Frank Zappa makes a great role model on so many levels. As a musician, a social commentator, and creative person in general, Zappa brings a sharp logical wit to everything he touches. Though he was widely misunderstood by the public at large, his intelligence and integrity are noteworthy regardless of politics. Zappa believed in the freedom of the individual. He spent his life pursuing those things that interested him, and by doing so he made a lasting impression on the musical world (and some kind of impression on the political one).
For those of us who enjoy creating, Zappa is easy to appreciate. Writing, painting, composing, and programming are the types of activities that attract people who do for the sake of doing. The concept that you can make a living doing something you enjoy is one of the greatest freedoms to emerge from modern culture. Zappa embraced this freedom and in the process created an astonishing discography spanning four decades. Yet the most inspiring thing is that he never really 'got lucky.' Zappa earned everything he got. Us commoners can relate to him because he never became part of the entertainment machine that really hit its stride during his career. He massaged a loyal cult following through pure musical creativity (too purely creative for the common listener). The few hits Zappa had during the 70s and 80s set him up for life because didn't strive for a rock star lifestyle. He made necessary business decisions, but was never forced to water down his music. Whether popular musicians have sold out is the omnipresent conundrum in an MTV age, but with Zappa there's no need to ask.
HIs musical catalog provides old-growth forest for the construction of new popular music. Whereas most popular music these days can be thought of as recycled particle board, with some plywood, and a few innovators creating the saplings of new ideas, Zappa consistently outdoes them all in terms of raw material produced. Once you get past the often corny facade of a Zappa piece, you will be astonished by what is going on musically. And you can listen hundreds of times before really catching everything that's going on. I don't think I've ever liked a Zappa song the first time I've heard it; it takes time to digest the thick Zappa-gel. This feature makes Zappa most beloved to musicians themselves, who can use Zappa as pure inspiration due the vast variety of rhythms, melodies, and compositions he uses. Once familiar with Zappa you will start to see his influence in everything from techno to hip-hop.
Zappa was goofy. His lyrics provide the first (and often only) impression to new listeners everywhere. In fact, I think it's safe to say most folks can't get over the lyrics, they either find them offensive or too goofy to listen to seriously. Zappa said once that he only put the lyrics there because people want lyrics. He got in a fair amount of hot water from various sources over allegations of racism and sexism in his lyrics. To Zappa, the idea that avoiding certain socially unacceptable stereotypes would prevent one from being a racist was absurd. He did not express contempt or superiority to any groups of people, he just wrote very descriptive narratives. Sure he made fun of almost everyone, but the fact that his accusers often came from the latently-racist power structure of America seems more than a bit ironic.
Zappa's witty clear-spoken manner seems to often have an inflammatory effect, not because of his words themselves, but because of the strong images and arguments they evoke. Whether listening to interviews, reading courtroom transcripts, or reading his books, I am consistently awed at how deep Zappa's worldview is. Maybe it's just personal bias. I love what the man stood for, and how he stated it. Though his witticisms and sardonic humour have been under-appreciated by the under-informed, I think history will cast Zappa in the light of the real power of his ideas. The power of truthful observation and pure creativity.