Outsider music isn’t just a subgenre; it’s a celebration of self-expression. Pioneered by unskilled musicians with few resources, this music style became well-known during the 20th century.
Even if you’ve never heard the term, you probably know a few songs by outsider musicians. This type of artistic expression has been around for centuries. But it wasn’t fully understood until a music journalist dove into the outsider music scene.
Join us as we discover more about this relatively underground musical genre.
Let’s hit it!
About Outsider Music
Outsider music describes songs from a band or musician that don’t fit neatly into common categories. Unlike most genres, this one doesn’t have a defined sound or aesthetic. Most artists who create outsider music are self-taught or inexperienced. Because many of these musicians lack access to professional studios, their work has a lot in common with DIY music.
Music in this category lacks the polish and quality control typical of major label releases. Many recorded works in the genre occur in artists’ homes or independent studios. But the label isn’t a catch-all for just anything. Outsider music doesn’t include avant-garde, kitsch, or world music.
The term grew out of the concept of “art brut” or “raw art.” Through the 20th century, critics described art by children and mentally ill creators as “art brut.” Today, any artist whose work defies the norm could fit into this category–and the same goes for outsider music. Some famous outsider musicians include Daniel Johnston, Jandek, and The Shaggs.
Who Coined the Term Outsider Music?
Despite its long history, outsider music wasn’t a widely recognized genre until the 1990s. In 1996, music journalist and DJ Irwin Chusid first coined the term in an article published in Pulse!.
Chusid calls outsider musicians “unintentional renegades.” He says a lack of self-awareness sets these renegades apart from their peers. As he puts it, “they don’t boldly break the rules, because they don’t know there are rules.” Think of it this way: punk rock resists authority, but outsider music doesn’t even acknowledge it.
Irwin Chusid considered these creators more authentically artistic than their celebrity counterparts. For the most part, he didn’t acknowledge successful musicians as outsiders. But even for this picky critic, there were a few exceptions.
Greatest Examples of Outsider Music
Even if you’re reading about this genre for the first time, chances are you’ve heard it before. Outsider musicians create unforgettably weird, wonderful work.
Let’s look at a few of the greatest songs by outsider musicians.
Tiny Tim was born Herbert Butros Khaury in 1932. He showed an early interest in music and played violin, guitar, mandolin, and ukelele by his late teens.
Tiny Tim’s career began at open mics and amateur nights, where he wore zany clothing and makeup. His stage name was ironic: at over six feet tall, he was anything but tiny! He recorded 14 studio albums and many live albums throughout his career. The eccentric musician also appeared on late-night TV and in movies until his death in 1997.
About His Greatest Song, Tiptoe Through the Tulips: Originally written in 1929 by Al Dubin and Joe Burke, guitarist Nick Lucas was the first to make the song popular. But Tiny Tim’s version became a novelty hit when he performed it on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in February 1968. The song is also on his album God Bless Tiny Tim, released in April of that year.
The song first appeared in the musical Gold Diggers of Broadway. While the original featured a guitar, Tiny Tim played his version on ukelele. The musician’s unique falsetto voice makes this iconic song instantly recognizable.
Wesley Willis was born in 1963. He was interested in art from an early age and was featured in a public access documentary at the age of 25. Willis was also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia around this time.
Willis began as a visual artist but later developed an interest in music. His punk band, The Wesley Willis Fiasco, gained the attention of musicians like Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins. Willis eventually recorded several albums on Rick Rubin’s independent label American Records.
Despite his outsider status, this musician made high-profile appearances on MTV and The Howard Stern Show. He frequently headbutted people at his live performances, giving his forehead a permanent mark.
About His Greatest Song, Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds: Rock ‘n’ Roll McDonalds appears on Willis’s 1995 album Greatest Hits Volume 1. The song is a tribute to a McDonald’s location in Chicago that boasted rock-themed decor. Sadly, the restaurant was renovated and redecorated at the end of 2017.
Willis’s song describes the restaurant’s rock and roll energy while critiquing the chain’s food. His unique vocal style gives the track a spoken-word feel. Jello Biafra, the former frontman for the Dead Kennedys, covered the song years after its initial release.
Mrs. Miller was born Elva Ruby Connes in 1907. She became Mrs. Miller at age 27 when she married wealthy businessman John Richardson Miller. The young singer studied music and made independent recordings before a radio DJ Gary Owens discovered her.
Mrs. Miller’s success came, ironically, from her lack of skill. Her singing was frequently offbeat, and her voice was warbly. But fans loved her. The LP Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits sold more than a quarter million copies in its first month.
The singer with the strange voice enjoyed several years of success. Mrs. Miller performed at the Hollywood Bowl and made dozens of TV and film appearances.
About Her Greatest Song, Downtown: Downtown was written by Tony Hatch and made famous by Petula Clark in 1964. Mrs. Miller’s version debuted on her album Wild, Cool & Swingin’, along with many other cover songs.
Keyboardist and composer Fred Bock recorded a rough version featuring Mrs. Miller’s vocals. When Bock played the track to a representative at Capitol Records, the idea for Wild, Cool & Swingin’ was born. The album even caught the attention of Time magazine. Mrs. Miller later performed Downtown on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Is There a Book About Outsider Music?
Irwin Chusid didn’t just study outsider music; he also wrote a book on it. Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music was published in 2000. Chusid also recorded two companion compilation albums of the same name.
Chusid’s book celebrates outsider musicians and their work. The companion albums include songs by Wesley Willis, Captain Beefheart, and Joe Meeks. There’s even a track by Jack Mudurian, a nursing home resident who was known for his nonsensical acapella singing.
From the Muse: You can still buy Chusid’s book on Kindle or paperback on Amazon.
Outsider musicians’ offbeat techniques and aesthetics aren’t for everyone. Regardless, these artists create some of the most fascinating music out there and even go on to become stars.
It’s easy to forget that you don’t need a big budget or a professional studio to make music. After all, people sang songs and played instruments for centuries before the music industry existed. Outsider music reminds us that creativity isn’t just something that can be packaged and sold; it’s human instinct.
Are you a fan of outsider music? Let us know in the comments below.