous nonsense instead.
This song has the dubious honour of being one of Zappa’s biggest hits. Because of its lush melody, this song went on to become a #1 hit in Scandinavia. Teens apparently remained ignorant of its crass sadomasochistic content as they danced and romanced at the disco. Zappa would probably argue that the whole point of the exercise is to exploit the tension between sentimental musical hypocrisy, which promotes one false set of societal stereotypes, and this gross social reportage.
A few defences by Zappa critics:
“Bobby Brown” is part of Zappa's politically dubious speculation that women's liberation has turned men gay as they find career women 'would be like fucking a slightly more voluptuous version of somebody's father', as Harry-as-a-Boy puts it in Thing-Fish. The historical actuality is that the rise of feminism has given the opportunity for all kinds of repressed sexual minorities to voice their identities. However, all considerations of fairness are swept aside in an outpouring of scandalous couplets over a lush, vibrant melody. It does not matter what Zappa actually believes - in The Real Frank Zappa Book he talks some half-baked nonsense about the duty of American citizens to breed the next generation - because of his ability to foment all the taboo areas in a single song.
– “Frank Zappa: the Negative Dialectics of poodle Play” by Ben Watson, 1994
"Bobby Brown Goes Down" is a disputable bit of social commentary about sexual confusion that would probably have fit perfectly on Lather. While some have called this song anti-gay, it's not an indictment of homosexuality, but a blatant attack on careerism. Bobby Brown is a preppy, privileged guy who thinks he's "the cutest boy in town”.' He drives a fast car and dresses sharp and acts cool. He gets the attention of all the cheerleaders. Bobby Brown has a simple outlook on his life that could have been shaped by the white-bread values of the '50s. But it's not the '50s anymore - it's the '70s. The emergence of feminism and gay rights has overturned the dominant social order. The road to wealth and power is no longer a sure thing, and Bobby Brown's dreams of getting ahead end up, instead, with him helplessly giving head. His first encounter with a lesbian leaves him desperately unsure of his masculinity. Suddenly, Bobby Brown's means to achieving success come from acts he finds degrading ("I can take about an hour on the tower of power/'Long as I get a little golden shower"). Zappa is saying that Bobby Brown's hyper-aggressive masculinity ("I tell all the girls they can kiss my heinie") was just a cover for his submissive personality ("With a spindle up my butt till it makes me scream/An' I'll do anything to get ahead"). Rather than being a smug assault on homosexuality, Zappa's song confronts our culture's masculine ideals:
When the band performed the song during the 1984 tour, lead vocalist Ike Willis inserted a "Hi-ho, Silver!" partway through. This reference to the Lone Ranger, which cracked up Zappa to the degree that he could barely sing, was an observant bit of improvisation. It came from Lenny Bruce's classic routine "The Lone Ranger;' a satiric jab at the personification of masculine ideals in our heroes. Bruce suggested that once the Lone Ranger doubted his powers, he revealed a submissive side. This leads the townsfolk to speculate that "the Masked Man's a fag!"
– “Dangerous kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa” by Kevin Courrier, 2002
"Sheik Yerbouti" includes several controversial songs, including “Bobby Brown Goes Down” and “Jewish Princess”. The former was attacked by gay rights groups for being homophobic, and by feminists for being sexist. It was both, but Zappa naively believed that if you parodied something, that made whatever you said all right. The song is about Bobby Brown, a college jock who sleeps with a 'dyke' called Freddie. She has been influenced by the women's liberation movement, which is 'creeping all across the nation' like a plague. This encounter turns Bobby into a homosexual and, as this is a Zappa song, he gets into S&M, so that Zappa can sing gleefully about the 'tower of power'. It is basically one of Zappa’s schoolyard get togethers with all the little boys saying dirty words
– “Frank Zappa” by Barry Miles, 2004