The story of Insane Clown Posse is crying out for a thoughtful book, but the new Juggalo isn't it

by

comment
9780306823770.jpg

Trying to convince the public that two white men who've sold millions of records and run their own music festival are at the bottom of the totem pole is a challenge, but Steve Miller—author of Detroit Rock City and the new Juggalo—is up for it.

Granted, Detroit rap duo Insane Clown Posse and their fans (better known as juggalos) are hardly universally loved. There's a lot about them that's easy to make fun of: the clown makeup, the carnival-themed horrorcore, and the ritual of dousing their fans with Faygo by the liter. (The cheap soda is made in Detroit, and according to Miller's book, the band use Diet Faygo onstage—the regular stuff can peel paint off a wall.) In 2010, ICP inadvertently launched a thousand snarky Internet memes with the video for "Miracles," which enacted a sort of dim but earnest wonderment at the world with a clumsiness that only, well, a juggalo could love. (You remember: "Fucking magnets, how do they work?")

ICP's annual festival, the Gathering of the Juggalos, kicks off its 17th year next week in Thornville, Ohio, and a visit has long been the equivalent of a safari for non-juggalos eager to rubberneck at the, uh, libertarian scene, which tends to include lots of illegal drugs, wrestling, fireworks, and nudity. This year's music roster includes interplanetary scumdogs Gwar, Kansas City underground rap icon Tech N9ne, Cleveland hip-hop legends Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, and a crowd of ICP acolytes who've followed their example right down to the face paint—including Twiztid, Anybody Killa, and Blaze. To juggalos the Gathering can be heaven—but to others it's just another reason to bag on ICP.

ICP cofounders Joseph Bruce (aka Violent J) and Joey Utsler (aka Shaggy 2 Dope) don't entirely mind their bad reputation. Early in Juggalo: Insane Clown Posse and the World They Made, Violent J says, "We're the most hated band in the world—that's our claim to fame." Fame and infamy both mean you're well-known.

ICP have a few things going for them—not least that they're both straight white men, which confers all sorts of advantages—but in fairness, they've had to overcome some big hurdles. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope grew up poor in the Detroit area, and ICP's fans tend to be less affluent themselves—Miller litters his book with references to the classism ICP and juggalos face from outsiders. One chapter begins with a quote from author and Dangerous Minds coeditor Richard Metzger on the Gathering of the Juggalos: "Think of it as a white-trash version of Burning Man."

Miller doesn't exactly dismantle the stereotypes about juggalos—in fact, he spends half of one chapter on a fan who cut off his nipple at a side stage during the Gathering in 2013. But his book does humanize them, which grounds his writing—and makes it easy to agree with him when he condemns the FBI's decision to classify juggalos as a "hybrid gang" in its 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment. (ICP filed a lawsuit against the bureau and the Justice Department in 2014, which was dismissed, but the following year a federal appeals court revived the case by ruling in the band's favor.)

Miller tracks down a bevy of juggalos to get their stories, just as the legal team for ICP's label, Psychopathic Records, did in preparation for the suit. Miller presents many anecdotes from juggalos all around the country who claim they were targeted and harassed by police for wearing Hatchetgear—that is, clothing manufactured by ICP, which is named after the band's Hatchetman mascot. He also offers a story from a juggalo who says she received a harsh sentence (for a crime unrelated to gang activity) because of her Hatchetman tattoo. But Miller's focus on juggalos who've had hard times because of their fandom (or who've accumulated a bruise or two because of it) skews his narrative toward the very stereotypes he's trying to challenge. He might've done better to give more ink to ICP fans who've never been through the criminal justice system—but he seems too keen on proving his point about harassment to do that.

Miller's self-righteousness and scatter-brained storytelling don't help matters either. He jumps around among segments of ICP's history without doing much to demonstrate how they fit together, so that readers who don't already care about the band will have a tough time following. The FBI's National Gang Threat Assessment and the Psychopathic Records lawsuit make for one hell of a story—as Miller frequently points out, it's not every day that the feds call fans of a band a gang. But he's also clearly drunk the Kool-Aid, and he frequently undermines his own book with exaggerated claims that just don't hold up. He insists that Insane Clown Posse are the last true vestige of the underground, though the group's best-selling albums came out during their 90s stint as a major-label act—that is, 1997's The Great Milenko and 1999's The Amazing Jeckel Brothers, both certified platinum. Miller talks about his early love of punk in the book's intro, and he uses his understanding of punk, calcified in his youth, to judge whether a band is righteously rebellious. In the context of the book, he's willing to bestow that honor only upon juggalos. Makes you wonder if he's heard the new G.L.O.S.S. record

Miller's stunted ideas about punk lead him into some pretzel logic. Midway through the book, he glibly says that all forms of rebellious modern music have gone through the same motions before "selling out," focusing on punk and all the "flavors" of rap—but he explicitly excludes ICP, who definitely rap. (Another nitpick: Miller calls go-go a "flavor of rap." It's not, and the fact that people have rapped over it doesn't change that.)

Miller's apparent willingness to create a special category just for ICP might say more about their strengths as a band than about his weaknesses as a writer. ICP have created an entire universe of their own out of black-and-white face paint and a multialbum narrative inspired by role-playing games, and they've spawned a legion of followers who stick with the language and costume like a protocol. What ICP does isn't outside the realm of hip-hop—no matter how many people might wish it were. It's helped keep them interesting and distinctive for all these years, but that doesn't mean their rapping doesn't count as rapping.

Miller often nearly loses his grip on the interesting elements of ICP's story. His instincts as a reporter are terrific, but his personality—at least as it comes through in Juggalo—cancels out his strengths. At his worst, Miller writes about non-juggalos in a way that reminds me of Tribune columnist John Kass when he writes about bicyclists—his mocking, goading tone does him no favors, and his know-it-all attitude just sets him up to look dumber than he is.

He takes shots at anyone who isn't a juggalo, including professors who study rebellious pop music and "think they rock and need a research project." He's contemptuous of people who go to music festivals sponsored by multinational corporations—he suggests that those fans are hypocrites because they've protested those same companies "in rallies across the nation." (Actually, maybe that's not contemptuous—he may be giving the typical fest crowd too much credit for activist zeal.) When he's walking to a show with a juggalo and passing motorists make fun of her outfit, he dismisses them by noting that they "move on to whatever meaningless, vapid fun such people move on to." For someone keen to show the humanity of a broad group of people derided because of their fandom, Miller has trouble treating others with the same respect.

Miller isn't the first author to get knee-deep in the world of ICP and juggalos, or to try to give the phenomenon a more relatable face. Juggalo is preceded by (among others) Daniel Cronin's 2013 Gathering of the Juggalos photo collection; Nathan Rabin's 2013 examination of juggalos and Phish fans, You Don't Know Me but You Don't Like Me; Kent Russell's 2011 n+1 Kindle single, American Juggalo; Lou G. Stone's 2006 book The Story of Insane Clown Posse; and Violent J's 2003 autobiography, ICP: Behind the Paint. I'm not even counting the juggalo erotica you can find on Amazon. Miller points out halfway through Juggalo that punk has gone from being misunderstood and reviled to being the subject of college curriculums, but he seems to think that juggalos—despite all the writing out there already—will never be similarly integrated into mainstream culture. "It's doubtful there will ever be a Juggalo studies class, although just the thought does make one wonder what the syllabus would include." Whether Miller is right or not about the likelihood of that class, I hope his book isn't required reading.

Add a comment