|Cultural origins||1950s, United States|
Outsider music, a term Irwin Chusid claims to have coined in the mid-1990s (although it was already current in connection with jazz as early as 1959, with rock as early as 1979, and by the late 1970s had become a "favorite epithet" in contemporary music in Europe) are songs and compositions by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry who write music that ignores standard musical or lyrical conventions, either because they have no formal training or because they disagree with conventional 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.
Very few outsider musicians ever attain anything resembling mainstream popularity; the few that do generally are considered novelty acts. This notwithstanding, there is a niche market for outsider music, and such musicians often maintain a cult following.
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: the emotional starkness, the lack of formal training and the humour. Jeffrey Lewis names Daniel Johnston as a major influence, Syd Barrett influenced antifolk's British strain, and there are 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, sold separately. 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."
Outsider musicians range from unskilled performers whose recordings are praised for their honesty, to the complex works of highly trained avant-garde composers.
- Charles Ives has been described as "the outsider of musical life" and, although he went almost entirely unknown in his lifetime, is renowned in modern times for his experimental work in composing music with quarter tones and other unorthodox musical concepts.
- 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) was the original lead singer and songwriter for Pink Floyd. He left the group in 1968, partway through the band's second album, amidst speculations of mental illness exacerbated by heavy drug use. After he left the group, he completed two solo albums and attempted a comeback with Stars, but his mental disturbances marred both projects and he soon went into self-imposed seclusion for the rest of his life.
- The Residents are a US 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, designed three CD-ROM projects and ten DVDs, 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. His performances often seem faltering or uncertain; one critic writes that Johnston's recordings range from "spotty to brilliant." He also has a documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, centered around his life and music.
- Lucia Pamela (1904–2002) was a St. Louis, Missouri-born multi-instrumentalist and former 1926 Miss St. Louis who, in 1965 recorded the album Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela. The self-funded album (released in 1969) 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.
Other notable musicians who are identified with outsider music include:
- Abner Jay
- Alvin Dahn, one-song wonder best known for "You're Driving Me Mad," a heavy metal song with uncharacteristic lyric performance
- Bingo Gazingo, a spoken-word artist known for his often vulgar stream-of-consciousness rants
- BJ Snowden, Massachusetts music teacher
- Bobb Trimble
- The Bran Flakes
- Charles Manson, career criminal and commune leader, recorded a series of songs with his "family"
- The Cherry Sisters, an extremely poorly received vaudeville act
- Crispin Glover, character actor who extended his eccentric persona into music
- David Liebe Hart
- Edie and the Eggs, a punk/celebrity-exploitation band featuring Edith Massey, known for acting in several films by John Waters
- Farrah Abraham, whose autobiographical album My Teenage Dream Ended was frequently described as "outsider pop music"
- Florence Foster Jenkins, early 20th-century off-key soprano
- Gary Wilson, best known for his surreal 1977 album You Think You Really Know Me
- Hasil Adkins, a forerunner to psychobilly known for his morbid choices of lyrics
- Icy Spicy Leoncie
- Jack Mudurian, nursing-home resident who recorded a 47-minute marathon of Tin Pan Alley tunes known as Downloading the Repertoire
- Jan Terri
- Joe Meek, an English record producer
- Leonard Nimoy, actor whose primary contribution to music was a recording of "The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins"
- Mark Gormley, who achieved fame on YouTube and around the internet for his low-budget music videos
- MWF, aka Mark Flake an experimental guitarist and composer
- Moondog, blind street musician who fashioned his own instruments and dressed as a Viking
- Mrs. Miller, a warbling, self-trained, middle-aged housewife who reluctantly rose to stardom as a novelty act in the 1960s
- Naomi Hall
- The Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra whose members were all novices at the instrument they played
- R. Stevie Moore, known for his experimental, homebrewed recordings
- Roky Erickson
- Shooby Taylor, scat artist who dubbed himself the "Human Horn" and dubbed his unusual scatting over all sorts of music
- Skip Spence
- Sondra Prill, late-1980s public access cable star known for her off-key renditions of popular songs, often with incorrect lyrics
- Steve Lieberman also known as the Gangsta Rabbi is a bipolar punk musician who performs Jewish-themed punk rock using only bass guitar and flutes
- Tay Zonday, YouTube sensation known primarily for the song Chocolate Rain
- The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, another forerunner to psychobilly whose songs included incomprehensible yelling and random rhythms, he is also known for launching the career of T-Bone Burnett
- Tiny Tim, a man who performed mostly Tin Pan Alley tunes with a ukulele in a falsetto voice; came to fame on Laugh-In
- Weird Paul Petroskey
- Wesley Willis, Chicago schizophrenic who would make stream-of-consciousness rants, many of which involve bestiality, accompanied by his keyboard to scare off his demons
- Wild Man Fischer, best known for his a capella, almost sobbing songs and his brief association with Frank Zappa
- William Hung, Los Angeles crime analyst with no musical training who became infamous for his audition on American Idol
- William Shatner's musical career, consisting almost entirely of spoken-word covers of popular songs
- Zoogz Rift, a musician influenced by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart
- Charles Winick, "The Use of Drugs by Jazz Musicians", Social Problems 7, no. 3 (Winter 1959-1960): 240–53. Citation on 250.
- Bernice Martin, "The Sacralization of Disorder: Symbolism in Rock Music", Sociological Analysis 40, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 87-124. Citation on 116.
- Zdenka Kapko-Foretić, "Kölnska škola avangarde", Zvuk: Jugoslavenska muzička revija, 1980 no. 2:50–55. Citation on 54.
- "Time and Curiosity: Journey to the Outside"
- Floridian: The bipolar poet
- Wolfgang Becker, "Corrispondenze dall'Estero: Da Colonia", Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana 10, no. 1 (1976): 116–18. Citation on 118.
- Burkholder, J. Peter (1995). All Made of Tunes: Charles Ives and the Uses of Musical Borrowing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-05642-7.
- Neil Strauss, "Lucia Pamela, 98, a Musician to the Moon, Dies", New York Times Sunday, August 18, 2002.