Three Imaginary Girls

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William Hung will never be American Idol.

And Ralph Nader will never be President.

Yet there they were, Hung on Fox’s unfathomably popular amateur hour, stammering out the lyrics to Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs," and Nader on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” declaring his candidacy to Tim Russert and the nation.

Why? Hung’s ambitions could easily be blamed on his apparent wide-eyed cluelessness, but Nader surely knows that his candidacy is doomed. Even his long-time compatriots at The Nation begged him not to run, for the sake of both the anti-Bush campaign and his own legacy. Yet both Hung and Nader are merely the latest standard-bearers in a long line of ambitious outsiders in their respective fields.

It’s admittedly a bit fatuous to compare Ralph Nader and his campaign to William Hung, an entertaining falsh-in-the-pan goofball. It’s probably not even fair to include Hung in a list of true outsider musicians. The fact is, he is destined to be a short-lived novelty thanks to the condescending nature of the fandom that has arisen around him and the bland studio-hack backing that will inevitably accompany the album being hurriedly rushed into production as we speak. But given the proper circumstances – less exposure, recordings guided by his own skewed sensibility rather than that of cash-hungry record execs – Hung could potentially join the ranks of lesser musical outsiders such as Wesley Willis, Jandek, or Wild Man Fischer, if not the more enduring and influential likes of The Shaggs, Daniel Johnston, or The Legendary Stardust Cowboy.

All of the above, and quite a few more, are covered by WFMU radio personality Irwin Chusid in Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music. His book contains entertaining yet respectful analyses of the gamut of out-there musical artistry, from bizarro visionaries (Captain Beefheart, Harry Partch) to heavily-medicated compulsive songwriters (Johnston, Willis), and from gleefully wrong-headed interpreters of popular music (The Shaggs, B.J. Snowden) to darkly driven loners (Jandek, Joe Meek). So in the hopes of possibly gaining an insight into the analogous drives of third-party politicos, I asked him via email why these outsiders continue to pursue their goals despite the knowledge that they can never achieve mainstream popularity.

“Outsiders do not have the ‘knowledge’ that they ‘can never achieve mainstream popularity,’” according to Chusid. “ They have dreams, visions, and boundless ambition. They may be perceived as having technical limitations, but they do not have aspirational limitations.”

“Aspirational limitations” have certainly never been an obstacle for Ralph Nader. He has been tilting at corporate windmills for forty years and has miraculously been able to take down more than a few. Nader’s unlimited aspirations for the 2004 election, as they were in the 2000 race, are for all the right reasons. He decries the “corporate occupation” of Washington. He states emphatically that impeachment hearings should be held against George W. Bush for the misleading use of intelligence resulting in the Iraq war. He champions the environment, civil rights, gay marriage, and true campaign finance reform. He is an important and powerful voice on progressive issues and he has the media’s ear.

But the question remains – should Ralph Nader be running for president? The nation is still evenly divided, so Nader could conceivably have an impact on the results of the election. When Russert asked him if, should that scenario play out as November approaches, he would bow out of the race and endorse the Democrat, Nader dodged the question. (At least it wasn’t a no.) That would be the seemingly ideal situation. Having Ralph in the race could affect the debate in a positive direction. Look at what Howard Dean’s candidacy accomplished – by channeling the anger of the Democratic base, he shifted the tenor of the primary debate leftward and forced John Kerry to co-opt major portions of his message. If Ralph Nader can keep that drumbeat pounding, then progressive issues could be voiced throughout the campaign and Kerry may continue to be forced to argue from a more liberal position while being cushioned by the contrast thrown by Nader’s far-left opinions. Given that Ralph is running as an independent this time, thereby removing the party-building motivation that could justify his aiming for actual votes, there is no reason that he shouldn’t step aside before election day.

But should he stay in the race through the bitter end, the responsibility for ensuring that Bush is defeated would come down not to Ralph Nader, but to his supporters. Which brings me back to the realm of the outsider musician.

