Art Paul Schlosser is one of Madison’s most popular and recognizable cultural figures, musical or otherwise. From his regular public-access show to his consistent appearances as a State Street busker, Art Paul has made something of a reputation for himself as one of the city’s most original musical personalities.
Over the years, he has released a number of idiosyncratic albums, all self-distributed. His image, with his bright mixture of rainbow- and kazoo-driven melodies, is benevolent and positive. His street performances are consistently popular, since he takes requests — although sometimes only for money — and entertains groups that are usually large and enthusiastic. His body of songwriting is extensive, and there are very few opportunities to hear songs like those Art Paul has penned.
There is, though, a worrisome question surrounding this “local legend.” Exactly what is the nature of his “legendary” status? Although his skills are certainly appropriate to the type of music he creates, Schlosser is certainly not as expert a musician or singer as even many of his peers along State Street.
His songs can be hilarious — especially the surprisingly hard-edged cultural parody “I Don’t Want To Find Waldo” or his skewering of pop phenoms like the Backstreet Boys or Britney Spears — but they are also often repetitive, incoherent or merely fragments, sometimes cobbled together and sometimes left as 20-second nuggets of sound.
There are really very few memorable Art Paul Schlosser songs, at least in terms of their musical or lyrical content; it’s not even a matter of appreciating the do-it-yourself aesthetic by which he produces his music, since the recordings would usually benefit from some form of polishing.
Instead, a deeper look reveals the unpleasant notion that perhaps his appeal lies in a more insidious area. Oftentimes, and this is not meant to denigrate him, Art Paul Schlosser appears to be less of an entertainer than a sideshow attraction, his audience less interested in musical entertainment than the sheer spectacle of watching a seemingly simple eccentric play bizarre and often incoherent music.
The usual Art Paul performance is greeted with as many elitist snickers and look-at-this-weirdo glances as honest appreciations of his unique performance style and songwriting. The same goes for his albums, which, on sheer objective analysis, are never more than occasionally entertaining.
This is perhaps more of a statement on his audience (and there are certainly fans who honestly appreciate him), but it bears mentioning nonetheless, since — as mentioned before — Schlosser has become, for better or worse, arguably Madison’s most recognizable local musician, particularly among the campus audience. The argument can be made that, like Wesley Willis, Art Paul Schlosser is a musical example of the same ideology of entertainment-via-perceived-freakishness that has perpetuated so much of the humor of Howard Stern or The Man Show.
Is Art Paul Schlosser putting it on? Is he constructing his own image as a genial idiot savant whose childlike persona and amusing songs allow him to garner more money and attention than would otherwise be afforded someone of his limited musical skills? Perhaps yes, and perhaps not.
Regardless of that, though, the larger issue exists, tainting perhaps unchangeably the position of Art Paul Schlosser within Madison’s musical community: do his fans “get” Art Paul Schlosser (if indeed there is something to “get”), or does he merely represent a subtle freak show, providing point-and-laugh amusement for drunk college students as they crawl from bar to bar? Is Madison, specifically the campus audience whose patronage certainly provides a cornerstone of Art Paul’s fan base, laughing with him or simply at him?
It is a troubling thought. Still, Art Paul Schlosser is a prominent personality, and his performances, records, and television show are all available so the audience can judge for itself the nature of his popularity. Exploitative sideshow or good-natured amusement? You be the judge.