“A pure object, a spectacle, a clown….”
The American Realness of Juggalos
At a party a few weeks ago I told some friends that I’d been asked to write a small essay about Juggalos. I got exactly the kinds of responses you would expect. Some cocked their heads and wrinkled their brows, while others laughed incredulously. My best friend from high school looked down, shook his head and muttered, “No…just no.” A grad school colleague sympathetically offered, “Sometimes I like to watch ‘Miracles’ when I need to feel better about my life choices.” When I told them I was definitely going to write the piece, another friend exclaimed, in mock-horror, “I knew it! I always suspected that he was down with the clown!”
For the record, I am not now, nor have I ever been, down with the clown. However, as a professor of media studies, I often tell my students that part of my job is to encourage them to look seriously at things that look silly. I tell them to do this not because, say, Hannah Montana or Axe Body Spray commercials are fine art. Rather, it’s that these ordinary cultural objects tell us a lot about the society in which they are produced. They give us an extraordinary opportunity to understand what the structures, tensions, privileges and anxieties in a particular society are at a given point in history. And they also give us a sense of what people are considered central and what people are considered marginal, or “Other,” in any given society.
This is the main thrust of Roland Barthes 1957 book Mythologies, which is as important a text to contemporary cultural studies as you can find. When faced with the “Other,” Barthes argues, a dominant society responds in at least one of two ways. The first is to assimilate the “Other” through the commodity form. The symbolic threat of the punk rocker, for example, can be transformed to just another consumer choice available at your local shopping mall. Alternately, the “Other” can be rendered into what Barthes describes as a “pure object, a spectacle, a clown.” In this case the values, tastes, and indeed the very being of the people considered to be “Other” are held up by mainstream society for mockery and contempt.
Such is the case, I’d argue, with Juggalos. We’ve all had a good laugh, I suspect, about “Miracles” and just how it is that those fuckin’ magnets work. And we’ve all been very much concerned about violence that emerges out of ICP concerts. Some of us may have been equally amused and pleased that our very own Federal Bureau of Investigation has classified Juggalos as a criminal gang. But as an individual that is deeply invested in DIY and independent arts and music, as an academic interested in the formation and circulation of fan cultures, and as a person that grew up in dying rust belt towns where kids felt alienated and abandoned by American consumer culture, I’ve never been able to treat Insane Clown Posse, or their legions of fans, only as a punchline or a folk devil. And, the more I think about it, the more I think that you shouldn’t, either. One of the true virtues of Neal Medlyn’s “Wicked Clown Love,” I think, is its refusal to turn its subject matter into an object only to be ridiculed or demonized. There are many reasons why we should not allow ourselves to transform Juggalos into an exoticised object, and instead, try to understand them.
To begin with, you simply cannot tell the story of DIY music in the US since 1990 without mentioning Insane Clown Posse. As people invested in independent arts and culture, we should all be heartened by the success of two independent artists who committed to a weird, independent aesthetic, found like-minded folks to collaborate with, and made it work. The duo of Joseph Bruce (“Violent J”) and Joseph Utsler (“Shaggy 2 Dope”) have been releasing hip-hop records since 1989, mostly on the Psychopathic label that they founded in 1990. Shortly after releasing the Dog Beats EP in 1991, Bruce and Utsler changed their name from “Inner City Posse” to “Insane Clown Posse,” inspired by their meeting with Detroit horror-core MC Esham. Since then, ICP has released 11 LP’s, 7 EP’s, and 10 compilation albums, selling almost 7 million records, with the vast majority of those releases coming from outside the major label system. And longevity and commercial success aside, ICP has also been extremely influential in crafting transmedia experiences for their fans. Since the mid-1990s, the group has utilized documentary, narrative film, video games, comic books, web content and even professional wrestling to explore different facets of their wicked clown personae, and elaborate upon “the Dark Carnival,” a model of morality, judgment, salvation and the afterlife that was articulated across the first six ICP full-lengths, collectively referred to as the six “Joker’s Cards”: Carnival of Carnage (1992), Ringmaster (1994), Riddle Box (1995), The Great Milenko (1997), The Amazing Jeckel Brothers (1999), and The Wraith (2002).
