A couple weeks ago, I started a new job writing about pop music for an entertainment Web site. The nature of my beat is now decidedly more lowbrow than when I was writing my own meal ticket by doing freelance magazine work; sadly, you just don't generate the requisite volume of daily hits profiling the latest underground drum-and-bass sensation. But put a fresh spin on what Latin heartthrob Marc Anthony ate for breakfast, and suddenly you've got tons of traffic. My parents would be so proud: For the first time in my life, I actually have to think about nubile teenage girls. A lot.
The fodder of my job is corrupting my personal tastes at an alarming rate. Lately, the ditty on the default setting of my tired brain is "Another Dumb Blonde," by rising teen star Hoku. Joey from 'N Sync is looking more and more like husband material to me every day. Yesterday, completely of my own free will, I listened to the new Matchbox Twenty album! I'm becoming a slave to everything I once professed to hate about popular music.
And then, like an episode out of an old Shangri-Las tune, a miracle happened. No, my beloved Joey didn't record an album of Scott Walker covers. I discovered Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music (on Which? Records), the companion CD to the engaging tome of the same title (A Cappella Books), both creations of New York musicologist/writer/radio host Irwin Chusid.
Now, the printed portion of Key of Z is a marvelous thing in itself, 19 in-depth chapters about artists from the past century who've specialized in "a mutant strain of twisted pop that's so wrong, it's right" (to simply quote from the press materials, as I'm now conditioned to do). I won't name too many names, because with the exception of a precious few—Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett, ukulele troubadour Tiny Tim—none of these folks have ever come within even spitting distance of a hit single. Chusid's loving, comprehensive work also includes a discussion about what happened if you ever answered those "Your Poems Set to Music!" ads that used to appear in the back of magazines, plus an overview of many, many lesser-known luminaries in this weird world of unlikely contenders to Britney's crown.
But as I said before, it's the Key of Z CD (sold separately) that's truly saved my life of late. Witty as Chusid's prose may be, words simply cannot communicate the baffling majesty of the disc's 20 artists. What could you possibly say that would do justice to Congress-Woman (sic) Malinda Jackson Parker, a former member of the Liberian House of Representatives who unleashed her political fury on a grand piano while wailing away like a tone-deaf Nina Simone after too many hits on the crack pipe? Sure, you could mention that her classic "Cousin Mosquito #1" repeats the word "cousin" over 200 times in less than three and a half minutes, but you'd still have to hear the frantic way she does so to believe your ears.
After laboring away in the trenches of the Top 20, it's so refreshing to collapse in a heap after throwing on B.J. Snowden's "In Canada," a masterpiece of lo-fi recording dedicated to our neighbors up north, penned by a Massachusetts school teacher with a unique take on traditional ideas of harmony and meter. And my future ex-husband from 'N Sync is perilously close to being dethroned by Peter Grudzien, an openly gay country singer from Queens, New York, who's been plying his twisted homoerotic tunes since the 1950s. His startling resemblance to Lurch from The Addams Family may not be as arousing as Joey's beefy Italian physique, but Peter's disorienting plea for gays in the military, "Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," sounds worlds more sincere than "Bye Bye Bye."
And therein lies the refreshing charm of Songs in the Key of Z. Listen past the bent notes and missed downbeats, and you'll hear nothing but people making music for the sheer joy (well, in most cases—Jandek's "They Told Me I Was a Fool" makes Joy Division sound like Doris Day) of doing so. The teen sensations and interchangeable modern rock acts I'm wed to by my paycheck require hundreds of interlopers—producers, songwriters, stylists—to craft their wares, but the artists celebrated in Key of Z operate alone, and thus churn out works of startling, even unnerving, honesty. Nobody in an Armani suit comes to court them with a seven-digit advance against their next record; they put their records out themselves, on vanity pressings or dubbed onto low-bias cassette tapes from K-Mart. These are people who still think Billboard is just a big sign alongside the highway. And I'm filled with envy, awe, and, most importantly, gratitude for their restorative naﶥt鮍