Monday, December 6, 2010

Lost and Found: The Shaggs

When my cousin and I were kids, we had a "fake" band. Fake as in, "we faked most of our musical ability." We did have real instruments: I banged out a few chords on a cheap Casio while she strummed an acoustic guitar lifted from her mother. I guess we could have called ourselves "alternative," but we didn't know what that was yet. Equally problematic was our songwriting. Neither of us write a song in a linear, verse-chorus-verse style. Instead we wrote these meandering, stream-of-consciousness things that ended only when we tired of them.

We sounded quite a bit like the Shaggs.

The Shaggs, sisters Dot, Betty, and Wiggin, formed in 1968 at the insistence of their father, Austin Wiggin, are something of an outsider music institution. Your opinion of the Shaggs depends on which side of the the awful/awesome spectrum you think they fall. They got a boost in notoriety during the 90s, racking up namechecks by critics' pets of the day like Nirvana and Sonic Youth :
The world my friends, is divided in two. You either love The Shaggs, or you hate them. On the one hand, we’ve got Kurt Cobain, who applauded the Wiggin sisters for their contribution to outsider music. On the other hand, you have their lazy, almost bored, sounding tunes nagging at your brain in a way that could drive you mad. (Tom Tom Magazine)

I'm torn between being completely smitten by their lo-fi, if unlistenable, charm, and being more than a little uncomfortable with the exploitative nature of "outsider music" in general. I love the idea that anyone can make music, or art, irrespective of craft, but too often these artists are looked at as nothing more than curiosities. And I feel like a hypocrite just writing that -- yes, I fall into the same trap calling their music charming, but "unlistenable." It's a fine line to walk.

Despite all that, the Shaggs deserve a place in rock history. Contemporary punk and indie has always been an accommodating art, and at least in its inchoate years, formed on the idea that the performer is no better than than the audience. The Shaggs are that taken to the extreme -- with a lot more naivety and a lot less self-awareness. Which is probably why they've been lauded by some of indie's most well-respected members. Or maybe they're just in on the same joke.

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