Insane Clown Posse, the Book We Never Wrote

Violent J looks a little like Guy Fieri, doesn’t he?

Confession time: I’m not really a juggalo. A shock, I know. But a few years ago, my partner, Whitney Strub and I became fascinated enough by the group and the discourse around it that we bought several albums, went to see them when they played Philly, and proposed a book about their album The Great Milenko for the 33 1/3 series.

On some level, it’s not as crazy as it sounds. My dissertation and forthcoming book examine whiteness, masculinity and race and, in one chapter, analyzes the ICP’s much more successful competition in the white boy Detroit rap game, Eminem. Whit grew up in the Midwest and probably would’ve been a Juggalo if he hadn’t gone to grad school (joke). But our shared interest was in connecting the ICP to a social history of postindustrialization and whiteness. Plus that show we went to was pretty awesome.

Our book proposal, amazingly, made 33 1/3’s long shortlist, which was whittled down to 94 from 471 entries. Even though we didn’t get chosen, we felt pretty good about making it that far.

Other projects have taken precedence over this one, though, so we decided to post the introduction and proposal for the book on our respective blogs. And to set the mood, you should probably listen to this while reading it.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 Introduction: What is a Juggalo?

It had been five years since the “Cop Killer” controversy, nearly fifteen since Tipper Gore first heard Prince’s female-masturbation fantasies in “Darling Nikki,” hell, forty since Elvis first swiveled those hips, and in 1997 the media needed a new source of moral outrage.

Wearing demented clown makeup, their legions of fans assuming an identity as Juggalos, the Insane Clown Posse (ICP), a cartoonish KISS-by-way-of-GWAR rap duo created by Detroit natives Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, better known as Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, had become the folk devils du jour, with everyone from Bill O’Reilly to indignant music critics complaining about the violence and misogyny in their lyrics.

The critics were not wrong, exactly. By track three of The Great Milenko, their major-label debut and defining album, the ICP had already “fucked three fat bitches,” by their own account. Bodies fell, sometimes decapitated, sometimes blasted by gunfire, as when Violent J encountered a hostile sheriff in “Piggy Pie.” “I grabbed a shotgun/and blew his fuckin’ tongue out the back of his cranium,” our narrator proudly recounts. Later on in the album, J and Shaggy explain their wooing tactics in a dating-show skit. It differed a bit from the old dating manuals; “to get your attention in the crowded place,” Shaggy offered to his paramour, “I’d simply walk up and stick my nuts in your face.”

So why would Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of family-friendly Disney, release the album and then pull it from shelves almost immediately? Clearly, aesthetic merit was neither the goal nor the significance of The Great Milenko. Yet as a cultural document, it tapped into social strains of great magnitude, especially racial tensions and class fault lines that go overlooked if the canon of 90s music reduces to the favorites of the tastemaking classes.

Beneath the cartoonish imagery and childlike obsession with nutsacks and flatulence, the ICP used rap to express the frustrations of the dispossessed white working-class youth. With their faces painted as clowns, and their stage effects centered around shaken soda, the ICP was able to cohere a subculture that associated so completely with the group’s lyrics, mien, and ideology that they defined themselves through a new identity—Juggalo, suggestive of the mysterious magician-jester figure whose shiny metallic visage leered at the listener through its one non-bruised eye on the album’s cover art.

The Insane Clown Posse sprayed their audiences with Faygo, the cheap Detroit soda pop that made Pepsi appear a marker of class status in comparison. The Great Milenko evensounded like Faygo, sticky sweet and sugary, revved up on its clanging guitar chords that hung in the air for measures on end, fizzy keyboards that never washed across the mix but erupted out of it like unseemly belches, carbonated with huge airy drums that would have done a hair-metal ballad proud. The ICP had cranked out four albums now since their first EP in 1992 sounded as if it had been recorded in mud, and producer Mike Clark pulled out all the stops this time, polishing the sonics in a bid for the brass ring.

The group needed all the studio polish it could get, because nobody would confuse Shaggy or J for skilled rappers. With flat rhymes and delivery, the ICP’s appeal was not the verbal dexterity of a young Chuck D or the fire-spitting vocal urgency of Ice Cube. “Back like a vertebrae,” J declared early on Milenko; the metaphors more or less ended there. That left puerile rhymes about bodies and hygiene; mulling over the question “What is a Juggalo,” Shaggy offered, “A fucking lunatic/Somebody with a rope tied to his dick/Then he jumps out a ten-story window/Ohhhhhhhhh.” Perhaps the hanging open vowel proved too tricky; the verse ended there.
Nevermind, it was not, nor Me Against the World; Loveless or Bee Thousand either. The ICP spoke not to the experiences of the hip, college-educated kids and critics who attended CMJ, listened through lo-fi fuzz to basement 4-trackers, and cheered on Buffalo Tom’s appearance on My So-Called Life. Instead, it hailed the kids raised in trailer parks, whose anger and frustration would make Korn and its nu-metal imitators huge—the kids who cast their first votes for Jesse Ventura as Minnesota gubernatorial candidate not because he represented a third-party challenge to the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of the fake two-party system, but because he used to wrestle for the WWF. In short, the primarily white kids who didn’t feel much benefit from the “wages of whiteness” that maintained racial hierarchies across American history. We like to think of the 1990s as a witty, urbane decade, with Jerry Seinfeld’s neurotic irony, Ross wooing Rachel, Bill Clinton parsing the meaning of sex. The ICP’s Dark Carnival was the decade’s dark underbelly.

