Outsider Music

jandek by david lester

Outsider music, a term coined by music historian Irwin Chusid in the mid-1990s, are songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write songs that ignore standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with formal rules. This type of music, which often lacks typical structure and is emotionally stark, has few outlets; performers or recordings are often promoted by word of mouth or through fan chat sites, usually among communities of music collectors and music connoisseurs.

Outsider musicians usually have much ‘greater individual control over the final creative’ product either because of a low budget or because of their ‘inability or unwillingness to cooperate’ with modifications by a record label or producer. While a small number of outsider musicians became notable, such as Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano, the majority of outsider artists do not attain mainstream popularity.

Pop music critic/popular culture writer Gina Vivinetto points out that outsider musicians include Wesley Willis, a ‘schizophrenic former street person from Chicago with dozens of records and a cult of loyal fans to his credit.’ She calls the clan of outsider musicians ‘an elite group,’ even ‘a group of geniuses,’ and she lists Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd), Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), and Skip Spence (Moby Grape). There are some links between outsider music and anti-folk (a genre of music which generally mocks seriousness and pretension in the established mainstream music scene); both are marked by emotional starkness, lack of formal training, and the humor. Daniel Johnston is a major influence, and Syd Barrett influenced antifolk’s British strain. There are also similarities between the tuneless singing styles of Wesley Willis and Paul Hawkins.

The book ‘Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music’ (2000), by music journalist and radio personality Irwin Chusid, is a comprehensive guide to outsider music. The book profiles several relatively well known outsider musicians and gives a definition to the term. The book inspired two companion compilation CDs. The guide claims that fans of outsider music are ‘fairly unusual,’ ‘inquisitive’ types who have an ‘adventurous taste in music.’ While the guide does not ‘contend that Outsiders are ‘better’ than their commercial counterparts,’ it does suggest that they may be more genuine, depending on how cynical a person is ‘about packaging and marketing as practiced by the music business,’ given that a ‘gangsta rapper… is considered an authentic ‘voice of the street” even though they sell millions of albums.

The guide argues that music that is ‘exploited through conventional music channels’ has ‘been revised, remodeled, and re-coifed; touched-up and tweaked; Photoshopped and focus-grouped’ by the time it reaches the listener, to the point that it is ‘Music by Committee’ that is ‘second-guessed’ by a large team of record company staff. On the other hand, since outsider music has little target audience, so they are autonomous, and able to go through an ‘intensely solipsistic’ process and create a singular artistic vision. Outsider artists have much ‘greater individual control over the final creative contour,’ either because of a low budget or because of their ‘inability or unwillingness to cooperate with or trust anyone but themselves.’ The guide notes that ‘our inability to fully comprehend the internal calculus of Outsider art… partly explains its charisma.’

Outsider music includes various styles that cannot neatly be classified into other genres, the Allmusic guide describing it as ‘a nebulous category that encompasses the weird, the puzzling, the ill-conceived, the unclassifiable, the musical territory you never dreamed existed.’

Harry Partch (1901–1974) was a composer who built his own instruments according to his own system of musical scales. The Shaggs were a 1960s rock band of sisters with only rudimentary musical skill, whose ineptitude became semi-legendary. The band was formed on the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, who believed that his mother foresaw the band’s rise to stardom. As the obscure LP achieved recognition among collectors, the band was praised for their raw, intuitive composition style and lyrical honesty.

Syd Barrett (1946–2006), psychedelic folk pioneer, was a founding member of Pink Floyd. He left the group in 1968 amidst speculations of mental illness exacerbated by heavy drug use. After he left the group, he completed 2 solo albums and then went into self-imposed seclusion for more than thirty years.

The Residents are a US dadaist, avant-garde music and visual arts collective who have maintained complete anonymity throughout their career. They released over sixty albums, created numerous musical short films, and undertook six world tours.

Captain Beefheart (1941-2010) is the stage name of Don van Vliet, who performed noisy, free jazz-influenced blues in the 1960s and 1970s. His music, which used shifting time signatures and surreal lyrics, had a major influence on the punk rock, post-punk, New Wave and alternative rock genres.

Daniel Johnston (1961- ) is a Texas singer-songwriter with bipolar disorder known for recording music on his radio boom box. His songs are often called ‘painfully direct,’ and tend to display a blend of childlike naïveté with darker, ‘spooky’ themes.

Lucia Pamela (1904-2002) was a multi-instrumentalist and former 1926 Miss St. Louis who, in 1965 recorded the album ‘Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela,’ which consisted largely of Pamela breathlessly telling listeners of her adventures in outer space where she meets intergalactic roosters, Native Americans, and travels upon blue winds. Pamela (playing the accordion, drums, clarinet and piano) was nearly forgotten as a performer until 1992, when Irwin Chusid revived her legacy by producing a reissued version of the album. She is perhaps slightly better known as the mother of Georgia Frontiere, the former owner of the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams.


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