BAPTISM BY SODA: A look at the Juggalo Phenomenon

Insane_Clown_Posse_umvd01 As legions of cool-hunters trawling the Internet and bohemian sectors of cities are well aware, given that most subcultures are spun around a kernel of hoodlum glamour and guilt-free rutting, selling youth culture is not exactly hard. Youth movements are appropriated and neutralized at such a ferocious rate, that no musical subculture since “Gangsta Rap” has been subversive enough to resist the American mainstream for long save for one: the juggalos (sic) – the off-brand soda flinging, hatchet-wielding followers of The Insane Clown Posse.

Insane Clown Posse are a band of forty-somethings who sing threatening lyrics set to menacing music, all while wearing full circus makeup. The ICP aesthetic is flabbergasting in its audacity and tastelessness – picture jarringly artificial colors appropriated from energy drinks and candy wrappers, loose prison garb and a symbology incorporating death’s heads, jesters and improvised weaponry. Their lyrics hew close to contemporary gangsta rap and other so called hard-core bands, using a lot of profanity to describe violence and sex with a certain swaggering bravado. Every now and then they’ll put out a more soulful, slow, softer ballad that often digs into the band’s philosophy.

Humble-born youth have always managed to appall their elders and betters, but juggalos are so spectacularly unappealing to mainstream tastes that in the eighteen years the band has been playing for major audiences they remain a cult phenomenon. This is despite albums that have gone platinum and gatherings that attract tens of thousands of teenage fans clutching wads of disposable cash. ICP has such a hold on its fans that juggalos have actually been buried in the bands colors. Juggalos are more a collective than anything else; they refer to themselves as “Family” and defend their lifestyles fiercely.

So why can’t the clowns cash in? Gangsta Rap was arguably more of a threat to mainstream America than the Insane Clown Posse, with lyrics as fierce and misogynistic, and an added element of racial outrage and shock. Aside from the purely aesthetic (Blender famously voted Insane Clown Posse as the worst band in any genre in 2004 and reviews in general have tended to be sharply critical) last month came a clue as to how the clowns can maintain such a hold on their fans while paradoxically repelling mainstream consumer culture.

One of ICP’s slow ballads – Miracles – went viral hit on YouTube last month. Miracles is a sincere refutation of a scientific explanation of the world. One line in particular snagged the world’s attention: “Water, fire, air and dirt, Fucking magnets, how do they work?” Magnetism being a staple of primary school science education, the line struck many casual listeners as spectacularly ignorant. Then there was the infantile rhyming scheme and other lines too, such as, “I fed a fish to pelican in Frisco bay, he tried to eat my cellphone and ran away,” or as The Guardian noted, the climax of the song, “and I don't wanna talk to a scientist/Y'all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed.” Soon parodies were appearing on Saturday Night Live and all over the Internet. (Compounding the outrage was that only a few months before, Tila Tequila, a bisexual performer and reality television personality, was forced offstage one of the Insane Clown Posse’s gatherings in a hail of rocks, jeers and, allegedly, urine and feces from portable toilets.)

Part of the appeal of Insane Clown Posse has been the Dark Carnival, their peculiar quasi-mysticism. This is a loose collection of beliefs that boil down to a sort of karmic confrontation in the afterlife. One must confront one’s “ringmaster’ before being deemed worthy of Heaven or Hell. This enforces and cements the juggalo community – putting one’s “Family” above one’s selfish desires, eschewing pedophilia and rape etc. If the Dark Carnival’s philosophy has a familiar ring to it, it should. During an interview with The Guardian band frontman Violent J was asked about Miracles and another song, Thy Unveiling (lyrics below), which unambiguously described their marauding music as veiled Evangelical Christianity.

F*ck it, we got to tell.
All secrets will now be told
No more hidden messages…
Truth is we follow GOD!!!
We've always been behind him
The carnival is GOD
And may all Juggalos find him
We're not sorry if we tricked you.

Insane Clown Posse have backpedaled slightly from this revelation, claiming the news wasn’t news at all, pointing to the liner notes of their 2002 album The Wraith: Shangri-La which state: “The Dark Carnival is God… We’ve always followed God… we want all juggalos to find him.” They also repeatedly underlined the difference between believing in God and Christianity in subsequent interviews. But regardless of whether or not the aforementioned “hidden messages” expect juggalos to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, the posthumous judgment, the evangelism and existence of heaven and hell – the Dark Carnival is a Christian-flavored system of beliefs.

Subcultures are reactive. Purists will nitpick at this, but on some level dark and moody Goth music has persisted as a sort of aesthetic revulsion to the pastel cheer of America’s sunnier states. Goth began in the Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1970s, and nourished itself and grew from the postpunk scene in London and New York; but it put down roots and lingers on in Sunbelt cities like Atlanta, Georgia and Tampa, Florida. Likewise, bucolic peace and pot-adoring Hippies remain a fixture in the wealthy, status-conscious Northeast. Plenty of subcultures have appropriated and subverted Christian iconography, (e.g. heavy metal bands like Judas Priest) but few who have subscribed to Christian theology have bothered concealing it. Christian music after all has a vast and devoted, if not exactly chic, following. The juggalos are a collective, binding themselves together with a blend of intoxicating ignorance and Christian morality. Why separate themselves from ordinary “Christian” heavy metal or rap? (Unless Christian metal is simply too ‘un-cool’ – but then so are the juggalos.) The juggalos must oppose something diametrically and the only thing that makes sense is the marketplace.

No Insane Clown Posse concert would be complete without dousing its audience in Faygo, an off-brand cola sold in the Midwest. Even after fans have complained after being hit with full bottles and sued. ICP claims they chose Faygo because it was the only soda they could afford growing up in Detroit. Off-brand soda is potent a symbol of American poverty. Coca Cola, which remains the world’s most recognized brand according to Interbrand, is synonymous with Americana. By identifying themselves with and – if one allows the Christianity metaphor to stretch a little – baptizing their followers with a ‘degenerate’ version of Coca Cola, the juggalos self-other themselves, and define themselves in opposition to the strongest symbol of America consumer culture. (Faygo has apparently resisted any and all overtures from the Insane Clown Posse)

Collectivity itself is also a potent anti-market metaphor. Juggalos resist the relentless market segmentation of contemporary culture with their bizarre sincerity. Much contemporary music focuses on individual achievement, on seduction and consumption, and, since a marauding thug’s money is as good as anyone else’s, singing about stealing or violence still plays into the hands of consumer culture on the buy-side. Even supposedly more sophisticated forms of culture appropriate or reflect upon other facets culture are just as inculcated in the Late Capitalist system. Irony may offer the illusion of distance but by sneering at something one must still consume it on some level. After the initial Faygo schism from the rest of society, juggalos are one for all and all for one. They sneer at no one and shrug off the illusion of consumer choice.

Perhaps the closest analogue to juggalos might be the Tea Party. The Tea Party are a loose group of American citizens who are fed up with the government (for any number of reasons – most often taxes and debt, as suggested by their name which is a reference to the original Boston Tea Party tax revolt, but a great many gripes are encompassed by individual members of the Tea Party, such as health care, nebulous racism, the sinister influence of lobbyists and special interests etc.). The Tea Party sees America’s two political parties as so hopelessly fouled up in the mechanics of government that they cannot possibly solve whatever issue they have with it, and seek a sort of change – often a harkening back to the original intent of the founding fathers. And perhaps if a collective political consciousness ever blossoms among the juggalos they may find some common ground with the Tea Party and evolve to be the shock troops of a coming proletarian revolution. Or maybe the juggalos just like the music.