Nicole Marchesseau

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Stone-Faced Portraits, Teeth Painting, and Precious Gems: A Brief Journey into Jandek’s Visual, Lyrical, and Sonic World

Initial visual encounters with the so-called outsider musician Jandek often come by way of onlookers’ observations of Jandek’s album covers. These feature—among occasional other themes and motifs—surreal interiors, generic exteriors, and enigmatic portraits. Images, appearing as recurring tropes, emerge only to later retreat into the ever-evolving arachnidan skein that characterizes the Jandek project. Sometimes captured in close temporal proximity to each other, many of the cover art images are released years apart, disturbing the temporality of visual series. Lyrical themes develop in like fashion but function more tangibly in the larger narrative, one that is—according to Jandek’s distributor Corwood Industries—autobiographical.

Remarkable in its longevity and marked by its iconic subcultural status, the Jandek project evades easy description and the public eye. Briefly introduced by the infamous but since recoiled Manny Farber essay “White Elephant Art Vs. Termite Art” (1962), this paper explores Jandek’s world of interconnected themes by investigating its temporally displaced visual subjects, the use of repetition in song lyrics for the purpose of re-contextualization, and the multifaceted gem “European Jewel,” the ubiquitous riffs of which appear 37 times over three releases. Unique in their persistence, motivic remnants of these riffs trailed the last full iteration of “European Jewel” for a decade after the final release of the song proper.  Aesthetically similar to the qualities described by Farber, what Jandek presents through the use of images, words, and sound rambles through “termite”-like orneriness for decades.

Thematic Interconnectivity as an Innate Musical Quality: An Investigation of Jandek’s “European Jewel” Guitar Riffs

This dissertation is divided into two main areas. The first of these explores Jandek-related discourse and contextualizes the project. Also discussed is the interconnectivity that runs through the project through the self-citation of various lyrical, visual, and musical themes. The second main component of this dissertation explores one of these musical themes in detail: the guitar riffs heard in the “European Jewel” song-set and the transmigration/migration of the riff material used in the song to other non-“European Jewel” tracks.

Jandek is often described in related discourse an an “outsider musician.” A significant point of discussion in the first area of this dissertation is the outsider music genre as it related to Jandek. In part, this dissertation responds to an article by Martin James and Mitzi Waltz which was printed in the periodical Popular Music where it was suggested that the marketing of a musician as an outsider risks diminishing the “innate qualities” of the so-called outsider musicians’ works. While the outsider label is in itself problematic-this is discussed at length in Chapter Two-the analysis which comprises the second half of this dissertation delves into self-citation and thematic interconnection as innate qualities within the project.

Explored at length in this dissertation are the guitar riffs of the Jandek song “European Jewel,” the closing track of the artist’s debut album, Ready for the House (1978). The riffs are heard 37 times over the course of five different versions of the song. Elements of the riffs also appear in tracks that are not labeled as “European Jewel” variants. A larger structural form in which the song-set is situated has been observed. When heard outside of the “European Jewel” song-set the riffs appear in fragmented form. Continued use of the “European Jewel” riff material lasts until the album One Foot in the North (1991). Much attention has been given to the interconnection between certain visual and lyrical ideas present in the project by Jandek fans; however, Jandek has not been investigated at any great length in music scholarship, popular or otherwise. In part, this investigation contributes to the breadth of popular music scholarship by exploring this underrepresented act. It also delves into the sonic qualities which are intrinsic to Jandek. This type of sonic analysis is performed in order to separate Jandek’s sonic qualities from non-sonic discussions of the project. Finally, this dissertation poses the question of whether or not these qualities are of value to fans and scholars.

The LMN and Op: Pre-Web Social Networking and the Labours of Love

Before there was file sharing there were mixed tapes passed among friends. And before there was the Internet boom with its continuous stream of music-related websites, blogs, tweets, and fan pages there were do-it-yourself grassroots magazines like Op. In 1979, KOAS FM—a community radio station broadcast from Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington—printed its first issue of Op magazine. Op was edited by John Foster, supported by his brain-child the non-profit educational organization the Lost Music Network (LMN). The LMN was described in Op as “a national non-profit clearinghouse for information and ideas about music.” Both Op and the LMN were dedicated to providing interested readers with printed matter on anything and everything musical, though specific efforts were made to cover “weird,” lesser-known, or otherwise harder to come by musics. If “big-name artists” were reviewed or mentioned it was for an album or artist’s “merit.” The bulk of Op’s issues were released alphabetically, beginning with the series’ “A” issue, featuring articles on The Art Institute of Chicago and Alabamian music, among others, to the last of Op’s run, the “Z” issue of 1984.

This paper/presentation overviews Op’s history from its early community radio centered days to its glossy- covered, ad-filled end. Op’s increased reliance upon advertisement as opposed to listener and reader support will be covered, as will the magazine’s changes in layout and artists featured. Also included is a more general discussion of printed materials released during the years leading up to the digital boom as providing interactive social networking experiences comparable in nature to those of today’s online era.

The Rise and Fall of the Key of Z: The Dubious Beginnings and Endings of Outsider Music

The controversial genre of outsider music loosely derives from the more recognized movement of outsider art, with the roots of the latter established by German psychiatrist and art critic Hans Prinzhorn in the early twentieth century. Eighty years later, radio programmer and journalist Irwin Chusid in the introduction to Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music, describes the inception of outsider music as possibly resulting from damaged DNA, psychotic seizures, alien abduction, or perhaps even bad beer. Although Chusid (who originally coined the term “outsider music”) claims that the book was never intended to be scholarly, recent researchers have latched onto the concept, viewing it critically as Mitzi Waltz and Martin James did in an October 2009 article appearing in the academic journal Popular Music.

In this paper I explore social issues concerning outsider music before comparing two songs by quintessential and influential so-called outsiders, Daniel Johnston and Jandek. Sonic attributes including a lack of rhythmic regularity, unconventional treatment of pitch, and distinctive vocal delivery are examined, all of which lead the listener beyond certain “horizons of expectation”—to borrow philosopher Tzvetan Todorov’s phrase—about the genre. Finally, I discuss outsider music’s dissolution in recent years as musicians distanced themselves from the classification. Along with challenging aesthetic and cultural values held by many listeners, this essay explores social narratives within a contentious genre.


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