In past years, I’ve made lists of drone and xenharmonic music. This year, I’d like to review examples of “outsider” music. Also called “naïve” or “incorrect” music, it’s frequently defined as music made by people who lack formal training, or who come from outside the musical establishment. I think the definition is a bit bogus though, because many of the most famous examples don’t actually fit. I would describe it as music with unconventional appeal, often standing diametrically opposite to what is considered “good” in music. And usually there’s a narrative (true or not) about how the artist is leveraging their lack of skill or experience in order to produce something especially unique or authentic.
This is not the sort of article where I praise each and every artist, or advocate for the value of the outsider genre. Rather, my goal is simply to listen to outsider music and give my honest opinion. This list was compiled by looking through other people’s lists (such as this list on RateYourMusic) and selecting those who were most frequently cited. I also threw in a personal favorite.
I think it’s easy to form a self image of being Not Like Other Music Fans, where your favorite music is the weird stuff, and the weirder the better. And that’s me, I have been that guy. But this is hardly a coherent preference, because there are just so many different ways to be weird. And one thing I have learned from writing this article, is that the outsider genre spans quite a large range. What I personally find valuable about the outsider genre is its ability to reveal where one’s preferences actually lie.
1. Florence Foster Jenkins
Example: “Queen of the Night”
Florence Foster Jenkins (1968-1944) was something of a sensation during her time, renowned as the “world’s worst opera singer”. Jenkins had musical training, as a pianist, but switched to voice because an injury prevented her from playing the piano. Judging from Wikipedia, her contemporaries were not kind to her, but history has been much kinder. Her story has been told in many forms, including a film where she’s played by Meryl Streep.
To my ear, Jenkins has a tendency to be very flat, especially in the upper register. You can hear when she repeats a high note that it takes a few tries before the tuning lines up. It’s like she can tell she’s off, but can’t quite hit the right note.
Would it be strange to say that I find the genre of music to be more grating than Florence Foster Jenkins’ voice? Not that I hate opera, but I think to truly appreciate Jenkins, I would need to be more familiar with the style that she’s subverting. I can hear flatness, but sources also claim that her rhythm, diction, and timbre are poor, and I just can’t appreciate that.
2. Mrs. Miller
Mrs. Miller (1907-1997) was a singer known for her amateurish covers of popular songs. Judging from Wikipedia article, the amateurishness was explicitly part of her marketing pitch, and it was all done with a sense of humor. I must say, it was very convenient of her to gather all her greatest hits into her debut, Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits (1966).
Mrs. Miller certainly lays it on thick with the vibrato. And though we given to believe she is bad at singing, I think it shows a great deal of skill, however excessively it’s applied. (And is it really so excessive? It’s eminently listenable.) She also occasionally gets off beat and makes minor mistakes, but this just added a bit of flavor and wasn’t that significant. Her voice brings new life to old songs that I probably wouldn’t otherwise enjoy.
3. The Shaggs
The Shaggs are three sisters, whose father believed were destined for musical greatness, based on a palm reading prophecy. I suppose he wasn’t wrong. While they didn’t get much attention while active, their album Philosophy of the World (1969) was later praised by Frank Zappa and others, and it became one of the most famous outsider classics.
One thing The Shaggs absolutely nail, is their fluid sense of rhythm. While each member of the band is roughly in time with herself, they seem totally out of sync with each other, like they had practiced separately and didn’t know how to listen. I also appreciate the melody, which rambles like a run-on sentence, and has an indecipherable harmonic structure (aided in no small part by the unconventional guitar chords).
My biggest complaint is the vocals. The singer is mostly in tune–rigidly so, in fact. It sounds like the singer was taught to sing correct notes at the expense of any vocal expressiveness, and this is the opposite of what I want in so-called “incorrect” music. I will also say that the album as a whole is a smidge more orderly and less interesting than “My Pal Foot Foot”.
