This essay is by Takeaway Contributor Rafer Guzman. Click on the 'Listen' button above for the extended audio version.
This week, Meryl Streep stars as Florence Foster Jenkins in a new film by the same name. Foster Jenkins was a wealthy New York socialite in the 1940s who fancied herself an opera singer. Unfortunately, she could barely sing at all. She had a piercing voice, a wild pitch, and a violent sense of rhythm. Yet, she did sing — relentlessly — until she achieved her dream. On October 25th, 1944, Florence Foster Jenkins played a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall.
Foster Jenkins was an early example of what we now call "outsider music." It's a loaded term often used by cultural insiders and snobs. Who are we to say what’s bad or good? Igor Stravinsky’s "Rite of Spring" was booed in 1913, but today we call it a work of genius.
Could it be that we’re the ones who are tone-deaf? Let’s consider some of the other outsider musicians who followed in Foster Jenkins' footsteps.
"Downtown" - Mrs. Miller
Would you believe this song was a minor hit in 1966? It's from Mrs. Miller, a California housewife who actually got signed to Columbia Records. She later claimed she was conducted out of sync on purpose and only her worst takes were chosen. Mrs. Miller was an outsider, alright, but an artist?
"Ready for the House" - Jandek
Compare a one-hit-wonder like Mrs. Miller to the prolific recluse known as Jandek. In 1978, Jandek released his first album, "Ready for the House.” Only two people reportedly bought copies, but nevertheless, Jandek had his fans. To date, he has released more than 70 albums. He never performed live until 2004, and today he tours fairly often. Jandek has become a cult hero to generations of DIY rockers.
"I'm So Happy When You're Near" - The Shaggs
However, the most famous outsider musicians are probably The Shaggs — three sisters who released their first and only album, "Philosophy of the World," in 1969. Now, The Shaggs displayed such a high level of ineptitude that it began to resemble brilliance. Jazz pianist Terry Adams discovered their album years later and re-released it to widespread acclaim. The music press called The Shaggs avant-garde, primitive rock, the first punk band. Frank Zappa said the group was "better than the Beatles." But jazz composer Carla Bley put it best when she said: "They bring my mind to a complete halt."
"On the Floor" - Ice JJ Fish
Outsider musicians might be brilliant or just bad, but actually, it doesn't matter. What’s important is that they had the will and the determination to make themselves heard. These days, you don’t hear so much about outsider music, because there’s no longer an "outside." Now we have social media, so everyone has equal access to an audience. For example, R&B singer Ice JJ Fish scored a YouTube hit with his song "On the Floor." The video for that ear-splitting tune has been viewed more than 50 million times.
If Florence Foster Jenkins were alive today, just imagine what she could have done.