On the surface, the task of defining the Juggalo seems an easy one: clinically speaking, a Juggalo is--like the Deadhead or the Misfits' Horror Kid before them--simply a particularly devout follower of the rap/thrash group Insane Clown Posse. But standing in a crowded parking lot amongst hundreds of self-professed "Juggalos," it quickly becomes apparent that actually defining Juggaloism will prove to be a bit more elusive.
WHO IS THIS INSANE CLOWN POSSE?
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope were two white kids who moved to Detroit from the suburbs. They promptly--and nearly suicidally--deemed themselves gangsters, forming the Inner City Posse in 1989. The original ICP got its asses kicked so often and so hard that its ranks were quickly whittled back down to an army of two. They instead turned their attentions to musical careers, ultimately reincarnating as the Insane Clown Posse--an outfit despised and mocked by all outside of its deeply loyal, widespread cult following.
Despite unceremonious rejection by the mainstream, ICP has fashioned itself a tidy empire that includes the Psychopathic Records label and a wrestling federation. There is an annual "Gathering," where thousands of Juggalos and Juggalettes come together in days-long celebration. They've even made a household name out of Faygo soda--the trademark brand they delight in dousing their audiences with during live performances (like the poor man's version of Gwar juice). This appears as little more than an excellent marketing strategy--until you consider what it is that's being marketed.
The music of ICP is fairly embarrassing rap/thrash that's garnered its share of grief for offensive/violent/misogynist content, all while enjoying virtually zero credibility among fans of related genres. Embracing rejection, ICP and their devotees simply insist that their critics "don't understand" their message, claiming their music conceals the virtues of a quasi-belief system--the keys to which can only be comprehended through avid consumption of ICP's discography, Violent J's autobiography Behind the Paint, and wrestling. And, lest we forget, Faygo.
With your MasterCard number and expiration date, you can buy all these accoutrements to ICP's elusive "message"--and in return, you'll not only receive the acceptance of friends, but a brand new, clown-painted "family" as well.
WHAT IS THIS JUGGALO?
There are just too many question marks haunting this phenomenon. What is it that the hundreds of kids milling around this parking lot are feeling so fervently? What is the magical message that resides between the lines of songs like "Hey Vato" and "In The Haughhh!"?
The last two times the Insane Clown Posse came to town, their shows have been sequestered here, at the Portland Expo Center, the last stop on the Yellow Line MAX. This may be a nod to ICP's reputation, however misunderstood, as a group that incites violence, and makes a darn mess of the venues that house them, what with all the Faygo bottles flying and showering the crowd.
As we look around us, hundreds of black and white clown faced youth are loitering in the lot--with huge pickups grumbling slogging bass beats and dark, baggy-clothed figures slinking delinquently between the cars.
A young man, Johnny P, strides confidently through the crowd, greeting nearly every Juggalo he passes. He's dressed in a purple and gold clown suit, emblazoned with the word "kill" repetitively printed on his outfit. It was an auction item that he bid for and won at the third annual ICP Gathering, held this past July, and was actually worn in concert.
"We usually follow them around," Johnny admits, much in the style of diehard fans of the Grateful Dead or Phish. Inviting and surprisingly well-spoken, Johnny P was our first experience with the Juggalo paradox--that in spite of their blind devotion to a group whose subject matter largely celebrates the ills of society (violence, sexism, juvenile humor, professional wrestling, etc.), the Juggalo are, with few exceptions, a uniformly kind and sympathetic breed.
Another Juggalo appears, and almost makes us reconsider our last statement when he abruptly proclaims: "Pregnancy can be prevented by anal sex!"
As it turns out, this is characteristic of the observable interactions between Juggalos. Frequent, bizarre (coded?), and offensive epithets fly between them, but with apparent joviality on both ends. For instance, a typical Juggalo conversation often goes something like this:
"Hey, let's try to get as close to the stage as possible."
"Okay! And I'm going to rape your firstborn child!"
"Cool, man. You, too!"
WHAT ARE THESE JUGGALOS TRYING TO SAY?
It's in the company of Johnny P that we begin to grasp a vague understanding of the Juggalo belief system--an elusive sensibility that, in its purest form, lingers somewhere between ambivalent cult and mass suburban hysteria.
"Juggalos identify with each other because we've all been through the same sort of hardships," begins P when asked to define Juggaloism. "We're all coming from the same place, and we all understand the message of the music."
But exactly what is this message? Johnny P explains:
"A lot of people listen to the records and just hear the violence and the killing and stuff like that. But it's what's under that--that's the message... to be the best person you can be, and to do more right than wrong. Okay... it's sort of hard to explain."
