Out­side of Out­sider Music: How do we define the limits of what is “outside”?

The genre of outsider music is problematic in many respects. Unlike its art brut or naïve art cousins in the visual realm, it is difficult to come up with a specific categorization of outsiderness in music. Once we begin an attempt at such a definition, philosophical questions about consciousness and the nature of art complicate the issue. Therefore, I address the question of whether or not outsider music should be considered a genre at all, or if more specific descriptors for this music might be more useful.

I begin with an exploration of Irwin Chusid’s definition of outsiderness, as outlined in his book on the subject, Songs in the Key of Z. From there, I extrapolate several important elements of his definition: outsider musicians must be sincere in their work, they must not have self-awareness of their outsiderness, and so forth. These are then presented with problematic examples, both from the artists Chusid considers and from other sources. After dealing with Chusid’s definition, I suggestion that the term outsider music be abandoned in favour of more specific categories. The paper ends by considering two musicians that have some outsider sensibilities but that do not fall within Chusid’s definition, composer Richard Ayres and singer-songwriter Parker Paul.

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