I’ll just come right out and say it: this album is Frank Zappa, an artist with a long and labyrinthine discography, at his most accessible. Zappa was a man who experimented with many different styles of music throughout his career, from rock to classical music to jazz to electronic music. He released more albums than years he was alive (he died in 1993 just three weeks shy of his 53rd birthday), making the process of getting into his music an arduous task.
This album is a good starting point for listeners coming from a background in popular music. Originally released as a double album, ‘You Are What You Is’ features a broad palate of genres; some songs are straight-up pop (“Teenage Wind,” “Society Pages,” “Mudd Club”), while others are firmly planted in the arena-rock genre (“Any Downers,” the title track, “Dumb All Over”). There are other songs that are unique excursions into country (“Harder Than Your Husband”), a hard rock/doo-wop hybrid (“Doreen”), and a beautiful piece from an unfinished ballet arranged for a rock band (“Theme From The Third Movement of Sinister Footwear”). Additionally, all of the songs run together, making the album a seamless listen.
From a lyrical perspective, Zappa was on top of his game as a cultural critic here. He lampoons youth culture in the song “Teenage Wind,” weaving a story about a kid who misses out on a Grateful Dead concert. Distraught, he hopes to smoke some grass, but since he can’t find any, he instead sniffs glue. The title track gives a wise commentary on the performance of race, with one verse describing a white man who wants to become black and the second verse detailing a black man who wants to become white.
One side-long medley of songs has Zappa mocking the older generation (“Society Pages”) before turning his attention to the young yuppies of the early 1980’s (“I’m A Beautiful Guy”). There is a wonderful pro-feminist argument to be pulled out of “Beauty Knows No Pain,” where Zappa ridicules the ritualistic nature of the processes women undergo in order to appear desirable: “Beauty is a bikini wax and waiting for your nails to dry / Beauty is a pair of shoes that make you wanna die.”
A string of songs later in the album give a blunt take on religion: “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” “Dumb All Over,” and “Heavenly Bank Account.” Each song makes points about corruption and hypocrisy that ring true to this very day. The first, which Zappa performed on Saturday Night Live in 1978, is an earnest attack on how religious followers allow themselves to be taken advantage of by corrupt leaders. “Dumb All Over,” which I maintain is his single best lyric, is a scathing bombardment of the hypocrisy in people waging wars overseas in the name of their God (video above).
He brings the argument back to the domestic front by placing a majority of the blame on televangelists, whose political connections ensure they will never get in trouble for their assorted financial and sexual misdeeds. For all of his accurate predictions about the stultification of American society, Zappa delighted in being wrong about televangelists never getting caught. In the late 1980’s, televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker were both involved in scandals that revealed their true nature. Given their previous rhetoric about the increasing absence of Godly behavior in society, Zappa blissfully paid tribute to Bakker in “Jesus Thinks You’re A Jerk,” while making Swaggart the focus of three reworked Beatles tunes on his 1988 tour.
Politics aside, the music throughout the album at times borders on pop. This isn’t to say it is simple, as a close listen will reveal rough time signatures and the occasional passage of difficult music. It is a stroke of genius on Zappa’s part to hide such extraordinary musicianship within such seemingly innocent melodies. Vocalists Ike Willis and Ray White shine in particular.
Taken as a whole, this is an album that captures the best elements of Zappa’s skills as a songwriter. It boasts catchy melodies that are actually quite interesting from a musical perspective, and the words are intelligent and astute. His backing band is stellar, executing Zappa’s complex songs with great aplomb.
As someone who celebrates Zappa’s entire catalog, I’ve made countless efforts to introduce people to his music. So far, playing songs from this album hasn’t failed. It is a marvelous way of getting acquainted with one of the best musical geniuses of the latter half of the Twentieth Century.