The Shaggs, "My Pal Foot Foot," 1969
Rachele asked me to write about a band called The Shaggs and their record entitled Philosophy of the World. For any of you who've heard of this wonderful masterpiece, you'll be familiar with what I'm about to discuss here. It doesn't matter if you actually enjoy it, you probably understand what it is, although the ways in which each of you listen to it vary immensely no doubt. Whether you find it incredible, hilarious, baffling, or just downright disturbing, Philosophy represents quite possibly the best and most famous example of “outsider music”. A term that attempts to group a collection of records released in the last 100 years into a tidy little genre. And as much as “genres” or “tags” or “styles” provide any real help to listeners in 2015, “outsider music” as a genre/tag/style's been providing zero help to listeners since day 1. OG.
As the 20th century progressed, records started to pop up by bands or individuals or unknowns that baffled. Records that existed starkly outside the Popular cannon, lacked what some might call “normal” qualities, generally perplexing audiences. It wasn't until many years after their releases, or however long a cult takes to gain traction, did any of these records become the closest thing we get to “household” names. But, the progression of “outsider” music starts with the advent of one recording technology and more than likely ends with the introduction of another and society that brought it forth. Not just underground but center-of-the-earth underground. Greatly misinterpreted, routinely abandoned, and radically innovative – outsider music has always been there for those looking for something they might never find again.
Disclaimer: I don't know enough to plot the path or even really highlight all of the great records that might be considered outsider – (I'd probably try if I felt Rachele would give me the space ;)). It seems that within popular music criticism or commentary, a definition of Outsider Music has eluded many. And that may very well be the best we're gonna get. Definitions put forth in the past few decades have ranged from “music made by the insane” to “weird” to “avant-garde” to “pop”. It's kind of all over the place. But because why not, I'm still going to attempt just that. Not because I think we need more bickering over words that describe music, but because understanding what Outsider Music is allows us to look at what Outsider Music means today. And The Shaggs are the most logical place to start.
Their story is far-and-away the most well-known within the genre. I'll try and keep this short (please read Susan Orlean's wonderful 1999 article chronicling their lives, etc): a brief rundown so you stick with me here. The group formed in 1967 at the strict insistence of the member's father, Austin Wiggins Jr; his mother was a palm-reader who foretold that he'd marry a strawberry-blonde, have two sons his mother would never meet, and raise daughters who would form a musical group (and be famous, although the prophecy's truth is undoubtedly clouded in its incredible mythic existence). The first two came true, so he took it upon himself to fulfill the prophecy's entirety. Three of his children, Dot, Betty and Helen, would form the group. Swiftly removed from school in their late teens, they were set-up on a strict schedule of home-schooling, practicing and calisthenics, that as they reflected on it years later resembled a strange and borderline-cruel form of abuse. Forced to play shows for the locals at the nearby dance hall and nursing home, the girls worked and worked and worked, with very little social interaction and real desire to continue, only doing so because of their father. Mr. Wiggins Jr. forbid his daughters to date, so when her father found out that Helen had married a man in secret, years after their first recording, he chased her husband with a shotgun and kicked her out of the band (and the family). So the story goes.
In 1969, against the advice of the engineer, Austin paid for studio time ($60/hr), attempting to capture the band “while they were hot” [liner notes]. Philosophy of the World was created, and 1000 records were soon after pressed. (It is unknown what happened to a large majority of the first pressing. Around 100 are thought to exist – the others lost in an ostensibly shady production company's tactics, or they may have just been thrown away). The group would continue this same schedule. Several years later, they recorded another collection of songs that would eventually be released as The Shaggs Own Thing. In 1975, Austin Jr, died at the age of 47 after suffering a heart attack. The group disbanded. The three sisters forgot about the group and went on to live fairly average, semi-rural-American lives. Dot is actually working on a new record, having re-emerged in the past few years. Helen now battles severe depression and lives off disability. Betty appears to have forgotten about it altogether – it sounds like she lives a fairly normal Mom life.
