Content warning: The following text describes suicide and can be disturbing and/or triggering for some readers. Please find resources listed at the bottom of the article.
On Sept. 9, 1992, Kurt Cobain attended the MTV Video Music Awards in a cute, silly, unassuming tee shirt. It was a white shirt with a blobby alien–frog character, above which read the words “hi, how are you.” Worn by anyone else on any other day, this would be totally unremarkable, but worn by the patron saint of Gen X to Nirvana’s first major awards show, it became the subject of immediate scrutiny, and a star named Daniel Johnston was born.
Hi How Are You, based on a mural he drew on the wall of a record store, is the name of Daniel Johnston’s 1983 self–released cassette of home–recorded songs, his sixth such album. It features the many defining characteristics of Johnston’s works up to and beyond that point—unpretentious lyricism, low fidelity production, and minimalistic arrangements. It drew comparisons to other similarly primitivistic recordings, namely The Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World, an album legendary for its abject technical incompetence. Though influenced by the Shaggs and other artists within a lengthy history of rough–around–the–edges indie music, Johnston’s music came to be known primarily for another influence: schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. As it would turn out, the budding star had been living in and out of mental institutions and his parents' house in West Virginia. And with mainstream audiences’ exposure to music that sounded like Johnston’s largely being limited to his own, the genre that he was coming to be the face of became synonymous with intellectual disability and technical inability.
This genre is outsider music. Even as it cemented itself throughout the '90s, its descriptive elements became increasingly reductive. Rather than approaching works by Johnston and similar artists as artistic equals to more accessible genres, critics relegated outsider music to novelty status. In fact, Wikipedia's current definition of outsider music states that the term is "usually applied to musicians who have little or no traditional musical expereience, who exhibit childlike qualities in their music, or who have intellectual disabilites or mental illnesses." Whether this statement is accurate at face value is a useless argument to have, because, let’s face it, most people don’t really talk about outsider music anyway. But whether the above definition and surrounding subtext are reductive to a genre as vast and inventive as outsider music is indeed a conversation very much worth having.
Although the story of outsider music as a consolidated genre with mainstream appeal begins with Johnston, its roots lie with the proto–punk movement in New York City. Bands like The Velvet Underground and Modern Lovers pioneered the idea of placing frank, inharmonious singers atop low fidelity instrumentation, and songs like the Velvet's “Heroin” and “Pale Blue Eyes” are some of the most emotionally powerful songs ever written. There is an undeniable humanness that comes from these unsophisticated recordings, an approachability that allows one to connect with music beyond its artistic form in a way that feels intensely personal. All while bands like the aforementioned were pioneering the sound of outsider music, Syd Barret and Brian Wilson were proving that artists with mental illnesses were perfectly capable of writing pop songs. The foundational reductiveness of “outsider music” as a term was doomed from the start.
The momentum of low fidelity production and technical simplicity was prevalent in punk circles in the '70s, encountering a revival in the '80s. Artists like Ted Hawkins and Wesley Willis, alongside Johnston, wrote sparse, spectral folk music informed by their struggles with mental illness, and the burgeoning indie rock scene took notice. Dean Wareham founded Galaxie 500 and Luna, the former of whose recordings are foundational to the '90s slowcore movement. Wareham's voice—brittle, nasally, and out of tune—could easily be mistaken for Johnston’s on certain tracks, but his deep devotion to literary and academic references remove any conception of childishness.
As Luna and Galaxie 500 made fans in underground circles in the northeast, the Elephant Six collective, most famous these days for Neutral Milk Hotel and of Montreal, turned Luna’s scuzzy verbose sound psychedelic and established a devoted fanbase throughout the South. As grunge took hold throughout the United States, its primal, muscular rage was incapable of capturing the more plaintive distresses plaguing Gen X, and for many, low–fi was an outlet for emotionality without distortion, a therapeutic conversation between artist and listener. Even seminal indie label Sub Pop knew this, and its first non–grunge release was Eric’s Trip's Love Tara, a home–recorded album where wind chimes, barking dogs, and flubbed notes ebb throughout the soundscape, leaving the listener to feel the weight of the band’s every word as though in their living room.
New York City would come to be the epicenter of perhaps outsider music's most enduring movement: anti–folk. Guitars unplugged and lyrics simplified, artists like The Moldy Peaches and Jeffrey Lewis sang of bikes, comics, and the mundane, with a homely unabrasiveness that served as an auditory embrace. The Moldy Peaches’ “Anyone Else But You” has been featured in ads and movies, but even with Rough Trade at their backing, the band was unable to break into the mainstream. The reality is that, with popular music increasingly being marketed to as broad a segment as possible—whether for the sake of record sales, MP3 downloads, or viral TikToks—truly personal songwriting has been made foreign. Maybe this is why critics and listeners alike seek to alienate outsider artists. Simply saying that outsider music is honest and personal may not account for how strange it can be, but within much of popular music, honesty might just be that unfamiliar.
Perhaps no other movement stands as a stronger testament to the emotional potency and public misunderstanding of this unique brand of low–fi music than that of outsider country, namely David Berman. A genius of the English language, Berman’s wry, witty lyrics, sung in a deep, monotone affectation over homespun instrumentals, are rife with philosophical lamentations on life, death, relationships, and loneliness. Berman founded Silver Jews, alongside Bob Nastanovich and Stephen Malkmus, both masters of a less serious, though equally affecting, brand of low fidelity as members of Pavement. Alongside Silver Jews, Mark Linkous’s Sparklehorse and Jason Molina’s Songs: Ohia generated a distinguished triumvirate of twangy low–fi rock and immense critical acclaim. All three acts developed small, but intensely dedicated fanbases. Their lyrics, often sad but always reflective, spoke plainly to the human condition with few adornments.
However, all three, in a span from 2010 to 2019, would take their own lives. In an interview with The Ringer in 2019, just a month before his own suicide, Berman would say, “I’m not convinced I have fans. In my whole life, I’ve had maybe ten people who have told me how much my music means to them.” And it’s not hard to see why. For an artist as smart, as passionate, and as creative as Berman, to be relegated to the status of an “outsider” was an unconquerable hurdle, both personally and commercially.
Is it true that being raw, vulnerable, and emotional in popular music makes you an outsider? Maybe. But there exists a world of great music, made by people with unique struggles, perspectives, and voices that deserve attention. Even if we continue to cast them aside, trivialize their work, and label them as different, we shouldn’t ignore them, because listeners and artists can both use some honesty in their music.
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