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Outsider music.

A term coined by the radio DJ and author Irwin Chusid in 1996 to describe a loosely related set of recordings that do not fit well within any pre-existing generic framework. The art critic Roger Cardinal first used the term “outsider” in 1972 in relation to visual art. His usage translated into English the French artist Jean Dubuffet’s term art brut, which arose from Dubuffet’s interest in the artwork of criminals and the mentally ill. The term “outsider art” was in wide circulation during the 1970s and 80s, when many examples of what became now known, after Chusid, as “outsider music” were first being analyzed by collectors of outré records; Lester Bangs mentioned two key outsider musicians, Wild Man Fischer and Jad Fair, in his essay “A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise” (1981). V. Vale explored similar terrain in the early 1990s. Outsider music does not involve any definite stylistic qualities; criteria for inclusion are generally either negational or relational. Much outsider music exhibits idiomatic characteristics of established genres, ranging from opera (Florence Foster Jenkins) to country music (the Legendary Stardust Cowboy), although in an idiosyncratic fashion. Other examples defy precedent, leaving the critical listener understanding initially only what the music is not (as with Fischer’s a cappella compositions). The term “outsider” is, almost by definition, controversial. From Dubuffet to Chusid, it has concurrently carried connotations of both psychological pathologies and an assumption of a purity of expression at the boundaries of culture.

The relationship between outsider music and mental illness is apparent from the biographies of the artists Chusid profiles in Songs in the Key of Z: the Curious Universe of Outsider Music; five of the 20 examples in his book concern musicians whose psychological problems are documented: Joe Meek (paranoid/depressive; murdered his landlady before committing suicide), Daniel Johnston (bipolar disorder), Wesley Willis (schizophrenic), Syd Barrett (erratic behavior compounded by the use of LSD), and Fischer (both bipolar and schizophrenic). At the least, nearly all outsider musicians display eccentric personal habits. There are serious questions regarding the exploitation of such individuals within the commercial music industry.

However, it is also worth noting that many artists within the loose “canon” of outsider music were avid self-promoters. Furthermore, many of them were not bereft of some type of musical training. The composer Harry Partch, noted for his homemade instruments, held residencies at several universities. Tiny Tim, who wrote “Tiptoe through the Tulips,” had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Tin Pan Alley. Willis, Fischer, and Daniel Johnston all worked to ingratiate themselves within the rock scenes of their times and locales. Meek, Barrett, and Captain Beefheart each enjoyed some level of popular success and not necessarily in the context of novelty, a category that sometimes overlaps with outsider music.

Rather than simply existing outside of society, as the term might imply, many outsider artists aspired to mainstream success. That neither Foster Jenkins nor the Shaggs could competently adhere to the conventions of their chosen genre did not lessen their ambition. Nevertheless, the combination of unusual personalities and unconventional music ensured that even if these were not pure expressions beyond the social, they still called into question the perimeter that contains what is and is not culture.


L. Bangs: “ A Reasonable Guide to Horrible Noise,” Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, ed. G. Marcus (New York, 1988), 301–4

V. Vale: Incredibly Strange Music, vol.1 (San Francisco, 1993)

V. Vale: Incredibly Strange Music, vol.2 (San Francisco, 1994)

I. Chusid: Songs in the Key of Z: the Curious Universe of Outsider Music (Chicago, 2000)

MungBeing [outsider art and stuckism issue]

John Cline

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