From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Outsider music is music performed either by social outsiders, who have no or few associates in the mainstream music business, or by musicians who choose to live and work in seclusion, often due to compromising behavioral or psychological conditions. Outsider music reflects these conditions in various ways. Lyrics are often bizarre or emotionally stark and songs may show a great ignorance or disregard for structural conventions or popular trends in mainstream music. Also, outsider musicians frequently have no formal training and/or significant music skills in the traditional sense. The end result is music that is much stranger and more abrasive than more popular musical styles. Outsider music is a form of outsider art.
By definition, outsider music has very few outlets and most outsider musicians (save those such as Syd Barrett and Skip Spence who became popular before becoming recluses) come to be known through word of mouth, usually among communities of music collectors. Only a few, including Tiny Tim and Wesley Willis, have achieved much renown outside of a small coterie of devotees. Outsider music is frequently praised by musicians with experimental leanings, such as avant-garde jazz saxophonist John Zorn. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana famously wore a shirt designed by outsider Daniel Johnston, whom Cobain admired.
Some outsider musicians are famously awful and most of their audience considers them to be a surreal comedy act, something many of these performers realize and embrace. Examples include Florence Foster Jenkins, an American soprano who sang ear-splitting renditions of compositions far outside her range and Eilert Pilarm, a Swedish Elvis impersonator known for his utter lack of resemblance to Elvis Presley, as well as his questionable singing abilities and shaky command of the English language (which he just barely speaks). A majority of outsider artists, however, are honestly appreciated for their unique and uncompromising styles of music.
A comprehensive guide to outsider music is Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (2000) by music journalist and radio personality Irwin Chusid. 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.
Notable outsider musicians include,
- Syd Barrett, psychedelic folk pioneer, founding member of Pink Floyd.
- Roky Erickson, the reclusive and eccentric former leader of the 13th Floor Elevators and onetime mental patient.
- Jandek, a singer/songwriter who largely avoids publicity, but releases albums pseudonymously and prolifically.
- Larry "Wild Man" Fischer, a street musician who sang for dimes, who was discovered by Frank Zappa and was the first artist recorded by Rhino Records
- Daniel Johnston, a Texas singer-songwriter known for recording music on his radio boom box.
- Harry Partch, a composer who built his own instruments according to his own system of musical scales.
- The Shaggs, a 1960s rock band of sisters with only rudimentary musical skill, whose ineptitude became semi-legendary.
- Skip Spence, former Moby Grape member who produced one cult classic album, Oar (1969), of stark, strange folk music.
- Gordon Thomas, former big-band trombonist, musical folk artist
- Jan Terri, a middle-aged limo driver from Chicago, who has released several albums and videos.
- Wesley Willis, a 350 lb. roaring schizophrenic from Chicago who sang songs about fast food, public transportation and his favorite bands, among other subjects.
- Florence Foster Jenkins
- Yuri Landman, a guitarist who became an experimental luthier dissatisfied about the possibilities of common instruments.
- Sexton Ming
- R. Stevie Moore
- Bob Vido (a.k.a. Robert Zaprian Vidoloff)
- The Residents