Time and Curiosity: Journey to the Outside
-by Irwin Chusid

--adapted from the Afterword of
--Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music
--(April 2000, A Cappella Books/Chicago Review Press)

. .

- - If you're interested in Outsider Music, it's safe to assume you're a fairly unusual person, inquisitive, perhaps a bit "outside" the mainstream yourself. Because Outsider Music, by definition, offers little of interest to the vast majority of your fellow citizens. They have neither the time nor the curiosity for.it.

- - The spectrum of music to which the average person is exposed -- versus the variety of available sonic art -- is extremely limited. Yet I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories about the music industry suppressing uncommercial (or non-commercial) artists; nor do I believe that the government, the Trilateral Commission, Billboard, radio programming consultants, Warner Bros., and agents of the Nine Elder Bankers are in collusion to prevent anyone from exploring the nether reaches of musical marginalia. These lumbering Goliaths aren't concerned with Jandek or Shooby.Taylor.

outsider view of haircut
- - Most consumers simply do not have adventurous taste in music. They're preoccupied with families, careers, and paying bills, home improvements and car repairs, and getting a good night's sleep. Insofar as music plays any role in their lives, they prefer the comfort of familiar artists and formulas. For that, no one should be faulted. It's a filtering process, necessary to avoid sensory overload. A person who can't appreciate music beyond Air Supply or Jimmy Buffett may have an appetite for exotic food, fine art, or extreme sports. But when they or their progeny get married, they prefer that the festivities resonate with the strains of Billy Joel, Sinatra, Motown oldies, and Madonna. Weddings and Bat Mitzvahs are not occasions for expanding your musical horizons, or those of your guests. And yet music provides an important ritualistic function, and I harbor little doubt that pop standards played or performed at these events have great significance to all involved. Captain Beefheart's "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish" or Wesley Willis's "Shoot Me in the Ass" just won't.do.

- - Yet Outsider Music has its place -- an intimate, dimly lit enclave. Songs in the Key of Z attempts to air out the dusty attics and damp cellars of the greater music community, introducing some of the dizzy aunts and eccentric uncles about whom your parents rarely.spoke.

- - Does this project contend that Outsiders are "better" than their commercial.counterparts?

- - Of course.not.

- - Are Outsiders more."genuine"?

- - This is arguable, and hinges on the measure of one's cynicism about packaging and marketing as practiced by the music business. How sincere is Whitney Houston? Megaplatinum stars like Garth Brooks and Mariah Carey are often bad-mouthed by jaded sophisticates as "shallow" and "manufactured" (though the same accusation is rarely leveled at a gangsta rapper who moves 12 million units and is considered an authentic "voice of the street"). Are we to presume that artists who have achieved explosive commercial success did so by accident? That there was no compelling aspiration on their part to become rich and.famous?

- - No one honestly believes.that.

- - So -- no, I don't feel that Outsiderdom is the exclusive provenance of.authenticity.

- - Nor is ambition solely characteristic of "inside" musicians. Most Outsiders would love to be certified gold. Some recognize the unlikelihood of such acclaim, others anticipate triumphant breakthroughs any day, and still others seem totally oblivious to the broader.public.

- - The difference rests in the "fingerprint" factor of packaging and selling music. For those exploited through conventional music channels, by the time their product reaches the market, it will have been revised, remodeled, and re-coifed; touched-up and tweaked; Photoshopped and focus-grouped. It's Music by.Committee.

- - Consciously commercial releases are targeted at an imagined audience that must be second-guessed: "What will appeal to them?," and "Will they buy this?" If CDs acknowledged all the cubicle cattle who contribute to production, the list would be endless, like the five minutes of eye-blurring credits that scroll at the motion picture's.conclusion.

outsider dog is surrounded
- - Most outsiders don't have a committee at their disposal -- and many don't have much of a target audience. Autonomy is often the prevailing modus, the process intensely solipsistic. Outsider efforts thus reflect greater individual control over the final creative contour. This is partly attributable to the low-budget operations of many Outsiders, and in some cases to their inability or unwillingness to cooperate with or trust anyone but themselves. It's ironic that the less corporate money at an artist's disposal, the more singular the.vision.

- - In this, the Outsider represents greater creative purity, something closer to a natural state. Equally ironic, because many Outsiders sound perfectly "unnatural." Perhaps "visceral" would be a better adjective to describe the enigmatic Outsider.process.

- - This inscrutability -- our inability to fully comprehend the internal calculus of Outsider art -- partly explains its charisma. Art under the microscope, art denuded, is art.demystified.

- - We can listen to Outsider Music. We can analyze, appreciate and extol it. But we can never fully understand the odd compulsions and stupefying inner visions of those who create.it.

- - Mainstream and Outsider perspectives can be contrasted with two fundamental.questions.

- - To the mainstream artist, the question is: "Where do you get your ideas?" The artist may have an answer, or may.not.

- - As regards the Outsider, the question -- never asked directly, but always to a third party -- is: "What were they.thinking?"

- - This question holds a key to appreciating Outsider Music. Because it's not really a question -- it's a statement in disguise, implying, "The mind that created these unearthly sounds is beyond my.grasp."

- - Hence, "What were they thinking?" can probably never be.answered.

- - Perhaps we should dispense with the question altogether, and just listen and.enjoy . . .

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