None of this makes ICP “great,” whatever that might mean to you. There are certainly far more technically skilled MC’s out there. You may find ICP’s films absurd and their cosmology ham-handed. But if you’re someone that complains about the way that pop music has been increasingly homogenized and standardized by an ever-more corporatized major label system, the success of ICP should be good news to you. Say what you will, but slapping on clown paint and embarking on a ten-year six-part meta-concept-album that is flanked by pro wrestling events and cowboy movies is not the kind of idea that just rolls off a corporate assembly line. It is a legitimately idiosyncratic aesthetic vision that has been crafted and circulated in about as independent a way as is possible in our current media environment. In that way, they’re a lot closer to Fugazi than almost any platinum-selling artists I can imagine.
But to a media scholar, what makes ICP most interesting to me is their fans. Juggalos and the culture they’ve created almost certainly represent the most active and vibrant fan community to spring up around a single musical act since the Deadheads. This has come at a time when fan communities have moved from their formerly marginal position to a central one. Twenty years ago, a passionate, engaged and creative fanbase was not enough to get a band on the radio, or keep a show on television (just ask Star Trek fans). Now, actively participating in fan communities is part and parcel of media institutions strategies (witness: LOST), not stigmatized as the province of obsessives or super-nerds. Media studies academics, following the work of Henry Jenkins, call this the rise of “participatory culture.” While hugely successful bands like Led Zeppelin understood their fans to be more or less passive consumers of their music, Insane Clown Posse fosters an atmosphere in which the Juggalos actively participate in the creation of the media experience (witness the infamous annual Gathering of the Juggalos). Media studies defines participatory culture as a condition wherein the media industries cultivate “active and committed consumers to spread the word about valued properties in an overcrowded media marketplace, and in some cases they are seeking ways to channel the creative output of media fans.” At Gatherings, Juggalos are as big, or perhaps a bigger attraction than the performers on stage. They organize and participate in seminars with Psychopathic records representatives, wrestling competitions, freestyle rap cyphers, and amateur fireworks displays. They paint each others faces and bodies, share carnival rides, eat mushrooms and funnel cakes together, and establish booming mini-economies (trading and selling all manner of goods and services – showers, narcotics, food, cigarettes, camping gear, you name it). Juggalos have cultivated their own distinctive slang (“whoop whoop!”), fashions and hairstyles (Hatchet Gear, spider legs) and even their own cuisine. At the Gathering of the Juggalos, fans go for the music, sure, but they also go for the “family,” the communion with other Juggalos from all over the world.
Like all subcultures, Juggalos utilize highly visible and unusual style (facepaint, tattoos, fashion, braided and dyed hair, copious consumption of Faygo cola, etc) as a form of resistance to mainstream culture. What distinguishes a subculture proper from any other style community is that a subculture’s style serves as a critique of dominant social or cultural values. Writing about the mods, punks, and teddy boys of 1970s London, Dick Hebdige argues that “spectacular subcultures express forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms (transgressions of sartorial and behavioural codes, law breaking, etc.)”. Similarly, Juggalos wear their own marginalization and disempowerment from American consumer society (the “mainstream,”) as a badge of honor. In a fashion, Juggalo fan culture represents an alternative community where you don’t need to be embarrassed that your family drinks off-brand, cut-rate regional colas—instead, you baptize yourself in Faygo. Ours is a consumer culture that routinely communicates to working class, rural, and poor people that they are dumb, ugly, ridiculous and “trashy” (this is the message of Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo and Jersey Shore, is it not?) and then commodifies their tastes and fashions (remember those John Deere trucker hats you wore in the mid 2000s while drinking PBR?). In this context, there is a utopianism to Juggalo culture: the Gathering promises the joy of giving the middle finger to a system that consistently tells you that you are not good enough. That’s why “clown love” and “family” are such a key part of the fan culture that surrounds ICP—it is both a critique of existing American consumer society as well as an alternative to it.
Still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that there is much to be criticised and even actively opposed within the ICP universe. Most obviously, ICP’s lyrics are often cringe-inducing for their misogyny, homophobia, and glorification of violence. Still, this is not unique among the hip hop and nu-metal scenes with which ICP is most closely associated. As early as 1991, media studies scholars were attempting to understand misogyny in hip-hop. Robin D.G. Kelley argues that the violent lyrics of rap music should not be taken literally, but rather represent fantasy narratives that “embody a challenge to virtually all authority (which makes sense to people for whom justice is a rare thing)” and “create an imaginary upside down world where the oppressed are powerful.” Kelley points to the structural changes in the American economy (factory closures, class stratification, deepening urban poverty, etc.) as factors influencing a late 20th century crisis in working-class masculinity that influences hip hop lyrics. In addition, the Reagan-Era rhetoric of “personal responsibility” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” channeled working-class frustration not toward an exploitative capitalist system, but inward, toward the self and immediate surroundings. As a result, Kelley argues, disempowered working-class males often directed their symbolic aggression toward women. Lyrics that highlight sexual conquest and dominance over women became a way to assert ones masculine identity and individual agency in the context of a structural and economic disempowerment. The fantasies represented in Juggalo narratives (both described in ICP lyrics and enacted at the Carnival) clearly have some resonance with this line of thought.