Curiously, Johnny P was the only Juggalo present who was willing to even attempt an explanation of what the message is. "It just goes so deep to the people," they'll say, "and inspires us so much." Or, "It's really all about the family."
INSIDE THE DARK CARNIVAL
And who can blame fans for their inability to articulate such a message, when even founder Violent J--who first discovered the mysterious "Dark Carnival" that feeds the ICP belief--is eluded by its definition?
Discovering this "Dark Carnival" was a pivotal experience for him, and Violent J described his awakening in an interview on the Psychopathic Records fan site:
"We were just chilling when all the sudden our souls jumped into the Dark Carnival. I've never had a purpose in my life until then... Nobody really hears what we're saying except for the Juggalos. Only a special open-minded, street muthafuckin' Juggalo can hear the Dark Carnival speaking to him through our music... The critics, the magazines, MTV, and other bands... Yeah, they still hate us, but that's just because they don't understand us. They can't hear what we're really saying. So to them we just suck."
From what we understand, the "Dark Carnival" is a sort of roving purgatory--a band of macabre clowns and wagons that transports dead souls to either Hell or "Shangri-La," depending on how you've lived your life. ICP is a messenger, enlightening people of the afterlife. Each ICP record represents a different "card," which in turn represent aspects of one's life that can be examined and improved.
"But if they laugh at us now and continue living life as an evil bastard, I'll laugh at them as I take them to Hell," clarifies J.
Confused? So is everyone in the Expo parking lot. Brian--a shoddily painted Juggalo from Everett, Washington--explains. "It took me years to become a Juggalo. We don't know what it is. We're Juggalos." Brian stops to shout across the parking lot to a fellow Juggalo. "Hey! What's a Juggalo?" Answerless, he turns back to us. "See? Nobody knows."
Even as messengers of the "Dark Carnival," the Insane Clown Posse itself seems unsure as to what a Juggalo actually is. In a song specifically entitled "What Is a Juggalo?" the Posse's endless refrain consists of little more than "What is a Juggalo?/ Well fuck if I know/ What is a Juggalo?/ I don't know/ But I'm down with the Clown/ And I'm down for life, yo."
PUNKS UP, CLOWNS DOWN
And while the crowd in the parking lot may be of one general, if not slightly confused, mindset, even the "Dark Carnival" can have its interlopers.
Two teenage girls are huddled next to an oversized truck, one of them smearing clown makeup on in the side mirror.
"Oh, we're not going to the show," one of them says, aghast. "We just saw these people downtown and followed them here with some friends to make fun of them."
She gestures towards a sulky group of kids (her friends) dressed in the punk uniform of black denim and metal--themselves victims of an identifiable, purchasable, and more popular clan. In the background, the snaking line of Juggalos waiting to get in to the building explodes into one of their chanting bouts: "Who's going chicken hunting? We're going chicken hunting!" The girls look over, snickering cruelly, and stumble off to their compatriots. The Expo Center's doors have opened.
HELL ON EARTH
The size of an airplane hanger, the Expo Center is partitioned off to about a third of its total expanse by a pair of risers aimed at the darkened stage. There is some waiting, constant chanting, and a lot of milling about. Suddenly a menacing intro begins, and...
Not much of anything, really. Two chubby guys, animal heads on stakes, a bunch of fake fire, dudes in demon suits, and some weak rhymes. Granted, we marvel at some pretty wicked Faygo-technics, but the rest of it is, well... sort of boring.
We listen intently for subliminal messages amongst the menacing chants of the audience... watch for apparitions in the Faygo mists... nothing. But how could we be expected to understand, really? We're atheists in the church of the Clown.
THE CULT, THE SHOW, THE COMMERCIAL
Someday, history will look back upon the Insane Clown Posse and marvel. Their following will appear obviously symptomatic of the state of the suburban white teenager in turn-of-the-century America. But what their unlikely, almost mutant rise to prominence will herald still remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the ICP empire, as it has thus far progressed, is clearly a spawn of the primordial ooze of consumerism, desensitization, and the apparent deprivation of mysticism in the lives and minds of at least one segment of the TV Baby population.
Despite the illogic and irreverence in the culture of the Juggalo, it is plain that the faithful who have gathered at the Expo Center are finding harmless fulfillment amid the chaos. As a collection of American white kids who feel oppressed by a culture of "cool," they cling to this acceptance to fill a void--whether its a lack of familial comfort or just the plain old, lonely search for identity.
One can only hope that when the sun sets on the Insane Clown Posse, their followers will have graduated to good-humored maturity--rather than a bitter legion disenfranchised by the insincere cogs of commercialism that originally brought this family together.