4. Tiny Tim
Example: “Living in the Sunlight”
Tiny Tim (1932-1996) was a ukulele player and singer renowned for his falsetto. As I read about him, I wondered, does he really belong on this list? What’s wrong with having a good falsetto? See what I’m saying about the definitions of “outsider” music being bogus? But he was on other people’s lists, so here we go.
Tiny Tim is a good singer, a good musician, and an excellent showman on top. His falsetto is higher than you’d expect–if you’re inclined to prejudice about people’s voices based on their appearance–but this is plainly a man who knows his voice is great, and knows that you know it too.
5. Lucia Pamela – Into Outer Space With Lucia Pamela
Example: “Walking on the Moon”
Lucia Pamela (1904-2002) was a singer best known for a 1969 album about going into outer space. The appeal of this one went straight over my head. She sings in an old style that I immediately recognize but don’t know the name of, and it feels so trite. I have to guess that the appeal is in the sci-fi premise, and the apparent joy with which she executes it. But I’m not feeling it, so let’s move on.
6. Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band – Trout Mask Replica
Most of the music made by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band sounds to me like normal-ass rock music (with apologies to fans). Trout Mask Replica (1969), however, is different. Supposedly they gave creative control to Captain Beefheart, who had no formal musical training, while the rest of the band painstakingly transcribed, arranged, and performed his ideas. This album is probably the most famous item in this list, and yes I had already heard it before and yes I already have opinions.
The opening track, “Frownland”, is a masterpiece. It consists of many layers of jagged phrases and wild rhythms, giving an impression of complete chaos. Eventually your brain twists into a pretzel, and the chaos transforms into richness and depth. Your smile is stuck; you cannot go back to your frownland.
The rest of the album is a mixed bag though. It’s overly long and tedious, and never again reaches the heights of the opener. I feel the weak point is Captain Beefheart himself, whose gravelly voice must surely hold some novelty for some people, but which I find uninteresting compared to the guitars. His voice is mixed poorly and perpetually dominates the rest of the band so it’s kind of make or break.
7. Wesley Willis
Wesley Willis (1963-2003) was an artist who would sing and speak over the preset accompaniment tracks in his keyboard. His singing is often out of tune, but not in an incorrect way, more like a deliberate punk style. But I think most of the appeal is in his off-the-wall lyrics, often political, often humorous. And from what I can tell, the lyrics are fairly formulaic as well, with every chorus just repeating the title of the song.
I admit, I could not stand to listen to much of Wesley Willis. I appreciated the first song, but after a few I was already sick of it. I tried a later album just to check that his style didn’t drastically shift, and shall we say crisis averted? The accompaniment tracks, intolerable as they are to begin with, only get worse when you realize that he reuses them, quite frequently. I don’t like it.
8. Daniel Johnston
Daniel Johnston (1961-2019) is another one where I just don’t understand the logic of why he’s on these lists. He just sounds like a decent indie singer to me, with a child-like voice, minimalist instrumentation, and a good sense for songwriting.
Although, I’m not sure I care for his most famous album, Hi, How Are You (1983). I think the lo-fi quality is an aesthetic, and I guess that’s alright. But I also sampled some of Johnston’s other music, and I prefer the higher quality recordings (such as the example above).
Example: “Dancing Queen”
Wing Han Tsang (1960-) is a cover singer who apparently guest starred in an episode of South Park in 2005. This left me wondering if that’s her primary source of fame—I can’t say I like the idea of South Park of all things dictating which outsider music rises to fame.
Wing gives a strong impression of bad karaoke. That’s a bad association to have, because bad karaoke is not at all hard to come by, and isn’t especially interesting to me. I think a lot of that isn’t Wing’s fault actually, but the fault of her accompaniment, which is so completely lifeless. Otherwise, Wing’s voice most reminds me of Florence Foster Jenkins, in that she has trouble hitting the right notes at the right times. I think the appeal must come from the humorous mismatch between her tiny voice and the music she’s trying to cover.
