Frank Zappa’s Gnarly Mixed Feelings About “Valley Girl”

Frank Zappa put a subversive face on tricky jazz-rock fusion, collaborated with the L.A. Philharmonic and London Symphony Orchestra, and worked with classical figures from Zubin Mehta to Pierre Boulez...

Bitchin', right?

Twenty years on from his death, Zappa might roll over and gag himself with a spoon in his grave if he were to know that "Valley Girl" remained his most enduring public legacy.

Before he died on Dec. 4, 1993, the counterculture icon shared plenty of feelings about the deathlessness of his biggest hit, some of them more gnarly than tubular.

"The worst thing about that record is the fact that nobody really listened to it," he told critical supporter Josef Woodard. "The whole coverage of the song barely mentioned what the song was really saying, that these people are really airheads." On another occasion, he waxed even less enthusiastic about how his song was embraced: "It just goes to show that the American public loves to celebrate the infantile. I mean, I don't want people to act like that. I think Valley Girls are disgusting."

Yet at other times he seemed to relish the attention "Valley Girl" had afforded him and his collaborator on the single, 14-year-old daughter Moon Unit Zappa. He decried the fact that, despite its ubiquity, the song had sold "maybe 350,000 copies," but added, "sociologically, it was the most important record of 1982 in the United States."

Overstatement? Maybe not. (And what are you going to pit against it for that title — "White Wedding"?) Linguistically, at least, it was the most significant piece of music of the decade, satirizing and/or popularizing the "Val-speak" that both delighted and horrified a nation. It wasn't just the lingo, but the then-newfangled teen way of intoning every declarative statement so that it sounds like a question.

Lost in the hysteria over Moon Unit's contributions was the fact that it started with a hell of a riff, one that Zappa had been "piddling with" at sound checks for a year before he decided it would be the thunderous undertone to a piece of savage mockery of his daughter's contemporaries.

"I had no idea it was going to be such a big hit. I just wanted to spend some time with my father," Moon told People magazine at the time, talking about how she'd pleaded to be on one of her dad's recordings. That was not her "real," well-spoken voice on the track. "I would go to bar mitzvahs and come back speaking Valley lingo that everyone at the bar mitzvah was speaking, and the song came out of that... He wrote the song and then he asked me if I would improvise over what was already recorded and just do tracks of just straight talk. And so I just babbled on about my toenails and bondage and whatever else."

The result was one of those pop Rorschach tests. Was it a merciless dissection of youth culture in decline, or a mirthful celebration of kidspeak?

Zappa biographer Kelly Fisher Lowe certainly takes the former view. “The song, despite its silly, Valley-girl lyrics, is a pretty savage critique of the gross consumerism of the early ‘80s," wrote Lowe in The Words and Music of Frank Zappa. " The characters that Moon is playing throughout the song are obsessed with shopping and beauty and status. The choruses, sung by Zappa and band, then offer a meta commentary on Moon’s narrative… Although many probably did not see or understand a relationship between ‘Valley Girl’ and the Marxist theory of commodity fetishism, it is there, buried under four minutes of pure pop confection. It is one of the more subversive acts of art in the ‘80s.”

Zappa himself certainly seemed to think—or hope—so. “I’m not too thrilled about the (San Fernando) Valley as an aesthetic concept… To me, [it] represents a number of very evil things," he said. And, to Billboard magazine: "People think ‘Valley Girl’ is a happy kind of song, but it isn’t. I’ve always hated the Valley. It’s a most depressing place.”

This was in contrast to the positive spin put on it by Moon Unit herself, who insisted to the press, "He's not putting Vals down."

Of course, the Valley was as much state of mind, and state of mouth, as a specific locale in the song. "Valley Girl slang… is really beach talk that moved a few miles east 'cause the Vals were hangin' out on the beach," said Corky Carroll in the book "How to Talk American: A Guide to Our Native Tongues." "'Gnarly,' 'rad,' 'radical to the max' — it was all beach talk. But now you can walk into a school in Boise, Idaho, and hear kids talking like that."

Zappa thought so little of the song that he never played it live and never mentioned it in the main text of his memoir. But he had to address it in interviews.

"There are a couple of things bout 'Valley Girl' being a hit: first, it's not my fault — they didn't buy that record because it had my name on it," he said. "They bought it because they liked Moon’s voice. It's got nothing to do with the song or the performance. It has everything to do with the American public wanting to have some new syndrome to identify with. And they got it. … Hits are not necessarily musical phenomena." In the same breath, he added: "We've hired a guy to make merchandizing deals on that song."

Indeed, Zappa licensed clothing and cosmetic lines and dolls using the Valley Girl imprint. He even took a co-writing credit with his daughter on "The Official Valley Girl Coloring Book," published just a few months after the song hit the airwaves. In the introduction, he wrote, "Dear person who likes to consume stupid Valley Girl merchandise. ... Ever since the album 'Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch' was released and America discovered the song 'Valley Girl,' many of those anonymous little companies who crank out disposable poot for persons such as yourself to identify with have worked overtime to flood the market with disgusting types of UNAUTHORIZED VALLEY GIRL SWILL. NOW... AT LAST! REAL GENUINE SWILL FROM PRICE/STERN/SLOAN WITH THE VALLEY GIRL AROMA! From the moment you purchase this splendid little item and get out your crayons, you can become personally involved in one of the the dumbest fads to hit the streets in years."

He told Billboard during the height of the song's popularity that, dumb fad or not, "we are working to get the screenplay of the thing organized" and wanted to make sure it would not be "any 'Beach Blanket Bingo' real fast and cheap teenage piece of s--t." But that choice ended up not being in his hands. A film went into production, using the title but not the song, and Zappa sued, in a fruitless effort to stop production. The resulting feature, 1983's "Valley Girl," was most notable for making its Valley Boy, Nicolas Cage, into a star. Besides Cage's career, Zappa might also indirectly be responsible for Alicia Silverstone's, since 1995's "Clueless" seemed a clear ancestor of the "Valley Girl" tradition.

How much it did for Zappa himself is up for debate, even now. He complained that the album only sold about 125,000 units. Perhaps that was to be expected, since, as biographer Barry Miles noted, "It was not the sort of album that would be broken by a teenage novelty record, consisting as it did of songs about male lust, industrial pollution and 'Teenage Prostitute,' sung live in an overblown high operatic shriek."

It did get Zappa more of a reputation as a "novelty song" guy, coming on the heels of "I Don't Want to Get Drafted," about the Carter administration reinstating the draft, and the disco parody "Dancin' Fool" and of course "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" before that. But it was more of an anomaly, given that, right before this 1982 release, he'd put out an all-instrumental three-LP set called "Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar," and he followed "Valley Girl" up in 1983 with the classical "London Symphony Orchestra" project and in '84 with "Boulez Conducts Zappa."

"Valley Girl" was nominated for a Grammy, but Zappa was not to win one until he earned a rock instrumental trophy in 1986. In 1988, he performed his final concert in Italy, five years before his death from prostate cancer.

Moon, meanwhile, eventually dropped the "Unit" from her name and became an MTV guest VJ, novelist, and alternative standup comic. She most recently made the news with her still-impending divorce from Matchbox 20 guitarist Paul Doucette. "I think lawyers take vacations about 30 times a year," she joked, while discussing divorce in an October 2013 "WTF" podcast interview with Marc Maron.