In 2006, someone uploaded the video for Jan Terri’s 1993 single “Losing You” to YouTube with the seductive title "Worst music video ever." Although Terri and her disjointed, defiantly low-quality music videos had achieved a degree of notoriety already — a couple of them had appeared on Beavis and Butt-Head — YouTube transformed her into a cult sensation for the internet age.
“YouTube helped, because back in the ’90s, you couldn’t get to MTV and a lot of those places,” Terri tells me at her home in Lake Elsinore, a resort town turned bedroom community in the Santa Ana Mountains, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
Terri lives in a small cabin in an RV park right on the lake. Her publicist tells me to park by the Jack in the Box when I arrive, which casts an artificial, somnolent glow on the small cluster of houses. Terri greets me dressed in baggy clothes, her hair in its natural, straightened state — a far cry from the gussied-up perms she once sported in music videos and old promotional photos.
She's proud of the fact that "Losing You" has gotten more than 4.5 million YouTube views and seems unfazed by the "worst music video ever" tag. "That’s just somebody’s opinion," she says. "A lot of people who are depressed or who got bullied tell me that my music makes them feel better, so that’s a good sign. At least it’s helping somebody.”
The “Losing You” video perfectly encapsulates the 57-year-old Chicago native’s aesthetic (such as it is), but Jan Terri is far from a one-hit wonder. Her first two albums, 1993’s Baby Blues and 1994’s High Risk, are loaded with undeniably indelible songs that are too eccentric for mainstream audiences but too slick and conventional for everyone else.
Though Terri has found cult success as a solo artist, her original goal was to break into the commercial pop market as a professional composer. “I was trying to come in as a songwriter,” Terri says. “I was trying to get a record deal, and it’s hard to get a record deal, so you try to come in as a songwriter.”
Baby Blues functions more or less as a demo tape, comprising songs that could liberally be described as “pop-rock”; if you strain hard enough, you can imagine “Keep on Knocking” and “Make It With You Babe” as Everything-era Bangles tracks. Terri claims at least one label liked Baby Blues, "but they wanted to see what else I could do,” so she followed it up with High Risk, a smorgasbord of disparate styles that feels circuitously connected to the gawky style-melding of contemporary pop weirdos like Ariel Pink and Memory Tapes.
“[High Risk] was one album that could go to different radio stations,” Terri explains. The title track "was written as a movie theme for a script I was writing called High Risk; ‘Music Alive’ was going to be a dance-type thing. Each song off the album was going to go to different radio stations, which is unbelievable — you don’t really do that with record companies. You’re a pop [person] or a country-pop person or a dance person. I’m like a dinosaur before my time.”
While not as catchy as its predecessor, the appropriately titled High Risk highlights Terri’s range as a songwriter. The title track does indeed sound like the credits theme to a Top Gun–style blockbuster; “I.R.S.” is a polka with a bold political message; “Journey to Mars” sounds like a sentient computer tried to write a Judas Priest song.
High Risk’s genre soup is a reflection of its creator’s own eclectic tastes. Like most aspiring musicians of her generation, Terri’s first musical loves were Elvis and The Beatles. “When I was 5, I got to see The Beatles live,” she says. “The Beatles came in on a helicopter, and a girl gave my mom binoculars. I looked through the binoculars and I said, 'Oh my God! Paul McCartney’s winking at me!'
“For show and tell, I used to bring in a Beatles wig and my little guitar,” she continues. “My teacher would take me to other rooms in that hallway, and I would do ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and ‘I’m All Shook Up’ by Elvis.”
Terri’s affections quickly broadened. The Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa “drum battle” record, 1956’s Krupa and Rich, kick-started her interest in jazz, and she names Queen and Barry Manilow as two of her biggest songwriting influences. But the band she’s most enthusiastic about comes as a little bit of a surprise.
“You have not lived until you’ve seen that three-hour concert from Metallica,” she assures me. “My favorite song is ‘Enter Sandman.’ The guitarist of Metallica used to throw out guitar picks; at my concert, I throw out Milky Way bars.”
Of course, High Risk didn’t end up being the career springboard Terri was anticipating. Despite her unique slant as a composer and her genuine talent at crafting memorable hooks, the bulk of Terri’s work has been met with rejection. “It was always, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’” she says. “A lot of artists went through that. The Beatles went through that, that guy Christopher Cross who did that song ‘Sailing’ [went through that], so that means nothing when they say that.”
One believer, however, was Marilyn Manson, who asked Terri to perform at his then-partner Rose McGowan’s birthday party in September 1998. "I had no idea who he was," Terri admits of her most famous fan.
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Terri took a hiatus from performing and releasing music at the turn of the millennium but re-emerged in 2012 on the heels of her newfound internet fame with The Wild One — an album that had been on the back burner for more than a decade. After moving to the L.A. area to try to advance her career, she released two more albums: 2013’s No Rules (featuring "Sky Rocket," below) and the 2014 compilation Holiday Songs.
Years of rejection seem to have cooled Terri’s ambition. She hasn't performed much since moving from Silver Lake to Lake Elsinore in late 2013, and she doesn’t really care that she’s an internet celebrity. She spends most of her free time doting on her 12-year-old dog, Denny — a minor celebrity in his own right. Images of Denny dominate Terri’s social media presence, and he also apparently appeared at a dog charity function on a recent episode of Vanderpump Rules. “Denny’s [done] more things than me,” she jokes.
Unlike most music industry near-misses, Terri isn’t particularly bitter about her lack of commercial success — in fact, she takes great pride in her relative ordinariness. “I’m down-to-earth,” she says. “I’m not your Hollywood-type, uppity snob [that you] probably deal with. I wish [my career] had been better, but there’s not a lot you can say about it. Like I said, I’m just a normal person.”