Who The F**k Is Kyle Smith And What Qualifies Him To Critique Frank Zappa? Eat That Question

On Thursday of last week, the New York Post published what was ostensibly a review of a recently released documentary film, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. The review (ahem) is offered by self-described “film critic for the New York Post” Kyle Smith and comprises of four short, largely inaccurate paragraphs. A sole paragraph refers to the movie; the other three are devoted to what amounts to little more than an immature, ad hominem attack on Frank Zappa.

Where does one begin to refute Kyle Smith’s asinine review? Let’s start by saying that anyone who wields that broad a brush to discount the entire catalog of an important 20th century composer with one shamefully short and spiteful “critique” clearly evinces a lack of journalistic credibility. That he flatly denies Frank Zappa’s myriad musical contributions by calling him “a rotten musician” is proof that Kyle Smith can write a sensational headline but doesn’t spend a whit of time on research.

Reviewers at Vimeo devoted more effort to reviewing the actual movie than Kyle Smith did.

“Thorsten Schütte’s film is a sharply edited and energetic celebration of Zappa through his public persona, allowing us to witness his shifting relationship with audiences. Utilizing potent TV interviews and many forgotten performances from his 30-year career, we are immersed into the musician’s world while experiencing two distinct facets of his complex character. At once Zappa was both a charismatic composer who reveled in the joy of performing and, in the next moment, a fiercely intelligent and brutally honest interviewee whose convictions only got stronger as his career ascended.”

Here’s everything Smith had to say about the documentary that he may or may not have actually watched.

“The doc Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words cuts together concert and interview footage to make it clear that Zappa (who died in 1993) was once famous, though it doesn’t tell us why.”

Those interested in perusing an actual movie reviewer’s take on Eat That Question are invited and encouraged to visit the official Roger Ebert site where Glenn Kenny offers a carefully considered, cogent accounting of the 90-minute documentary. Kenny shows a basic understanding of music in general and Frank Zappa in particular when he offers full paragraphs that say smart things.

“The movie proceeds chronologically, and Zappa’s social commentary sometimes devolves into a kind of truculence, although it’s difficult to argue, for instance, with his assertion that America’s education system has nothing to do with ‘preparing people to live a life that has beautiful things in it.'”

Keep your day job, Kyle

Kyle Smith’s June 23 article is neither a read-worthy movie review nor a worth-believing musical critique. It is what Frank Zappa may have described as a “petulant frenzy.” Over the years, countless scholars and respected reviewers who understand music far better than Kyle Smith have offered thoughtful critiques of the music of Frank Zappa.

Well-seasoned reviewer Sean Murphy is one of them. Currently, an associate editor at the literary website TheWeeklings as well as writer-in-residence at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard, Murphy studied English at George Mason University and has a Master of Arts degree in Literature. His writing is featured in reputable publications such as the New York Times, Elephant Journal, Salon, All About Jazz, The Village Voice and PopMatters magazine. And here’s what Sean Murphy had to say about the music of the man Kyle Smith would have us believe is a no-talent hack.

“Zappa… appeared with orchestras and wrote compositions with words like “Opus”, “First Movement”, “Allegro” and “Variations” in them without irony. For one thing, he understood what the terms meant, and he actually employed them. He was not imitating classical music, he was conducting it, albeit a distinctively eccentric, avant-garde variety. His approach was kitchen-sink in the best possible connotation of that term. He was too intelligent, ambitious and driven to create material that fit comfortably into any simple category. When you are ultimately better than even the sum total of your achievements, it is not possible to fake anything.”

Murphy noted that Frank Zappa had little use for “the unsophisticated rock music critics who could not begin to fathom what he was attempting as well as the clinch-a**ed classical music community who would instinctively cringe at the sight of a grown man with pig-tails having the effrontery to wave a baton.”

On June 24, Tom Cole of All Things Considered commented positively on the cinematic merits of Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Cole noted that by the time Frank Zappa founded the Mothers of Invention in 1964, he was already a prolific composer influenced mightily by the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. Zappa’s earliest compositions were orchestral in nature. The musician that NPR described as “a biting satirist, ferocious critic of societal norms, and outspoken defender of free speech” did not write a rock ‘n’ roll song until he was 21-years-old.

Kyle Smith is not always a complete idiot. His March 21 New York Post column entitled Millennials Need to Put Away the Juice Boxes and Grow Up is proof of that. But the fact that Kyle Smith blithely discounts the irreplaceable talent and complex compositions of Frank Zappa clearly shows the man knows nothing about music.

This writer is not alone in her umbrage at Kyle Smith’s moronically misguided “journalism.” In fact, there is a Facebook group dedicated to boycotting the New York Post until Smith is no longer in their employ. Started in 2013 after Smith disparaged the American food service industry, the Facebook page seems to have been relatively inactive until June 24 when a Frank Zappa supporter posted the following (excerpted from the original post).

“This guy (Kyle Smith) is a complete idiot. He doesn’t know shit about anything he attempts to write about. It (sic) wrote that Frank Zappa had no talent…… b******t. That idiot should ask Ruth Underwood Julliard music graduate who recorded and performed with Frank or maybe Steve Vai who also played in another one of Franks bands. Frank Zappa was a musical genius.”

It will be interesting to see if the boycott Kyle Smith movement catches on. In the meantime, we would all do well to remember what Frank Zappa himself had to say about music critics. The following quote is from The Real Frank Zappa Book, co-written with Peter Occhiogrosso and published in 1989.

“Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.”

[Photo by Ron Case/Keystone/Getty Images]