Outsider music

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Outsider music is created by musicians who are not part of the commercial music industry and 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 may incorporate (what is then perceived as) bizarre lyrics and/or melodies, 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.[1]

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.


Though Irwin Chusid claims to have coined the term in the mid-1990s, the sociological descriptor "outsider" had been used in connection with music cultures prior to Chusid's writings (with jazz as early as 1959,[2] with rock as early as 1979,[3] and in the late 1970s it was a "favorite epithet" in contemporary music in Europe).[4]


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."[5]

Although an outsider musician, by definition of the word, typically operates outside the realm of the music industry, pop critic Gina Vivinetto includes a number of musicians who in fact operated from within the mainstream music industry and had significant success, even scoring hits on national charts. Among her list of “outsider” musicians is Brian Wilson, who not only was responsible for most of the successes of the mainstream rock band the Beach Boys but also charted a top 40 hit of his own with “Caroline, No;” and Syd Barrett, the original lead singer and songwriter for Pink Floyd, a band that had several hits in Barrett's tenure.[6] Irwin Chusid, in his book and companion album Songs in the Key of Z, includes Joe Meek, an English record producer with a number of hits to his credit, including the international hit “Telstar”.[full citation needed]

According to Chusid, fans of outsider music are "fairly unusual", "inquisitive" types who have an "adventurous taste in music".[7] While Chusid 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.[7]

Chusid 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." Chusid notes that "our inability to fully comprehend the internal calculus of Outsider art... partly explains its charisma."[1]

Notable musicians[edit]

Outsider musicians range from unskilled performers whose recordings are praised for their honesty, to the complex works of highly trained avant-garde composers.

  • Leona Anderson (1885-1973) was a silent-film actress (and younger sister of silent-Western star Broncho Billy Anderson) who revived her career in the early 1950s by releasing a series of shrill, operatic singles and the 1957 album Music to Suffer By. Anderson was well aware of her vocal limitations and even proclaimed herself to be "the world's most horrible singer."[8] She became widely known in the 1950s for her many appearances on the The Ernie Kovacs Show.
  • Charles Ives has been described as "the outsider of musical life"[9] 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.[10]
  • 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 composed of three teenaged sisters whose knowledge of the art form was rudimentary but who were prodded into becoming a band at the behest of their father. Their debut album Philosophy of the World went mostly unnoticed until 1980, when a re-release and rediscovery earned them a cult following (by this point in their lives, the now-adult women had stopped performing and their father had died).
  • Syd Barrett[6] (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. His music had a significant influence on many forms of alternative and punk music in general.[11]
  • 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[6] (b. 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".[12] He also has a documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, centered on his life and music.
  • Lucia Pamela[13] (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.
Wesley Willis in 2000.
  • Wesley Willis (1963–2003) was a prolific Chicago-based singer, songwriter and artist who employed stream-of-consciousness rants to sing about musicians who influenced him (such as Alanis Morissette, Tom Petty and Jello Biafra) as well as other contemporary figures. Willis also sang extensively about his struggles with schizophrenia, often utilizing vulgar expressions to address his negative influences, which he called "demons" or "hellrides". Willis typically played a Technics KN-series keyboard and habitually recycled melodies from song to song. He concluded most of his songs with the phrase "Rock over London. Rock on Chicago", followed by a random advertising slogan.

Other notable musicians who are identified with outsider music include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Time and Curiosity: Journey to the Outside"
  2. ^ Charles Winick, "The Use of Drugs by Jazz Musicians", Social Problems 7, no. 3 (Winter 1959–1960): 240–53. Citation on 250.
  3. ^ Bernice Martin, "The Sacralization of Disorder: Symbolism in Rock Music", Sociological Analysis 40, no. 2 (Summer 1979): 87–124. Citation on 116.
  4. ^ Zdenka Kapko-Foretić, "Kölnska škola avangarde", Zvuk: Jugoslavenska muzička revija, 1980 no. 2:50–55. Citation on 54.
  5. ^ Obscuro
  6. ^ a b c Floridian: The bipolar poet
  7. ^ a b Chusid, Irwin (April 2, 2000). Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 1556523726. 
  8. ^ Space Age Pop
  9. ^ Wolfgang Becker, "Corrispondenze dall'Estero: Da Colonia", Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana 10, no. 1 (1976): 116–18. Citation on 118.
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ John Harris (July 12, 2006). "Barrett's influence". The Guardian. 
  12. ^ Sage Rockermann, Kristin (January 1, 2002). "Daniel Johnston". Pitchfork Media. Retrieved 14 June 2015. 
  13. ^ Neil Strauss, "Lucia Pamela, 98, a Musician to the Moon, Dies", New York Times Sunday, August 18, 2002.
  14. ^ http://www.vice.com/.../in-1979-the-flying-lizards-recorded-a...
  15. ^ Moore, David Cooper (September 12, 2012). "The Scary, Misunderstood Power of a 'Teen Mom' Star's Album". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 5, 2013. 
  16. ^ Macpherson, Alex (September 27, 2012). "My Teenage Dream Ended: Album Review". Fact. Retrieved March 5, 2013. 
  17. ^ Freeman, Phil (September 3, 2012). "The Secret Cyborg Genius of MTV Teen Mom's Farrah Abraham". io9. Retrieved March 5, 2013. 
  18. ^ http://www.mojo4music.com/14320/50-weirdest-albums/
  19. ^ Comfort Stand. Retrieved 5 January 2017.
  20. ^ Chusid, Irwin (April 2, 2000). Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. Chicago Review Press. ISBN 156976493X. 

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