Since writing about him in Letter #58
, Lonnie Holley has stuck with me. This is for lots of reasons, but the one that’s been playing on my mind for a couple of weeks now is this idea of being an ‘outsider’. It’s not that the concept is new to me, nor is it that I think Holley is a particularly pertinent example of what it is to be an ‘outsider’. I suppose I’ve never really thought what it means in the broader context of music, arts, or culture. The traditional definition of an ‘outsider artist’ is someone who’s either self-taught, or naive with regards to their craft. The term itself comes from Jean Dubuffet’s idea of art brut
(raw art), and has been used to describe artists (including musicians) either operating on the margins of culture – or those suffering from mental illness.
It’s not a particularly clear term. It feels like something that’s often misused, abused, and I’d say it’s also often used with an air of condescension too.
The first track on this week’s mixtape is from Daniel Johnston – the track is beautiful in its own right, and doesn’t need to be categorised as either ‘outsider’, or art brut. However, Johnston is nearly ubiquitous with the idea of ‘outsider’ musicians. He was definitely a front runner to the ‘lo-fi’ indie movement of the late 80s / early 90s, and both his recording and singing style are unconventional, but to suggest his work is ‘naive’ is derogatory and patronising. Equally, Johnston’s bi-polar disorder is often fetishised, and almost glamourised – again, dangerously equating mental illness with creativity and genius. Johnston had been writing and publishing music since the 1980s, but Kurt Cobain thrust his work into the mainstream in the 90s when he wore a ‘Hi, How Are You‘ t-shirt in a TV interview. A documentary then followed, which Johnston was unhappy with, along with the mainstream music media camping out in his yard in Texas.
In its broader cultural context, to be an outsider is to be on the margins, to lack any sense of belonging – literally to be outside, with the insinuation that you’re looking in. To me, it suggests a sense of ‘otherness’, and a disconnection from established values and norms. The Dada movement, Duchamp, and even Picasso could be described in this way, but their impact on mainstream culture was equally as enormous as their impact on the margins. They may have existed on the margins for a time, but their ideas quickly became adopted and adapted, filtering into the cultural mainstream. So does this mean being outsider is transient, until the time when (and if) your ideas propagate broader culture, and your influence goes beyond your own work? I watched If I Think of Germany at Night on Boiler Room’s new platform 4:3, which felt like a celebration of the fringes of culture – and some of those artists regularly play to tens of thousands of people – does being defined as an ‘outsider’ only count just before your successful with a broad audience? Do you have to be niche?
There was a brilliant BBC Radio 4 documentary on the myth and mystery of Aphex Twin recently, and in the first few minutes David Toop describes the power of the mystery and ‘outsiderness’ that Richard D. James has created:
“[…] all of that created a kind of mystery – very quickly it becomes difficult to distinguish the way you’re perceiving the music, to the way you think about him as a person. And if there’s mystery there, it really really appeals to a certain type of fan. They begin to think that someone is speaking to them, exclusively. It’s a very powerful thing.”
In rejecting the accepted norms and values of both mainstream and dance music culture, James has undoubtedly cast himself as an outsider (in the broadest sense), and he’s definitely self-taught, with a self-proclaimed naivety when it comes to using some of the gear he has. Rumours of new Aphex Twin material sends huge ripples of excitement through music culture – and the myth undoubtedly adds to that, but is that about creating an illusion of myth? Is it about playing around with our perceptions and the artists story? He may cast himself as outside of culture, but his influence on the inside has been enormous. Has James’ position as an outsider changed from ’92 to ’18?
There was a great interview in The Quietus with Nine Inch Nails that looked over how Reznor’s story has developed, and how intertwined his personal story is with his music – and something that felt pertinent was his never ending desire to create and add something to his culture. He talks of trying to reinvent his process through applying a more naive mindset – which feels like trying to put himself outside of culture to add something of greater value. This reminded me of an Iggy Pop interview I saw a few weeks ago, where he talks about his fears of becoming incorporated into culture, which drove him to move city, and start hanging out with more outsiders. There are also those artists that seem to be outsiders, and appear to have a less explicit impact on culture. Pariah (who’s debut album is excellent) is one of those artists – with his influence on culture outlined perfectly in this review on Resident Advisor. It’s never as clear cut as ‘inside’ or ‘outside’, especially over time.
Culture (and how it develops) is such a fluid and ethereal concept – which makes understanding and describing who sits outside of the culture, and who is inside it difficult. What I reject, I suppose, is the idea that anyone can sit totally outside of the influence of culture. You may not be ‘recognised’ as a contributor, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a recipient, and ultimately our individual involvement in culture is a symmetrical relationship. Most of us take from culture, use language, icons, images, and ideas to embellish our sense of self, and provide us with a sense of (almost tribal) belonging. No one is ever a true outsider, no one is untouched by culture. We are all the sum of our cultural influences – both explicitly, and implicitly, and both chosen, and imposed. I think the best thing we can do is try to create something of true meaning, and forget this condescending bullshit notion of being inside or outside of anything.
As always, if you’ve read to here, thanks for indulging me ♥️.
See you on the dance floor.
Love Will Save the Day