There is a debate in this arena as to whether listeners should continue to patronize mentally disturbed artists such as Wesley Willis or Daniel Johnston. There is a valid concern that they are being exploited, gawked at like a modern freak show. In Johnston’s case, that claim can be refuted simply by listening to the music. He is a hell of a songwriter and knowledge of his backstory is not necessary to appreciate his naively charming pop tunes. The late Wesley Willis is a harder case to defend. His songs are all virtually the same, repeated on dozens of CDs – a simple factory-preset keyboard backing over which Willis rants about one of a limited number of topics: rock bands, animal genitalia, his personal friends and personal demons… and that’s about it. Every song ends with his trademark signoff (“Rock over London, rock on Chicago”) and a randomly-chosen advertising slogan.

I worked at a record store in Chicago, Willis’ hometown, for six years, and therefore had quite a bit of contact with him. Wesley was just like any number of mentally ill homeless people that you could find on the streets in Chicago, except for one thing – he had a passion and a drive to make music. He fancied himself a famous rock star, and in certain circles he was. His music and celebrity, real or imagined, seemed to make him happy and give him a focus.

Where I had trouble and where the exploitation charges are harder to shake are with some of his “fans.” I own a grand total of two Wesley Willis CDs. That is more than enough of his music for anyone. But there were those who would comb the store collecting every one of his discs, and for many of them Wesley seemed to be little more than a joke. It always pained me to see Wesley, given his obviously quite serious condition, held up as an object of ridicule.

This is an all-too-frequent reaction to outsider artists, and it is a patronizing and hollow way to hear non-mainstream music. It is easy to point out what is wrong with The Shaggs, to laugh and mock the “wrong” notes, the “off-key” harmonizing, or the “awkward” drumming. But it is far more rewarding to hear the genuine passion for music, the sheer joy in self-expression that comes across
in their songs. Given the slick, over-produced corporate music that surrounds us, the Wiggin sisters’ mutation of bubblegum pop becomes all the more refreshing.

It is our reaction to the outsiders that is most important. And that applies to the Ralph Nader presidential bid.

I would never accuse anyone of throwing away their vote by casting it for a third party or independent candidate. The only wasted vote is one not cast. But let me strongly discourage “voting your conscience.” Politics is the art of strategy and compromise, and votes should be cast strategically. There are plenty of other outlets for idealism and ideology. The fact that he is running as an independent is one of several troubling factors of Nader’s current candidacy. He speaks out vehemently against the “two-party duopoly” in Washington that shuts out third parties from the process. He is absolutely right about this and about the fact that a strong third-party movement is essential to changing American politics for the better.

But what good does an independent Ralph Nader campaign do for anybody besides Ralph Nader? Compare this, once again, to the last election. Running as the Green Party candidate, he added an air of legitimacy to the party. Had he won over 5% of the vote nation-wide, he would have qualified the party for millions in federal matching funds in this election. Most importantly he encouraged candidates to run on the state and local level, which is where any viable party-building has to begin. But an independent run can have none of these salutary effects.

Ideally the results of the 2000 election have proved to everyone that each vote really does count, and all of the young voters and disaffected liberals that Nader energized four years ago will rally to the cause of defeating George Bush this year. But hopefully they will also think long-term about what Nader has to say about the problems inherent in our current system, and will take action locally to help nurture third parties from the bottom up. His quixotic campaign should encourage us all. As Irwin Chusid wrote me regarding the outsider musicians he profiles, "Through a prism of the improbable, they reveal glimpses of the possible."

P.S. For those politically active outsider music fans in the crowd, I also asked Irwin Chusid which of his subjects would make a good president. His reply: “B.J. Snowden would overhaul our nation’s education system, The Legendary Stardust Cowboy would blow our terrorist enemies to smithereens, and Jandek would never bore anyone with long-winded speeches.” They’ve got my vote.

Hooray for Imaginary Shaun! He's our political correspondent for "Election 2004" and we're extremely pleased that he'll be checking in every week or so to reflect on recent events in the political campaigns.

Three wholeheartedly supports this report but opinions expressed are the author's and do not necessarily reflect opinions or policies of the girls {although, as igLiz says, "It doesn't necessarily not reflect our opinions…}"