Local Spins columnist Brian J. Bowe immersed himself in the Faygo frenzy of rock-rap’s ICP and its fanatic Juggalos, and found an authentic expression of working-class catharsis. (Commentary, photo gallery)
I love the smell of Faygo in the evening.
The sidewalk in front of The Orbit Room was impossibly sticky Thursday night, and it was accompanied by this overwhelming sugary stench of grape and strawberry.
It was the aftermath of a giant Faygo-flinging frenzy, and I knew I was entering Dark Carnival territory for the first time.
Detroit’s Insane Clown Posse rolled into Grand Rapids to launch its 33-date ShockFest tour at the Orbit Room. The duo of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope shared the stage with openers Mushroomhead, Da Mafia 6ix, Big Hoodoo and Jelly Roll. But, in true ICP form, the show unfolded like an extended family affair for ICP’s notorious fans, the Juggalos.
And the Juggalos were in fine form, throwing up chants of “FAM-I-LY, FAM-I-LY,” offering hearty exclamations of “Whoop! Whoop!”
It was a big masquerade party with makeup and masks and flamboyant ICP-themed clothes. There were plenty of ugly people painted up in pretty colors and plenty of pretty people painted up to look ugly.
Sure, they’re an intimidating-looking crowd, what with all the piercings and tattoos. But behind the fearsome exteriors, they’re warm and friendly – quick to start up a conversation and genuinely excited when they find out it’s your first time getting down with the clowns.
You see, the Juggalos —much like ICP itself — seem to have gotten a bad rap over the years. ICP has long been mocked and derided for making bad music and accused of sexually harassing a former publicist.
The Juggalos have also been characterized as misogynist, and the FBI considers them a gang along the lines of the Hell’s Angles or the Crips. That categorization that led ICP to unsuccessfully sue the Department of Justice last year.
MISUNDERSTOOD OUTCASTS WHO REVEL IN THEIR JUGGALO-NESS
The Juggalos know they are misunderstood.
On Thursday, that message was clearly expressed on T-shirts emblazoned with messages like, “I’m a Juggalo, Not a Gang Member” and “Tattooed and Employed.” But, to large measure, they don’t care. That’s one of the strengths of the Juggalos: They don’t give a damn what you think. They take your insults and wear them like a badge of honor.
The experience of being outcasts because of tattoos or piercings or hairstyles or a love of getting loaded seems baked into the Juggalo experience. But it is clear that, for the artists and audience members alike, the experience of being cast aside runs bone deep, and has more to do with growing up poor or weird than it does something superficial like musical or sartorial taste.
Generally speaking, these are not the children of privilege, and they know it. Like the Big Hoodoo song goes, “I ain’t afraid to admit, I neva had s**t.”
This connection to life in the underclass has been a part of the ICP experience from the get-go. In 1995, a writer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch compared Violent J to noted Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. While in prison, Gramsci (who died in 1937) developed the concept of the “organic intellectual” — a rare individual who is able to transcend the educational system and articulate the pains and struggles of the working class masses who are oppressed by elite forces.
That’s heady stuff, but it seems to apply. The theme of perseverance even when the deck is stacked against you came up often. The show commenced with Nashville’s Jelly Roll, who punctuated his working class rhymes with singing that, in its best moments, sounded a bit like a countrified Bill Withers. On “One of Them Days,” he rhymes about the daily annoyances from bosses, girlfriends, parents, bill collectors (and the rap dreams that offer an escape from this crushing reality).
But all of that was a prelude to the main attraction – those Wicked Clowns. Taking the stage just before 11 p.m., ICP kicked off with “Night of the Chainsaw,” and played a 22-song set that was packed with crowd favorites. Unleashing an endless fusillade of Faygo two-liters on the crowd, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope show an impressive command of the stage.
The duo was occasionally joined by a half-dozen weirdos in creepy clown or skull masks, dumping bucketloads of Faygo on the crowd. A highlight came near the end of the set, when the members of Da Mafia 6ix joined ICP for a pair of songs form their collaborative side project The Killjoy Club.
A JOYFULLY ANTISOCIAL, CATHARTIC SPECTACLE
By the time we reached the traditional set closer “Bang Pow Boom,” members of all of the opening acts were on the stage, grabbing two-liter bottles of Red Pop and Rock & Rye to help bathe the Juggalos in a syrupy sacrament. (Check out a Spotify playlist of ICP’s set below.)
If it all sounds hokey or antisocial, perhaps it’s because something gets lost in translation. In its live context, it’s clear that the act more theatrical and less sinister than it is portrayed – at its best moments balancing humor and horror like early Alice Cooper. It’s cathartic. It’s a spectacle.
In fact, Juggalo culture is a key example of what sociologist Karen Bettez Halnon described as “spectacle as resistance,” in which audience members find an escape from the dreary everyday reality. ICP subculture provides feelings of belonging and acceptance — a space where audience members are not just consumers, but community members.
Ultimately, ICP generates so much interest from journalists and academics because we’re not used to seeing this kind of authenticity in pop culture. I’m nowhere near as interested in the socio-cultural impact of Arcade Fire — and ICP probably wouldn’t disrespect its fans by asking them to please not dress like such slobs before coming to a concert.
Now, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that ICP’s music isn’t really my bag. I’m not a big fan of this genre of rap-rock, and I do have problems with some of the lyrics. Bob Dylan it ain’t.
Yet, I also acknowledge that there’s something going on here, and I don’t know what it is (do I, Mr. Jones?). I’m not going to take the sucker’s way out and talk down to the Juggalos like they’re some interesting primitive tribe to be studied but not respected.
They deserve better.
INSANE CLOWN POSSE: THE LOCAL SPINS PHOTO GALLERY
Photos by Anthony Norkus
(Click on photo to enlarge gallery; disable pop-up blocker if images won’t load)
Copyright 2014, Spins on Music