Last night, I rented the movie Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words. It is a well-edited compilation of interviews with Frank Zappa over the course of his career. For the average moviegoer, the film has little to offer, but for the Frank Zappa fan, the film is a must-watch. I will not bother with a formal movie review, however, since Eat That Question mostly consists of footage available on YouTube that has been compiled nicely into a cohesive narrative, providing insight into Zappa's artistic vision. There is nothing new to say about this film footage. If you know about this film, chances are good that you already know whether you plan on seeing it. I'll let my "review" stand at that.

Just because all of this footage had been previously released, however, doesn't mean that I had personally seen it all. One particular moment in the film stood out for me the most. When asked why he thought everyone considered him a hippy rockstar and not a composer, Zappa said something to the effect of, "Probably because they haven't been conditioned for excellence."

This seems like an arrogant thing to say, but Zappa expounded on his point, and the point recurred a few times over the course of the film. He said that the American education system mostly focuses on turning American children into adults who will succeed at getting boring, low-level factory-type jobs and buy cheap merchandise. Elsewhere in the film, Zappa references a rejected article he wrote for Time Magazine. (The article was subsequently printed in Zappa's autobiography, The REAL Frank Zappa Book.) In that article, Zappa makes the claim that Americans have a preference for "cheese," which is Frank's euphemism for cheap, low-grade, low-brow cultural artifacts like cheeseburgers and "chrome dinettes." In the film, he contrasts this American proclivity to the tendency of much older world cultures to take pride in the thousands of years of cultural history they enjoy. He points out how silly it must appear to, say, Europeans, that Americans are so fond of something like a cheeseburger, when in Europe they enjoy recipes that date back literal eons, evolving along cultural lines all the while.

So, Zappa's point was about aesthetics. Zappa believed that people ought to learn how to appreciate art, and history, and music, and pretty much everything else by taking the long view. For Zappa, it made a lot of sense to tout the likes of Beethoven as the greatest composers of music of all time. Their work represents the culmination of hundreds if not thousands of years of musical development. The great composers were worth taking pride in, because they truly represented the evolution of music as art. When we compare that to the latest top 40 thing by... oh, let's just choose a name out of a hat and say Imagine Dragons... there is not much of a comparison to be had.

To be clear, Zappa's point wasn't that it's morally wrong to enjoy Imagine Dragons. His point was that the American culture and education system such as it is leaves people completely unequipped to make informed artistic decisions about what is artistic and what isn't. Instead, the mere suggestion that Beethoven might actually be superior to Imagine Dragons elicits social media vitriol: music is subjective, and what's wrong with liking Imagine Dragons? and I'd much rather listen to pop radio than some dumb orchestra.

Suffice it to say that none of these objections defeat Zappa's point.

On a related note, somebody compiled data from Goodreads.com and provided a list of the most beloved and most hated English language classic novels of all time. To my chagrin albeit not to my surprise, Moby Dick, the single greatest novel of all time, a literary accomplishment so profound that most people will never understand the extent of its genius, ranks as one of the most-hated classics. Why?

Part of it has something to do with what I just said about it: the genius of Moby Dick is so tremendous that I don't think most people can really even understand what Melville accomplished in writing it. Even understanding the profundity of that novel is a pale reflection of the white-hot flame of ingenious creativity that was required to conceive of it; and even conceiving of it is a pale shadow compared to the actual writing of it. Moby Dick tells a thoroughly unique tale with intensely philosophic moral symbolism and a disarmingly charming prose; and that, in and of itself should be enough to make it a great novel. But then Melville found a way to literally fuse the complete works of Shakespeare with the Holy Bible -- literally, I mean he literally wrote his novel by assembling passages from both Shakespeare and the Bible to craft the language of his own story, making symbolic references to each individually, and both simultaneously, all in the service of an entirely separate story he wrote himself. And the unsuspecting reader would be none the wiser, because the novel reads wonderfully and wittily throughout. This novel isn't just Treasure Island for adults; it's a true artistic accomplishment.

But that brings me to the other reason Moby Dick is such a hated novel, and this ties to Frank Zappa's opinions as articulated above. The modern American reader does not have the mental tools required to properly evaluate Moby Dick. It kills me to think that one of America's greatest contributions to mankind's artistic canon is beyond the educational platform of the overwhelming majority of Americans.

This is precisely what Zappa wanted to warn us about: we should be remembering Moby Dick for the ages. Moby Dick is what should be leaving a lasting impression on American culture. Instead, I think more Americans probably recognize the names of politicians, pop stars, and other such flashes in the pan. This is not because Americans are too stupid to understand greatness when they see it. Rather, it's because our culture, our media, and our education system have all failed to provide us with the tools required to evaluate culture and art, and Americans left to their own devices are disinclined to pick up the slack.

By coincidence, I happened to see a video on Facebook yesterday of someone cooking boiled prawns in the Southern style. The recipe went something like this:

  • Put a bunch of water in a giant pot and bring it to boil
  • Add a large concoction of spices, primarily salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper
  • Boil corn on the cob and potatoes in the spice/water mixture
  • Remove the corn and potatoes, then add raw crawfish, prawns, shrimp, whatever, and boil until cooked
  • Remove some of the shrimp and put in a mixing bowl with some of the corn and some of the potatoes
  • Pour a half cup of butter over everything
  • Squeeze some lemon juice over everything
  • Add a bunch of lemon pepper, pepper, cayenne pepper, "cajun seasoning," smoked paprika, and a bunch of other mixed spices that are all various kinds of salt, pepper, and chili powder
  • Stir
  • Dump on a plate
Here's a shorter version of this recipe: Boil three different ingredients, then cover them in butter, salt, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper. This isn't a recipe for crawfish, it's a recipe for butter and cayenne pepper.

Amazingly, the broth that was created by boiling seafood in water for a couple of minutes -- while not as flavorful as it could have been, had someone with a sense of taste undertaken to make seafood broth -- was probably the most flavorful part of the entire recipe. What did the cooks do with the broth? Nothing. It was a wasteful byproduct of boiled potatoes and shrimp covered in butter.

As I watched this video, I heard in my head the voice of an old French colleague of mine, who once complained to me about how disgusting American food looked when they served it. He thought it was revolting to see big, messy globs of food heaped onto plates with no sense of care. He was right. It's hard to find a restaurant in America that doesn't serve big, salty globs of stuff. I ran past Cracker Barrel this weekend, and it was packed; I went to a nice Syrian restaurant, and it was not packed.

Why do Americans prefer boiled Southern potatoes to braised Syrian lamb? Why do they prefer Harry Potter to Moby Dick? Why do they prefer Imagine Dragons to Beethoven?

Because Frank Zappa was right: Americans lack the tools to evaluate culture properly, so we queso dip while other cultures get remoulade. It's baffling. Don't we want more for ourselves?

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