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Outlaws and Criminals


Do you know the difference between an outlaw and a criminal?  Most people think they are synonymous and interchangeable but they are often different concepts.


Criminals are outlaws in a legal sense but outlaws are not always criminals.  Outlaw is often a cultural or artistic construct more than a legal one.  Criminals break the law, outlaws are outside it.


The word outlaw originated from the term outcast.  This is someone who does not conform to the community and are cast out meaning that laws protecting them no longer apply.


Bob Dylan was an outlaw because he was a folk musician who picked up an electric guitar, hired a drummer, then went to the Newport Folk Festival.  The crowd was outraged and threw a temper tantrum.  Dylan had made a giant leap forward artistically but his audience of that time hated it.  This put him outside their community.


Willie Nelson is the father of a movement which is called Outlaw Country.  They were not criminals.  They were people the Nashville establishment had little use for so they then started their own little thing, a musical Cosa Nostra.  They were outside of the established Country music order.


The Rastas who started performing Reggae were outlaws outside of the White establishment of Jamaica.  They truly had a unique lifestyle outside of the broader community of British influence.  They had the audacity to drop the slicked down hair and suits of most Black acts of the time.  The first photos of Bob Marley show him dressed that way.  Keith Richards remembers him like that the first time they met.


Today’s Rap or Hip Hop artists are made up of people who style themselves as gangstas.  Often they are criminals of a very petty variety who package themselves as outlaws which they are not in the artistic and cultural use of the term.  The reality is that they are a conformist’s conformist conforming to all the rules of their community.  They are simply poseurs, posturing as something they are not.


In other words they are often criminals who may be sentenced for petty crimes and sometimes violent.  In the worlds of Art and Culture however they draw as close inside the lines as possible in order to remain a part of their community.  In that sense are not outlaws.  They are the established order not outside it.  Their culture is money and success with all the trappings of it.  This is being oriented exactly the same as the broader establishment community.

Edited by Clay Anderson Johnson

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The funny thing is how often a sanitised version of the outlaw theme is reintroduced to mainstream. It happened with reggae, with the establishment of a fanbase for genuine reggae acts with a subculture of fans, which then had a mainstream reaction to reggae (bands like the Police and UB40) and then much sanitised version of reggae added to mainstream pop with some once-original reggae acts smoothed and sanitised for a mainstream audience.


A very similar shift happened more recently with Grime acts in London.

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42 minutes ago, john said:

The funny thing is how often a sanitised version of the outlaw theme is reintroduced to mainstream


The same thing happened with Rock with all the hair bands playing corporate music power pop ballads posing as bad boys who were "Rockers".


I was on a panel at the Billboard magazine annual convention* in LA years ago when they played a Bon Jovi video of them riding motorcycles like they were a biker gang.  After it I said it was cotton candy pretentiousness.  My remark did not go over well with the crowd as they were expecting to hear how cool it was.


* I was selected at random from the UCLA Music Business and Creative Arts program.

Edited by Clay Anderson Johnson
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