The Shaggs are a reminder that we cannot all be Beyoncé, and that even if Matthew Knowles were our father this would probably still be true. In the late 60s, Austin Wiggin of sleepy Fremont, New Hampshire, got it into his head that his daughters Helen, Betty, and Dot should form a band. He made them practice their instruments endlessly and do calisthenics and perform in front of their classmates and neighbors in awful, awful matching outfits, and yet somehow they still did not become Destiny's Child. They always looked frumpy and stilted on stage and songs they wrote came out all misshapen and weird. They gave them names like "My Pal Foot Foot", "Why Do I Feel?" and "It's Halloween". Nobody was going to call up the Shaggs and ask them to write a song for the Charlie's Angels soundtrack. But chances are, nobody's going to call you up and ask you that either. I'm sorry to put it in those terms, because I probably don't even know you. But that's the truth. And that's the stinging, still-mesmerizing beauty of 1969's Philosophy of the World, the only record that the Shaggs ever made: With its offbeat rhythms and too-tender musings ("Parents are the ones who really care/ Who are parents?/ Parents are the ones who are always there"), it is utterly impossible to forget that this music was made by humans, and once you get sucked far enough into its vortex it becomes impossible to forget that you are human, too.
Plenty of people heckled the Shaggs and even pelted them with soda cans when they played live. But as time went on, Philosophy of the World gained an unexpected and fervent cult following. There are now people who believe that the Shaggs' music was not unsophisticated at all but, like a sound that only dogs can hear, actually too sophisticated for our human brains to comprehend. There are people who believe the Shaggs' odd melodies and bizarre time signatures were secretly referencing Chinese music, or free jazz, or the work of Ornette Coleman. The Shaggs are "better than the Beatles," Frank Zappa famously said. Lester Bangs called their record "one of the landmarks of rock'n'roll history." "Of all the contemporary acts in the world today, perhaps only the Shaggs do what others would like to do, and that is perform only what they believe in, what they feel." Their dad said that last one, because, naturally, he wrote the record's liner notes.
The point is not whether or not any of those things are true, but rather that, in the eye of the beholder, any of them could be. Philosophy of the World is a record without a Rosetta Stone: The more you listen, the more inscrutable it becomes, the less willing it is to reveal any of its secrets. And even if you think it's "bad", you have to admit that it's bad in a way that challenges you personally, asks you to rethink what "good" and "bad" mean to you. When you put it on, you are sucked into this atmosphere where even the simplest statements curl into bottomless mysteries. Why do I feel? What should I do? What is "music," even?
For a long time, it seemed like Philosophy of the World would be the only record that any of the Wiggin sisters made. But-- perhaps spurred by new interest in the Shaggs following a 2011 musical made about them-- earlier this week Dot Wiggin announced that she was going to put out a solo record as the Dot Wiggin Band. Exciting, totally unexpected news, and yet I confess feeling a little bit like Jayson Greene did in a piece he wrote here earlier this year about the surprise release of My Bloody Valentine's long-awaited third record mbv. "I found that I was profoundly reluctant to listen," he wrote. "The moment I did, one of the richest mysteries of my listening life-- 'What would the follow-up to Loveless sound like?'-- would instantly be erased." That's how I've always felt about Philosophy of the World; if somebody finally found the Rosetta Stone, I think I'd want to smash it to pieces. And yet, in our certainty-obsessed, hold-on-a-sec-while-I-Google-it age, mystery is an increasingly rare commodity; I'm actually starting to wonder if it will be entirely extinct by the end of 2013. First Jeff Mangum toured, then Boards of Canada made a record, then there was new evidence about Amelia Earhart. Et tu, Dot?
But as soon as I put on Philosophy of the World again yesterday, for the first time in a while, I snapped out of this admittedly selfish way of thinking. I look forward to hearing Dot's record, and whether it's good, bad, or "bad," I don't think it will change much about the Shaggs' legacy: The strange and inscrutable atmosphere of the sisters' only album will always remain intact. To those of us who love it, Philosophy of the World is weirdly eternal. Every deviation from the beat suggests an endless number of other possible deviations-- how freeing it is, to be doing it wrong. After all, there are so few ways of being right, of being good, of being perfect. But that is and always will be the philosophy of the Shaggs: Imperfection is infinite.