#297: The Mothers of Invention, "We're Only In It for the Money" (1968)

Frank Zappa grew up saying he wanted to be a scientist like his father, but admitted his dad feared buying him a chemistry set. Instead, he bought him a drum set. At a ripe twelve years old, Zappa looked at his father and said, “Pop, I’m going to make a million dollars.”

Which is a funny history to learn when approaching We’re Only In It for the Money: the album takes a methodological approach to music. At surface level, it’s a funny, scientific satire. You’re laughing, but it’s the kind of laugh where you’re both cynical and critical of the outcome that it might actually be serious.

Songs vary from a minute to six, sprinkling some snare drums and loud guitars with vocal delivery ranging from phone conversations, high pitched melodies, and pure shouts. The lyrical framework exaggerates the commercial success of the counterculture and openly mocks the hippiedom movement and hippie persona blooming in the 1960s. In a broader ideological fashion, rather than giving in, Zappa and the Mothers of Invention decide to play the part and produce this scathing psychedelic rock record that bullshits hippies on their activism (or lack thereof).

It’s difficult to decipher the meaning behind the maniacal minute-long interludes. When listening to something like “Harry, You’re a Beast,” you can feel the narrator’s contempt towards listeners: “You paint your head / your mind is dead / you don’t even know what I said.” The group is frank about how the influx of weed, cash, and running away from home is somehow more appealing than any awareness of injustice and violence. Even “Who Needs the Peace Corps?,” the second track on the album, parodies the passiveness of hippies with “First I’ll buy some beads / and then perhaps a leather band / to go around my head...I will love everyone / I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street.”

Zappa further harps on the colorblind hippie in “Concentration Moon,” an allegory on the Japanese internment camps created by the American government during World War II: “Hair growing out / every hole in me / AMERICAN WAY / threatened by US / drag a few creeps / away in a bus / AMERICAN WAY.” To put it lightly, so many people are ignorant to the prominent disparities that have historically hurt people of color and minorities, but I can’t help but experience some increased self-consciousness when realizing how Zappa’s comments mirror some activist activity in 2016.

In today’s widespread activism, we call things out and hashtag our causes, sometimes leading to more clicks than actual commitment. I myself am guilty of this. More often than not, there is a powerful focus on human impact and influence, but what is more common is the ability to capitalize on this “wokeness.” We click and share when convenient, when another letter or video revealing a deep injustice goes viral. Brands decide to speak out when it favors their bottom line: feminism is now marketable, #BlackLivesMatter can still be declared by companies that have yet to hire and invest in people of color, and somehow hiring a straight actor to play a trans character speaks to Hollywood’s progress.

In the 1960s, psychedelic rock and the counterculture could thrive in some ways because it boiled down to the simplicity of “love everyone.” When speaking to a friend about We’re Only In It for the Money, he quipped that something like “#AllLivesMatter” would have worked in the ‘60s because nobody would dig deeper into the nuances and differentiation; there was a deep desire to escape the chaos of war and violence. But that cannot work, not in 2016: you have to underline this complex, otherwise unjust history and confront discomfort to inch towards reconciliation and closure.

Frank Zappa himself made history by producing an album that mocked the Beatles because he thought they too were doing this for the money. Maybe they were, but wasn’t he, too? That’s the ongoing joke in We’re Only In It for the Money. It’s for the millions of dollars, but does it have to be?

— Upma Kapoor