With that said, it is important to acknowledge that the bigotry and violence in Juggalo culture is not always metaphorical. It is also real, material violence. At the 2002 Gathering, fans so disapproved of “mainstream” performer Bubba Sparxxx that they chased him off the stage, tossing obscenities and garbage alike toward the stage. Since that event Juggalos have bestowed the “Bubba Sparxxx Award” at every Gathering to artists that are not sufficiently down with the clown. Artists like Kurupt, The Yin Yang Twins, Andrew W.K. and Method Man have all received the honor. This kind of fan violence is part of the “participatory culture” of the Gathering, wherein the group showers the performer with hatred rather than adulation. In this case, outsider-performers must prove their worth by withstanding the abuse, or reveal their unworthiness by leaving entirely. This ritual reached its ugliest extreme at the 2010 Gathering, when reality-TV star Tila Tequila was greeted by Juggalos with orchestrated sexual harassment and a torrent of misogynist slurs. According to reports, while performing Tequila was pelted with rocks, bottles, refuse, rotten food, firecrackers and human waste. When the diminutive performer was escorted offstage with multiple injuries, members of the audience pursued her, surrounding her trailer until police arrived on the scene. While such behavior is not at all universal among Juggalos, we also cannot pretend that such events are isolated, or that the misogyny that it showcased was entirely spontaneous and isolated. While some ICP fans have attempted to address bigotry against women, people of color, and other marginalized groups within the context of Juggalo culture, it is undeniable that there are deeply problematic issues at play.
While all of us can and should condemn such attitudes and behaviors, those of us who stand outside Juggalo culture should be careful not to turn ICP into a “folk devil” to be simply reviled. It is easier for us, I’d expect, to speak up against the misogyny at the Gathering because it so flagrantly falls outside the confines of bourgeois “good taste.” But can we honestly argue that the lyrical violence on ICP records is worse than the spectacularized material violence of the NFL? Is the misogyny of the Gathering truly more odious than the misogyny that has produced a government mandate for transvaginal ultrasounds? I do not think so. If we are serious about eliminating racism, or sexism, or other forms of institutionalized bigotry, I would argue that we must be mindful not to focus our condemnation exclusively on working-class or “uncultured” people. The problem would not be that our criticism of Juggalos would be unfounded. The problem would be that we would let ourselves off the hook for our own complicity in these systems of oppression.
At times, we might find ourselves strongly critiquing Juggalos, or hating their music, or finding the whole surreal idea of a Juggalo Gathering spectacularly weird. This is okay. Most likely you will find yourself doing all of these things while watching Medlyn’s “Wicked Clown Love.” Or maybe you’ll find yourselves identifying with, feeling sympathy for, and even enjoying the Dark Carnival. That’s fine, too. What I would say is that we should remember that the conditions that have fostered Juggalo culture are also the conditions that have shaped all turn-of-the-millennium Americans, and if we seriously consider Juggalos, we can potentially learn something valuable about our culture, and ourselves. But what, exactly, might that be? For Barthes, anyway, the key thing to understand about “myths,” the artificial and constructed messages of popular culture, is not that they are artificial and constructed. Rather, what is important about myths is how they naturalize the existing social order, treating bourgeois society with its attendant hierarchies, exclusions, and privileges, as if it were not, in fact, totally made up and subject to change. If we critically examine our “natural” reactions to Juggalos, like the ones my friends offered at that party, we can see how our culture trains us to reproduce social (and economic, and gender, and raced, etc) hierarchies, and start working on our own shit.
“The American Realness of Juggalos” is also available in READING – a zine produced byAMERICAN REALNESS 2013. The zine contains critical content relating to every artist presented in the festival, and its authors have diverse relationships to the artists they address. This project aims to make clear the value of as well as the need for this kind of work—supporting artistic production through developing thoughtful commentary.
Select articles from READING will be hosted here on Culturebot, released throughout the festival. Find the complete printed version over at American Realness, available for sale on a sliding scale—true zine/DIY style.