Jandek is a blues/folk art project that has been active from 1978 to today. The artist behind the project (referred to as “the rep” by fans) is notoriously reclusive and mysterious. You’d think this would force us to focus on the music rather than the artist, but I’ve found most sources focus on the artist anyway, in order to talk about how we don’t know anything about him. Yeah, so personally, I also don’t know anything about Ed Sheeran, but who cares? Let’s talk about the music already.
Jandek has over a hundred albums in its discography, and many artistic phases. Most people seem to talk about their first phase, especially their 1978 debut, Ready for the House. The album features open string strumming on a guitar that has been precisely but unconventionally tuned, and microtonal to boot. Many people have described Jandek as “atonal”, although I think that’s inaccurate, as the chords often do suggest a tonal center. The rep’s vocals, on the other hand, sometimes “atonal” seems like the right description after all.
I immediately liked what I was hearing. It’s like a distillation of the harshest aspects of blues. However, I was disappointed that he continues to strum that one chord for almost the entire album, 38 minutes straight. On the other hand, this is just the first of over a hundred albums, so it’s not like Jandek only has this one sound. I sampled some of his recent music, and it was pretty good ambient music. Some of his other music had blues chord progressions. And then I was dying to hear the artistic journey tying all these things together.
Jandek was the big winner of this list! I toured their entire discography, and bought some CDs too. Obviously there’s a lot more I could say about it, but let’s just say that if you’re interested in the daunting task of navigating Jandek, ask me for tips in the comments!
11. Sarah Brand
Example: “Red Dress”
So this is the personal favorite that I’m throwing in. “Red Dress” was a music meme in mid-2021, which is so recent I don’t expect her to be on many lists. Well she’s on my list.
Sarah Brand’s voice is… fine, just fine. Which is to say, she sings worse than a professional, but surely better than me. The fault in her voice isn’t her voice per se, but in her pitch, which fluctuates so wildly that it makes Florence Foster Jenkins sound like The Shaggs. Her songwriting borrows a lot from Taylor Swift, a juxtaposition that is practically laser-targeted at me, a person known to unironically love pop songs sung out of key. Also, honestly, I find her pitch fluctuations to be expressive and flavorful, although it’s a bit more obvious when the backing is tuned to her.
Sarah Brand recently had a followup, where she applies that robotic vocoder effect that most people think of as excessive autotune (although it technically isn’t). At this point we can say that she’s fully self-aware. I think this song qualifies as hyperpop, a genre defined by exaggerating the characteristics of pop to parodic and avant-garde extremes. Personally I’m not as into it, but I am pleased to see some diversification, something that some other outsider artists seem to have trouble with.
What do these reviews say about my personal taste in music? I gravitate towards detune singing and misaligned rhythms (although we kind of already knew that). It also became clear that the core value of outsider music–sheer passion that overcomes technical limitations–is a value that I don’t really care about. For one thing, I don’t even believe that’s what’s going on in half these cases! For example, it’s explicitly part of the Shaggs backstory that they were not passionate about the project, and just did it for their father.
Perhaps the biggest failure mode for outsider artists was when I heard one song and found it fascinating, but then heard a second song and thought, “oh it’s just the same as the first”. That is to say, I appreciated the surface-level characteristics that distinguished the artist from the mainstream, but had a harder time appreciating the subtleties that distinguished one song from another. Or perhaps it’s only my own prejudicial belief that each song ought to bring something new to the table.
There were some artists on this list who I didn’t find strange at all, such as Tiny Tim and Daniel Johnston. That might say something about how today, we are used to a wider spectrum of vocal styles. Or perhaps what it says is more particular to me, and my own experience with music. Another interpretation is that there’s just no underlying logic to the “outsider” category, beyond whatever taste-makers like Frank Zappa or Irwin Chusid happened to like. I do wonder if today the “outsider” category even makes sense anymore, when absolutely nobody needs to be connected to the musical establishment to release something on Bandcamp.
What do you think? Was there any music you liked? Did you learn anything about yourself?