What is 'Obscuro' and 'Outsider Music'? Do they mean the same thing?

If you're a music fan, there's a slight chance you'd heard of Outsider Music, or possibly even the term 'Obscuro.' The terms are different but the same. Here's why...
Jandek in Concert - February 17, 2007
Jandek in Concert - February 17, 2007 / Frank Mullen/GettyImages

What is the definition of Outsider Music? "Outsider music," typically refers to music created by self-taught or amateur musicians who operate outside the mainstream music industry, and typically challenge conventional boundaries or precise genre descriptions. Another fancy term for this premise is "Art brut," which is French for "raw art," and is a term attributed to French artist Jean Dubuffet regarding visual art. Such artists often produce music that is unconventional, experimental, or idiosyncratic, to varying degrees.
The term "Outsider Music" is said to be popularized by WFMU DJ Irwin Chusid.

Characteristics: Outsider music may be characterized by unpolished production, unconventional song structures, and unique lyrical content. It often lacks the formal training and adherence to traditional musical norms found in mainstream genres. That being said, and contrary to what some may believe, this label does not mean such artists simply “don’t know what they’re doing”; it may sometimes be as simple as them having a different way of doing things, or having a different approach. Also, if such artists never knew what they were doing, it seems their compositions would seldom have motifs; wouldn't they just be a truly random mess?

Obscuro (or Obscura) Music: Definition and characteristics

Definition: The term "Obscuro" is less commonly used and might refer to music that is (sometimes intentionally) obscure, underground, or not widely known. That being said, it seems that not all unknown artists necessarily fit the definition equally, as the word tends to be applied to — you guessed it — outsider music. So, basically, you might be a relatively known "Alternative" rock band, but that doesn't mean you're instantly going to be lumped in with "Obscuro" outsider musicians.

Obscuro could also be associated with genres that purposely avoid mainstream recognition, and this can apply to every general style of music, from rock to hip hop (though, of course, not all of these artists will neatly exist under those umbrella genre terms). Regarding characteristics, Obscuro music may be marked by its limited distribution, niche audience, and deliberate departure from commercial trends. It might encompass various genres, from experimental and avant-garde to niche sub-genres that exist on the fringes of the music scene. It can either be "minimalist" or complex, but Obscuro music will most likely tie into "Outsider Music" that (often) features unconventional approaches to songwriting, instrumentation, and recording.

Are there any Outsider Music or Obscuro projects that achieved recognition?

The answer to that question is "Yes," and that may seem contradictory. Musicians in this category may not conform to traditional music norms, and their work can sometimes be characterized by a raw, unpolished quality. However, most of them still make material considered music, and plenty of these artists actually do welcome some degree of attention and success, if not fame. The Outsider Music genre gained attention through figures like The Residents, The Shaggs (who will soon get a biopic starring Elsie Fisher), Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, and Jandek, who became known for their unique and idiosyncratic musical expressions.

To complicate things, there are some alternative rock bands who had success fairly early on, and who have elements that sound like "Outsider Music." Sonic Youth would be an obvious example, as would Merzbow, The Butthole Surfers, Captain Beefheart, and Frank Zappa. Some musical acts, such as Radiohead or Sparklehorse, sound relatively normal to some ears, but might at least appeal to listeners looking for some "outsider" vibes (basically, they'll consider it outsider music partly because they may not have heard much of anything weirder).

It's tough to argue that these artists aren't outside the norm, to an extent, but they often don't seem to be lumped in with the two labels we're discussing here. It's true that I'm not an expert at defining genres or subgenres, but it's also true that all of these labels are essentially made-up categories anyway. Still, it's all food for thought, right?

Though this Daniel Johnston song below definitely has pop sensibilities, there are also obvious strange elements. Also, Johnston was plagued for years by serious mental illness, as depicted in-depth in the great documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005). After watching that documentary, it's tempting to debate whether the weird elements of this song are just creative, quirky, silly choices, or the curious results of more serious problems.

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