Moon Zappa's complicated relationship with 'Valley Girl,' 40 years later: 'I just was trying to make my dad laugh'
In 1982, avant garde rock genius Frank Zappa scored his only top 40 hit, the Grammy-nominated, Zeitgeist-capturing “Valley Girl.” The satirical send-up of suburban SoCal teen life unexpectedly spawned a cottage industry: a cult rom-com that gave Nicolas Cage his first starring role, The Valley Girls’ Guide to Life handbook, and even fashion and cosmetic lines.
The influence of the song’s Valspeaking protagonist Ondrya, created by Frank’s daughter Moon Unit Zappa, still resonates in pop culture today — “It's just a weird thing that just keeps going,” Moon says with a shrug — as evidenced by Clueless’s Cher, Schitt’s Creek’s Alexis Rose, the recurring SNL sketch “The Californians,” and arguably even the vocal fry speech patterns of young people today.
“My dream would be to get Paul Thomas Anderson to do a music video. Maybe his wife could play a Val now,” Moon jokes, 40 years later.
But as Moon chats with Yahoo Entertainment to celebrate “Valley Girl’s” 40th anniversary reissue campaign — which includes a new animated music video, merchandise line, and remix by British DJ Flux Pavilion — she is candid regarding her mixed feelings about the single. Making the song was really just a way for her to get close to her absentee, workaholic father, who often locked himself away from his family in his Laurel Canyon home studio. In fact, she never even expected “Valley Girl” to come out, and she admits she felt wronged when Frank included what she’d assumed was just a private recording of “bonding time with my dad” on his ’82 album, Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch — thus making her a reluctant overnight pop star at age 14.
“I just was trying to make my dad laugh,” Moon tells Yahoo. “That was my objective. And so, having it then appear on an album was a kind of exposure and embarrassment and betrayal for me. I wasn't thinking about, ‘We're making a product.’ I was thinking, ‘I'm spending time with my father.’”
The idea for the Zappas’ “Valley Girl” collaboration was actually Moon’s, at first. “I was pretty frustrated with the way the house was run. My father was touring all the time, sometimes eight months out of the year, so that's a long time to go without seeing the steady parental figure in the house,” explains Moon, who was often forced to help her mother Gail raise the three younger Zappa children while Frank was away or distracted. “He never raised his voice. He was so funny. He was so smart, so talented, so playful, very improvisational. And so, to miss that kind of stability and that grounding was really just not great, and to just be stuck with a mom who was really missing him as well. … And then when he was home, he would sleep during the day and work at night, so then there were restrictions on our own expression and having to be quiet in the house. And then the world was always revolving around him.
“So, I wrote a note and I said, ‘It has come to my attention that it would be great if you would look for an opportunity where we could work together. If that's the only way I'm going to get to spend time with you, then let's work together. Contact my people.’”
Not soon after, Frank woke up his then 13-year-old daughter at 2 a.m. on a school night and asked to join him in the studio to lay down some impromptu spoken-word vocals, on a song inspired by Moon’s imitations of her classmates at Oakwood, an artsy private school in the San Fernando Valley. “He just said, ‘Just improvise in between the choruses,’ and so I had done this voice that I called this ‘Valspeak’ voice or this surfer-dude voice,” says Moon. “It was a voice I had picked up going to school in the Valley. When I would go to school with these kids, I'd go to Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and I'd get to see what I considered normal or stable families were like, and it was exotic to me.”
Moon recalls going “back and forth with some improvisations,” making up “new lingo to play around with that just made us laugh.” While the soon-to-be common catchphrase “grody to the max” was something she’d overheard at Oakwood or possibly at the Galleria mall, she totally invented “gag me with a spoon” and “bag your face,” the latter a nod to The Gong Show’s Unknown Comic. “In some ways, it's science fiction,” she chuckles.
