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The Insane Clown Posse Posse

Why we can't get enough of Juggalo/Juggalette culture

Shaggy 2 Dope (left) and Violent J go right for the Juggalo in the coming class war.

By Michael Byrne | Posted 12/2/2009

Insane Clown Posse

Dec. 6 at Sonar

For more information visit sonarbaltimore.com.

There are other pathologically devoted subcultures besides Juggalos, and there are plenty of other, even more violent, talent-less, misogynistic, and homophobic musical acts than the Insane Clown Posse. But nothing quite approaches the perfect storm of following and artist than the evil-clown face-painted duo of Shaggy 2 Dope and Violent J and their legion of Juggalo and Juggalette followers.

It's anyone's guess as to how many people make up that following, but we can make some reasonable stabs: A recent article in The Detroit Free Press estimates the ICP empire takes in more than $10 million a year. The Gathering of the Juggalos, a yearly festival centered around the duo's label, Psychopathic Records, logs attendance close to 10,000 a year. Mall stores Hot Topic and Spencer's Gifts likely host as much ICP real estate as they ever did Marilyn Manson merch. The band's most recent release, Bang! Pow! Boom!, hit No. 4 on the Billboard charts. Add in comic books, movies, and "Juggalo Championship Wrestling," and it's a formidable empire, and an independent one at that.

That's pretty small potatoes compared to bands like the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet, and Phish, the pantheon of band-as-lifestyle culture. Yet, those particular subcultures don't get doted on in quite the same way. Mocked, maligned, sure--but nothing compared to the attention, mostly negative, bestowed on the Juggalo. A quick internet scan brings up a four-part Juggalo feature in Vice; a post on The New York Times' web site about Juggalo vocabulary; and the telling observation that every alt-weekly and music blog in the country seems to be able to send a reporter to an ICP live show, but few deem an actual album worthy of review.  

Is it that Juggalos are just more interesting than Parrotheads or Phans? And more interesting to whom? If we're talking about a white, progressive, and generally middle-class audience, Deadheads and the like aren't terribly interesting, at least in some part because, well, they're "us." At least for the most part--if not of a similar age, then similar mainstream income brackets, similar values, beliefs, etc. Juggalos, however, are a majestic, and distant Other.

What exactly is that otherness that appeals? Juggalos typify a number of things that Phish fans and Dead followers don't. There's certainly an underlying ideology--social justice, for one--to the hippie-cum-yuppie followers of premiere jam bands, but Juggalos have that, too, plus a mythology to back it up. It's probably not worth digging too deep here, but ICP's dedicated many of its albums to what's known as the Joker's Cards: six, all corresponding to a different feature of the "Dark Carnival," a pretty standard Catholic purgatory re-imagined as a carnival. For instance, Riddle Box, ICP's 1995 major-label debut, is about some kind of jack-in-the-box that tells you if you're going to heaven or hell. The Ringmaster (1994, certified gold), is "One who was created by your own evil ways. One who will judge your very fate."

And the title of Bang! Pow! Boom! refers to a character that basically sweeps up the Dark Carnival when it gets too full. With explosions. "It's awesome to see him come and perform because when he performs, you know you're not just seeing a few people go to hell," Violent J (Joseph Bruce to the government) told Murder Dog magazine in a recent interview. "You're seeing a whole gangload all at once!" Basically, ICP mythology is a creative take on fire-and-brimstone evangelical Christianity: long on narrative and description, short on ideas, and all hell.

Which is all pretty interesting and weird, and one of the genuinely peculiar things about Juggalos. Who knew that behind lyrics like "I got your fuckin' present hangin' next to my nuts/ now when I'm swinging on my hatchet/ if it hits you it cuts" was a message of virtue? (Or something that made sense.) But the artifact that went viral this past summer was an infomercial for the Gathering, an event Spin magazine called "four days of unrepentantly moronic mayhem."

The mythology isn't funny--childish, sure--but the things touted in the Gathering infomercial are, at least to a certain group of people of better means and education than your average Juggalo or Juggalette. Wrestling, Pauly Shore, brutal overuse of "bitch boy" and "motherfucking," a whole lot of overweight people, talent like Vanilla Ice, and Faygo soda (a Detroit-centric generic brand), and then there's this: "There's a lot of sex in the air, too. Don't doubt it." The infomercial, a YouTube smash, is basically a litany of punchlines, a condensation of everything Juggalo culture gets ribbed on for the rest of the year. An ultimate self-clowning.

There's a catch, however: Most of this stuff isn't specific to Juggalo culture. Even all of it in combination isn't. Hell, I grew up drinking Faygo soda. The connection's just a band, and that's nothing new.

"If those of the ghetto are nothing more than carnival exhibits to the upper class, then let's give them the show they deserve to see," proclaims the ICP web site. The wildly successful duo used to rap a lot more about being poor and about class warfare, albeit crudely--"Because the rich man be stressing all the dumb stuff/ they cut their fucking wrists if the grass isn't green enough"--but that line from the web site sums something important up about the equation between Juggalos and the rest of the world. This is about class, and maybe it's even mostly about class.

In a subculture that seems so stunted, the Juggalos have done something political, however unintentionally, and created an amazing parody of the American lower class. Which is important because, at the same time, it's created a forum for progressive, intellectual, middle-class "us" to laugh at poor people. Like conservatives, Juggalos have a persecution complex. Meaning: It doesn't matter if we mock Juggalos or not, that mockery is built into the identity. The whole thing is like a big performance of the educated, well-to-do world's quiet condescension of the proles.

One thing that seemed to really hang up gawkers regarding the Gathering were the seminars, or at least the advertisement of such. No one knew what that meant. A seminar? For these people? The subtext, of course, was these uneducated people. And these people are into a lot of shitty things--violence, for starters--but so are a lot of people one might tag as educated. What's the difference if the violence is being delivered from an ICP lyric or an Xbox game?

In the same Murder Dog interview, Violent J makes a telling point: "Juggalos are way bigger than ICP . . . We're just happy that they endorse us, that they embrace us." And, in turn, there is something even bigger behind Juggalos. "Is it those whose minds have become devious because of a lifetime spent inside of a caged hell, or is it those who invented this caged hell years ago and done nothing to help destroy it yet?" asks the ICP web site, glibly pardoning its own violence hard-on and conjuring a crude sort of Marxism in much the same way the Joker Card mythology recalls crude Christian evangelism. And no one but no one would want to admit that Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope have an actual salient point--but the workers are restless, and they're painting their faces.

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