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A freak is someone with something strikingly unusual about their appearance or behaviour. This usage dates from the "freak scene" of the 1960s and 1970s, most famously championed by Frank Zappa, leader of the rock band the Mothers of Invention. The term originally referred to the physically deformed, or having extraordinary diseases and conditions, such as sideshow performers.
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An older usage refers to the physically deformed, or having extraordinary diseases and conditions, such as sideshow performers. This has fallen into disuse, except as a pejorative, and (among the performers of such shows) as jargon. "Freaks" of this kind can be classified into two groups: natural freaks and made freaks. A natural freak would usually refer to a genetic abnormality, while a made freak is a once normal person who experienced or initiated an alteration at some point in life (such as receiving surgical implants).
"Freak" continues to be used to describe genetic mutations in plants and animals, i.e. "freaks of nature." "Freak" can also be used in a verb form, and can mean: "to become stressed and upset". Usually, in this form, the word is followed by "out" to complete the phrase, "freaking out". However, this meaning and usage is usually considered slang. Adjectival forms include "freakish" as well as "freaky." The verb "freaking" (or, "freaking out") means "engaging in panicked or uncontrolled behavior"—for example, as the result of psychedelic drug use. "Freaking" may also be a minced oath used in place of "fucking," e.g. "Oh my freaking God!" The word is a homophone of "phreak" (referring to the illegal hacking of telephone systems), which it probably inspired.
'Freak' can also be seen being used as a surname, derived from French and Scottish heritage. Meaning, through interpretation 'keeper of the plains', the name is rarely seen but exists in some numbers. A notable carrier of the surname 'Freak' is Reece Freak, noted philanthropist and industrialist of Adelaide, South Australia.
It is also a term commonly used by African Americans in their music to refer to a woman who is willing to engage in casual sexual activity.
In early science, there were many theories concerning the existence of natural abnormalities. Many of the theories led to pseudo-sciences that are still adhered to by some. One persistent pre-19th century superstition is that, if a pregnant woman is scared by someone or something, the child would be born with the quality that caused the fear. (The widely accepted scientific theory regarding inherent qualities is that of mutation).
In some religions since ancient times, the birth of abnormal offspring has been associated with astrological or supernatural events. Karma is also believed in some eastern religions to be a cause of abnormalities. In other faiths, the cause is attributed to direct intervention by the will of God. In ancient Roman religion, for instance, biological abnormalities of animals and humans were monstra ("monsters"), and regarded as evidence of divine displeasure or discord in the cosmos.
In the United States of the 1960s, especially during the heyday of the hippie counterculture on the west coast, many teens and young adults that were disillusioned with the austere confines of the postwar, suburbanite American way of life, and the resultant countercultural and New Left movements defined themselves as "freaks". American musician and composer Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention were central to the freak scene in the mid to late 1960s, both in the Los Angeles/San Francisco Bay Area music scene and in New York City, where the band had a now infamous residency at the Garrick Theatre.
'"On a personal level", wrote Zappa, "Freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricted standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his environment and the social structure as a whole"'.
The freaks, by Zappa's reckoning, resisted the binaries of right versus left, dominant culture versus counterculture, or squares versus hippies, preferring instead to align themselves with an aesthetic not narrowly defined by fashion or political leanings. The concept also allowed The Mothers to celebrate the freak identity, which until then was used to describe perversions of nature or carnivalesque sideshows. 'Bearded and gross and filthy, entirely obscene, they...were freaks. They were meant to be. They were playing the same old game again, épater la bourgeoisie, but this time round it wasn't called Dada or Existentialism or Beat, it was Freak-Out'.
Zappa also used images of the 1932 film Freaks directed by Tod Browning on one of his album sleeves Tinseltown Rebellion as it was a source of inspiration to him in his dichotomic vision of Freaks versus Hippies.
At the first Mothers of Invention concerts, audience members were invited to "freak out!" (also the title of the band's first album), which meant to express themselves freely, be it through dancing, screaming, or letting a band member spray them with whipped cream. In terms of concert culture, the freak mentality influenced similar bands of subsequent musical generations.
The freaks, with their aggressively anti-social stance, came in for much criticism, not only from conventional culture but from within the counterculture itself, for their 'pretext of a theoretically total but actually quite false revolt against the "conventional lies of civilization"'. John Lennon sang how '"freaks on the phone won't leave me alone"', explaining how he was 'sick of all these aggressive hippies or whatever they are, the Now Generation...demanding my attention as if I owed them something...under a delusion of awareness by having long hair and that's what I'm sick of'. Dylan also suffered from 'Dylan freaks...once more trying to force him to live up to their concept of what he should be'. In a not atypical exchange, he'd be told '"you've got to live up to your responsibility as a culture hero – you're DYLAN, man, every freak has a soft spot in their heart for ya...you're DYLAN, DYLAN, DYLAN."' only for him to reply '"I'm not Dylan, you're Dylan"'.
- David Wardle, Cicero on Divination, Book 1 (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 102.
- Nik Cohn, AwopBopaLooBopaLopBamBoom: Pop from the Beginning (Paladin 1973) p. 223
- Cohn, p. 222
- G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke Vol I (Panther 1973) p. 20
- Jann Wenner ed., Lennon Remembers (Penguin 1971) p. 96
- Anthony Scaduto, Bob Dylan (London 1973) p. 287
- Craig McGregor, Bob Dylan: a Retrospective (London 1973) p. 266
- Do It! quoted in John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (London 1972) p. 52