Their story is as much fascinating as it is troubling; filled with unbridled youth and surprisingly effective naiveté but constructed from the same stuff that makes up your every-person's anguish and loss. Entirely unconventional, foreign, strange, but ceaselessly enchanting, stunning and unavoidably human. The Shaggs as a group and the record that made them “famous” embody almost every crucial aspect of what outsider music is, why it was able to happen, and why it may never be able to happen again. But the likes of much better writers/minds have been struggling to figure out how to categorize or even agree on what makes a musician “outsider”. Lester Bangs wrote a short piece about the Shaggs in 1981 entitled Better than the Beatles (and DNA too) that was clearly a little more tongue-in-cheek than pure appreciation. Pitchfork's Dominque Leone had a long running feature entitled “Out” Music that discussed records that (to his admission) were not necessarily “outsider”, but just out – obscuring any definition. Henry Rollins wrote a short piece for LA Weekly discussing his love for the “outsider” music of George Crumb and Iannis Xenakis. Not to mention Wikipedia's definition, or Allmusic's (lack of one) “obscuro” tag. I'm not blaming anyone here, mind you. These are just a few examples of the obvious confusion surrounding this type of music. “Outsider Music” as a term has existed for such a long time, you'd think there'd be a little more clarity. Especially today. It's both interesting and extremely problematic that Charles Ives and Spooky Black exist as equals.
So, I sat here for a few weeks trying to draw the line, trying to conceive some incredible new definition that might make sense of it all, might tie it all together, but you see right there's the problem. This fucking stuff is far too subjective and personal and individual to tie down. There's no real rhyme or reason to the whole thing. To Henry Rollins, Iannis Xenakis is an outsider, but “I” - the incredibly informed – know better. To Dominque Leone, Zs is an outsider group, but “I” know better. Even Wikipedia (aka everyone) thinks Charles Ives is ostensibly the first musical outsider, but I'd most likely argue Florence Foster Jenkins takes that prize. There's so conventional definition because the entirety of all of it is is fucking unconventional. But I believe there is one attribute that runs through all of this, holding things in line, in cult status, in obscurity and letting others go. Fame.
To me, The Shaggs are quintessential not because they're the battiest, or the most unconventional, or even the funniest. The Shaggs are the most famous outsiders. They never had a radio hit, never made money, never interviewed, never did what musicians do. But they managed to make themselves a household name in weird music. No one ever wrote articles about them, never “analyzed” them, ever cared what their intentions were. They were meant to be forgotten. But something just wouldn't let them go. The Shaggs have, by 2015, reached the peak of this enigmatic amoebic style. They're not getting back together (first of all), but more than that, when they were making music there's just no way they could have toured, or supported themselves, or signed to a label, or even continued. Their origin is as preposterous as their music. In seemingly definite terms, 1969 was just not the year for The Shaggs. And so they faded away. It's not that they didn't try, it's not that they didn't want to be famous, have money, or fulfill their grandmother's prophecy. It's that 1969 would not let them do all of these things.
In setting up this definition, however, it becomes even more problematic that musicians like Jandek and R. Stevie Moore, oft-sighted prolific “outsiders” in their own right, intentionally stayed hidden. And even though they would've never reached any kind of “hit” status, they purposefully tried not to. The Shaggs story, by “definition” contradicts the ilk of these other outsiders: The Residents, Luciano Cilio, early-Ariel Pink, Dean Blunt, even Burial. The contradictory intention amongst music labeled “outsider” almost demands a separate definition. But their affect is all essentially the same. It's what makes defining it so difficult. On one side we have the musicians who tried so hard to get famous but couldn't: The Shaggs, Tiny Tim, Florence Foster Jenkins, Sam Sacks, Jan Terri, The Kids of Widney High, JustinRPG, etc. On the other, a group of musicians who actively avoided fame: as mentioned above, Moore, Jandek, Joe Meek, etc. But running through every group, every album, every recording: fame. Or lack thereof. Fame has many requirements, convention being its most important. Convention is normal, it's easily understood, easily related to. We hear something like Taylor Swift and we immediately get it. It's carved into us; a rut our tastes love falling into, time and time again. Convention is easy and it makes money. Even better is the slightly unconventional (i.e. Chvrches, or Future Islands, or Beyonce), making us think we're hearing something new.
Nonetheless, convention is what every outsider lacks, but that's not what holds it all together. It's a lack of recognition, absence of praise, not making it. Inability to achieve this has always has had an ambiguous affect on those seeking it. Some try harder, some give up, some change course, a few might eventually even get there. But at what point does one know enough about one's effort to make a decision about it's worth? At what point do you reassess, do you reevaluate? At what point do you say enough is enough, I'm not (-in fact-) ahead of my time I'm just ridiculous? How do you gauge your own creative output's worth?
