What is outsider music? Put most simply, it is music created by artists who have minimal familiarity with the so-called rules of musicianship (i.e. rhythm or theory). Many of the best known outsider musicians are afflicted with mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities. While the majority of the genre does not conform to the socially accepted idea of “good music,” it is art in its purest form: self-expression unhindered by the boundaries of convention. Outsider artists create simply because they must.
Here are five staples of the bizarre and beautiful world of outsider music.
Wesley Willis – Rock and Roll McDonald’s
The most outwardly funny song on this list, Wesley Willis’s “Rock and Roll McDonald’s” is exactly what its name implies: a straightforward, no holds barred rock and roll song about McDonald’s. Since being featured in the documentary Super-Size Me, the song has become something of a novelty classic even amongst those unfamiliar with outsider music. And how could it not be? Lyrics like “McDonald’s hamburgers are the worst / They are worse than Burger King” could bring even the most pensive listener to their knees in joyous laughter.
Unfortunately, Wesley Willis passed away in 2003. But to this day his music enthralls both fans and unsuspecting new listeners. Contrary to popular belief, he did indeed know that many of his songs were funny. His audience’s happiness was his own greatest source of joy. However, he also suffered greatly. Afflicted with chronic schizophrenia, Willis was tormented by the voices in his head, which he referred to as his “demons.”
“My demons talk to me in profanity,” he said in this interview. “They think I’m a jerk, a bum, and an asshole… They’re no good. They better leave me alone and get off my case.”
While no medication could make Willis’s demons truly go away, his music brought him happiness. And it will never cease to bring happiness to listeners. While undeniably silly, his art is special in that it can never truly be replicated.
Daniel Johnston – Walking the Cow
The topic of outsider music can’t be brought up without mentioning Daniel Johnston. To the untrained ear, his music may sound childlike. But underneath his high-pitched yips and lovelorn lyrics are cries for help, the desire to be freed from the mental prison he spent his life trapped within. Even in its simplicity, “Walking the Cow” exemplifies this. Its haunting organ chords create an ominous atmosphere amidst Johnston’s softly spoken lyrics, which describe the banalities of everyday life.
According to Johnston, “the cow” is a metaphor for one’s burdens. “What it represented was walking your responsibility,” he said. “It’s like a burden to me, like walking the cow was bearing your cross. I don’t want to stay here, but I’m walking the cow.”
If you want to learn more about Johnston and his music, we highly recommend the 2005 documentary film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which won the Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival.
The Shaggs – My Pal Foot Foot
Upon its release, the Shaggs’ 1969 album Philosophy of the World was either ignored or panned. Featuring 12 tracks of out-of-tune guitars, off-key singing, and rhythmless drumming, it’s easy to see why the record wasn’t the hit that band manager (and father of the three members) Austin Wiggin was hoping for. And with only 1,000 copies printed, the record was doomed to fall into obscurity. It did, however, manage to catch the attention of a young Frank Zappa, who lauded the Shaggs as being “better than the Beatles.”
After a 1980 repress, Philosophy of the World became a cult classic. “My Pal Foot Foot”—which tells the story of the Wiggin sisters’ lost cat—is perhaps the album’s most beloved song. Even in its chaos, it manages to be quite endearing. While not technically proficient, the Shaggs’ music has a rare earnestness.
Viper – Leanin’ Low
Outsider music does not equate to meme music; Viper just happens to fall into both categories. Lee Carter, aka Viper, has been actively releasing music since 2003. However, it wasn’t until his 2008 song “You’ll Cowards Don’t Even Smoke Crack” was discovered by the internet that he became the infamous “meme rapper” that he is today. His music consists of minimalistic, spacey instrumentals—which arguably laid the groundwork for vaporwave—and deep, slowly mumbled vocals that seek to imitate his hometown of Houston’s chopped and screwed sound.
While Viper’s music is mostly loved for its unintentional (?) hilarity, “Leanin’ Low” manages to be an objectively good song while still being entirely Viper. No, he’s not a wordsmith like Nas, but there is genuine pain in the song’s lyrics, which detail the passing of a friend. (Fans speculate that “Leanin’ Low” is about fellow Houston rapper Fat Pat, who was shot and killed in 1998.) And the instrumental… We’re not sure where that vocal sample is taken from, but it is absolutely heart-wrenching.
Bingo Gazingo – I’m So Used to Losing
Not much is known about the life of New York City poet Murray “Bingo Gazingo” Wachs. Born in 1924, he was a postal worker for the majority of his career. He would frequent open mic nights, performing crass, stream-of-consciousness poetry that eventually led to his being discovered by fellow outsider musician R. Stevie Moore. His first album, released in 1997, features instrumentation by Moore. Song titles include “Everything’s OK at the OK Corral,” “Like Beavis and Butthead,” and “Oh Madonna (You Stole My Pants).”
“I’m So Used to Losing” is a lesser-known Bingo classic. Produced only a year before his tragic death in 2010, the song sees him reflecting on his life’s shortcomings as he contemplates a future with a romantic interest. Even at the age of 85, Bingo was as passionate as ever, having no intention to slow down creatively. Unfortunately, he was fatally hit by a cab on his way to perform at the Bowery Poetry Club.