As far as the song’s scenarios narrated by the plucky Ondrya, a couple of them were quite adult – the references to S&M and a creepy flirtatious teacher, for instance. Moon says those eyebrow-raising verses reflected her unorthodox, or some might say dysfunctional, upbringing. “I think that's a product of growing up in a hypersexual home,” she explains. “I always joke and say people were in the nude making candles near my playthings. … There was a portrait in the family home of kind of an orgy scene. There were Zippy the Pinhead cartoon comics laying around, and Oui and Hustler. And there was a lot of stuff around – vibrators! I had the bedroom next to my parents and heard sex. I knew my dad messed around on my mother. I've got many journals where I've got drawings that are just naked people chained up and having sex. It's stuff that you shouldn't be drawing at age eight, nine, and 10.”
And then… “Valley Girl” came out and became a leftfield mainstream hit, leading to appearances on The Merv Griffin Show, MTV, and Solid Gold. The song’s vapid Ondrya and politically incorrect teacher character had been based on real-life people at Moon’s school, and she was mortified.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, these people are going to get their feelings hurt,’” says Moon. “I thought we were going to get sued. I thought a truant officer was going to come and take me away. It was very stressful for me. I didn't think about it in terms of, ‘Oh, I'm launching my career.’ I just thought, ‘Oh no, who are we getting get in trouble with now?’
“I'm just a sensitive person. I don't like people to get their feelings hurt or be exposed to stuff — if they didn't ask for the exposure. I was just worried about this one girl in particular who really kind of inspired the song the most for me. And then my teacher… those two I had worried about them getting their feelings hurt, of being exposed to attention, unwanted attention — the way I felt I had this unwanted attention on me. It really put me into a state of anxiety. Plus, I was going through puberty, so my skin wasn't great. The last thing I wanted do was have any focus on myself.”
As it turned out, Frank had mixed feelings about the single’s success as well. He was frustrated that the satire seemed to go over many listeners’ heads, and that he didn’t profit from all of the above-mentioned spinoffs from the song. “Valley Girl’s” success also affected Moon’s relationship with her dad, in good ways and bad.
“My father always wanted to have commercial success. It just so happened it didn't happen until that song. And then that song came out at a time when he was already scheduled to go on a European tour, and so the American press that suddenly needed to be done was left for me to do,” Moon says. “And that was extremely stressful as a teenager, just trying to get through ninth grade or something. And then a lot of the interviews, they onlywanted to interview me. And so, then there was this strange dynamic between me and my father, like: ‘Is it an accident that when I step in, we have a success? Or am I just an instrument that he's using as a tool?’”
Moon says “Valley Girl” also altered the Zappa family dynamic in another aspect: “I think it bonded my father in a way that my mother was resentful of, because now I'm in photographs with my father. I'm paired with him. … I went on Letterman with him and we did a bunch of talk shows and we traveled together here and there. … So, he and I were the two ‘showbiz’ people in the house. … I was never wanting any of the fame part of it, but I admired my father, so I wanted to be a working artist like my father.”
As it turned out, Moon got her wish: While she'll probably always be most associated with "Valley Girl," over the past 40 years she has steadily worked as an actress, journalist, comedian, voiceover artist, singer, and author (with a memoir about her fraught childhood currently in the works). She also got to pay homage to her father when she accepted his posthumous Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honor at the Hall’s 1995 induction ceremony. “I feel happy that I got to spend that that time [with my dad]. It's just fun to just know that that that opened a door for me to go deeper inside my own creativity,” she says.
“But if I hurt my teacher's feelings, or if I hurt the girl who inspired the song, I sincerely apologize. I hope it brought you joy and connection and closer to your own creativity, and just know that I'm thinking about you all still today.”
Watch Yahoo Entertainment’s full, extended interview with Moon Zappa below, in which she discusses her Solid Gold appearance, attending the Grammys in a handmade dress, hanging out at the Galleria, and more:
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— Video produced by Jen Kucsak, edited by Jimmie Rhee