The story of the Insane Clown Posse is the story of postindustrial whiteness at the end of the last century, a movement that lives and dies in the Midwestern towns that are coastally ignored as fly-over land, the Rust Belt corpse of what once called itself the Heartland. Other bands emerge from key music-industry cities like L.A. and NYC, or suddenly-hip ones like Seattle or Omaha; in Milenko’s liner notes, the ICP gave “props to the clown towns”: Cleveland, Flint, Toledo, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Grand Rapids, and the thriving metropolis of Grass Lake, Iowa. A sadder cartography of urban decline could hardly be charted. The rock canon historically fetishizes certain iterations of working-class white masculinity, from Elvis through Springsteen through the Drive-By Truckers. Overlooked and erased are the “bad subjects” that scholars John Hartigan and Matt Wray analyze as “white trash,” those figures who exist at most as the objects of scorn or ridicule, but mostly go unremarked upon, passed over in embarrassed silence. Dreadlocked and mealy-mouthed, the ICP embodied white trash as precisely as any given guest on the much-maligned Jerry Springer Show.

For a generation of hip, progressive, underground rockers and scenesters, this was the era of riot-grrrl, of third-wave sex-positive queer feminism. Kathleen Hanna, agent provocateur of that movement from its early zines to its defining band, Bikini Kill, reclaimed language constantly in her fiery harangues of the sexist patriarchy. Fat bitches needed empowerment and self-love, not the slimy gropes of some assholes in facepaint. In this world, the ICP was the enemy.

Fifteen years later, however, the lines would be redrawn, as a culture of voraciously commodified amnesia devoured the 1990s as nostalgia. Relocated to New York City from rainy Olympia, kitschified through her post-Bikini Kill band Le Tigre, in 2012 Kathleen Hanna helped design the set for a performance-art piece about the ICP and white masculinity staged in Greenwich Village, bastion of hipness since Norman Mailer had first fantasized about becoming a White Negro a half-century ago. Violent J and Shaggy were suddenly hip, or at least hip jokes. Jack White recorded a song with them (co-written by Mozart, why not!), and the video for the song “Miracles,” off their 2009 album Bang! Pow! Boom!, had become an internet meme, featuring, as it did, questions about basic science, including how magnets worked.

What had happened? Well, a lot, including two decades of neoliberal depoliticization of both the proletarian and educated classes. A central contention of this book is that The Great Milenko, as an album, contains both the tensions of 1997 and those of 2012. It speaks to uncertainties and anxieties about race, culture, and class; that it does so in a discernibly less articulate manner than, say, The Coup or Bruce Springsteen or even fellow white Detroit rapper Eminem, makes it no less significant as a cultural text and document. A million people bought it. When they listened, they heard no directly political messages in a conventional sense; Shaggy was no Rage Against the Machine telling them to join the Zapatistas. Yet the messages that they heard were compelling, speaking to a sense of disfranchisement, couched in caricatured tales of violence without hope and a mythology of death and despair.

From bad subjects to snicker-behind-the-back hipster icons, the ICP trace the cultural discourse about whiteness, working-class identity and postindustrial life. Not that the ICP or the Juggalo Nation gives a fuck about that. For their legions of fans, the ICP is a family, a term that must be understood within the cultural politics that spawned the group—Detroit in the 1990s, gasping for air and jobs in the wake of the giant sucking sound of factories racing out of town; the nation since Reagan, as “family values” reigned supreme, spearheading a reactionary, intolerant political agenda that attacked the ICP even as it mirrored many of their ideals. Expecting and receiving no less than complete loyalty, they asked, “How long will the Juggalos be down with me?” The appropriate answer: “Down with the clown till I’m dead in the ground.”