I believe this question is one we unconsciously check. Regardless of the year or technology or intelligence of the era – it's just something inherent in our makeup. But the time between start and reevaluation? I'm not so sure this doesn't change. See, recording technology has dramatically changed over the last 20 years. Today, DIY is easier than ever (Grimes, James Blake, Tame Impala, Girls, et al). Recording music no longer requires thousands of dollars, a connected uncle, and conventional talent. Anyone with a couple hundred bucks and a lot of time can do it. So it would make sense that with the increasing ability to access “pro” recording capability, more “outsiders” might get their hands on this stuff? More unconnected nobodies might be able to afford a record? You might even think we'd be in the High Renaissance of it all, right? All the glorious ambiguity and challenging ideas and progressive attitudes? Soon, we'll have the most incredible Philosophy's or Madcap Laughs or Songs of Pain. But herein lies the great paradox that is “Outsider Music” in 2015. Where the fuck did it all go?
Well, it's the times, the society, the technology, the kids, the parents. It's all these things and more that I don't really have time to dive into. But, I will say this: the Internet is a messed-up entirely crazy fucking thing. And who would have thought? It brought with it amazing power, incredible efficiency, and most of all immediacy. At the risk of sounding like one of those “zen” slow-down-when-you-eat write-ups etc, it also forever changed the ways in which we interact, communicate, and exist. More specifically, the speed at which we move. There's no time to wait. Instant everything. Immediate access all the time. Give it. I love it. But aside from this insanity, what we do with our lives and how we live and who we are, transparency is an expectation. The requirement seems to be: talking about what we're doing, sharing our everyday movements, discussing our interests and desires and, of course, hyping it all up. If you're a musician, that can be downright oppressive. Where the fuck is your music I want to hear it right now. What are you doing? Oh?
It's not that the Internet-age single-handedly killed or is almost done killing the possibility of another group like The Shaggs, it's that we as a society will no longer allow the time it takes to have one. Remember, the Wiggins sisters spent two entire years practicing their music. In isolation, home-schooled to death and in great shape from all those sit-ups. Two years. Think about that. If you listen to the record, you can hear the precision, the correct-ness of it all. This wasn't some trio who just happened upon instruments and boom Philosophy. These were well-rehearsed, thoroughly prepared, perfectly executed compositions. After repeated listens, their music reveals a unique cohesion, one rarely heard on record – the vocals aren't spontaneous, the guitar isn't out of tune, the rhythm isn't random, this group is playing together. A well-oiled machine. Susan Orleans wrote that Austin Wiggins Jr. believed the girls only performed their song “Philosophy of the World” correct once. They developed a style completely removed from Western pop music, from any conventional music really, and just played it to death. Practiced until their father might finally approve, might allow them to lead normal lives. It's this dedication to something so errantly unconventional that's just never going to exist again. Not because we don't want it to, but because we just don't have the time for it anymore.
I can't escape the constant pressure of getting it out now. I assume anyone who grew up in this generation feels the same, trying to make anything with their life feels the same. It's different than previous generations. Even though I obviously didn't experience it back then, there's no way said pressure existed before. There's just no time to waste. If you're doing something that's not going to produce a desired result (i.e. fame), why keep doing it if you know within a month it's terrible? You move on and try something else. Quickly.
I do believe we all start as outsiders. With little knowledge of how anything is supposed to work, we're fueled by the inherently-human desire to create something. Eventually, we learn what works, what doesn't. We make mistakes and correct them and persist. We (often) gradually shape our creation to other people's liking – we want other people to like what we make, don't we? We eventually achieve something a little more relateable, a little more conventional. It becomes comfortable. And maybe then we decide we want to be unconventional (now that we know what the convention is), but that becomes harder and harder as it's already built into the process. Some people though, they never got past that first step. They just held onto that inherently-human desire and went with it. They remind us where it all started, where we came from, where everyone came from. I'm sure the Outsider still exists. They have to. But like the ways in which everyone understands the term, or The Shaggs, who really knows what's going on? Or when we might see them again.
BETTER THAN THE BEATLES (AND DNA, Too)
Susan Orleans The Shaggs article:
Philosophy of the World
Kids of Widney High:
Florence Foster Jenkings:
Iannis Xenakis “Keren”
George Crumb “Ancient Voices of Children”