At its inception, the ICP feebly attempted to locate itself within gangsta rap culture, originally standing for Inner City Posse, only later arriving at Insane Clown Posse. If theirs was a failed whiteness, it was also a failed blackness, a confused hybrid of racialized tropes, which fit with Detroit’s particular location, in which working-class whites and blacks lived cheek by jowl, reacting to the same macroeconomic processes that shipped their jobs overseas. It was no utopia; race riots greeted the Great Migration that first sent black workers into the city seeking jobs and an escape from brutal Southern white supremacy during World War II; they recurred when the promises of the Great Society in the 1960s remained mere promises and the dream deferred indeed exploded. The Great Milenkorarely addresses these tensions directly, but is haunted by them throughout in songs that speak the exhausted frustrations of folk who live in the Kafkaesque web of bureaucracy, where a parking ticket takes hours out of a workday to deal with, and where the power dynamics are understood best in simple expressions of us and them: the rich and the poor. Black and white go unspoken but everpresent, if perpetually confused. Even the album’s title obliquely echoes Milliken v. Bradley, the infamous 1974 Supreme Court decision that severed the suburbs from the inner city, effectively killing the promises ofBrown v. Board of Education by blocking metropolitan school desegregation forever.Milliken came from Detroit.

In fact, racial categories were more confused in the 1990s than an increasingly “color-blind” society was willing or capable of admitting. Nobel Prize-winning African American novelist Toni Morrison famously called Bill Clinton America’s “first Black president.” Yet while he knew how to pander to a Baptist church, this “New Democrat” destroyed the lives of untold single mothers, disproportionately young Black women, as he “ended welfare as we know it”—a brutal new economic regime that Republicans had long aspired to. “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow,” Clinton’s campaign anthem insisted—but Fleetwood Mac’s heady coke dreams were rapidly giving way to Midwestern meth-teeth and inner city mass incarceration; “tomorrow” was a mandatory minimum and a job at Wal-Mart. With the party that once represented poor and working-class hopes rapidly disintegrating into GOP-lite, political apathy seemed reasonable. Hip-hop scholar Eithne Quinn notes the shift from militant, political gangsta rap of the late 1980s to passive G-funk by the mid-90s. Politics had to be articulated obliquely; the old systems and structures no longer made sense.

This was the sociopolitical context as J and Shaggy cultivated their fanbase. Fascinatingly, and a clue to their ability to inculcate devotion in listeners, the ICP squarely places themselves on the side of the losers, the powerless, the weak. The Dark Carnival is not only the expression of a Juggalo mythology, but the Bakhtinian inversion of the social order. The low will rule. The weak have power. The ICP acknowledges and affirms this age-old social desire. The fact that their devotees listen to their every word is the secret reason for the fear they engender. Their lyrics are no worse than their contemporaries, but the fact that they can get people to listen. That’s the issue.

Mea culpa: We are not Juggalos. We are simply interested in listening to and taking seriously the voices of this subculture and placing this phenomenon within the sociocultural ruptures and all-too-elided angers of its time and place. Unlike most authors in the 33 1/3 series, we do not claim masterpiece status for The Great Milenko. What we do claim is cultural significance, and we insist that the two claims not be conflated, as they all too often are.

That said, it must be noted that in 2011 when we saw the ICP perform at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, it rocked. Like, totally, balls to the wall. Faygo-spiked hair, nearly getting stomped on in a mosh pit, ninja-ninja-chants ringing in our ears, rocked.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Provisional Table of Contents

 

Intro: What is a Juggalo?

With their fourth album, 1997’s The Great Milenko, rap duo the Insane Clown Posse shifted into the national spotlight when it was quickly dropped by its major label due to its descriptions of violence and profanity. But for the legions of ICP fans, known as Juggalos,Milenko further crystallized the subculture, as suggested in the track, “What is a Juggalo?” “What is a juggalo?” asks the pair, and then answers, “He ain’t a bitchboy/He’ll walk through the hills/And beat down a rich boy.” Creating an identity around this music, the song defined the band’s major themes: a bitter comedic sense of social marginalization that is soothed through connection with others in the same position. Yet, such desires were married to homophobic and misogynistic lyrics that generated media outrage, which helped to obscure the larger social significance of the ICP during a time of urban disinvestment and political abandonment as the working class was largely written off by both major parties. Introducing the group and album, this opening chapter lays out the major themes of the book.

 

Ch. 1: The Cultural Politics of Postindustrial Whiteness, or How Many Times?

In “How Many Times,” the Insane Clown Posse offers a repetitive mantra that speaks the frustrations of the white working class in response to life’s small, daily indignities. From dealing with bureaucratic red tape to being panhandled, the song adopts the point of view of those who failed to share in the purported prosperity of the economic rebound of the 1990s. At the same time, omitted from a Black narrative of urban decline and cultural opposition expressed through rap and hip-hop, the white working class amassed anger over its sense of disfranchisement with little political outlet. Few places could be a better setting for this kind of cultural expression than Detroit, Michigan, its deindustrialized landscape a physical reminder of these broken social contracts. This chapter locates the ICP within the context of postindustrial Detroit, tracing the rise of the band from its inception as the Inner City Posse through early releases like Beverly Kills 50187, and on to the culminating release of The Great Milenko, its major label bid for national recognition.

 

Ch. 2: “Family” Values:

When discussing the relationship between the ICP and their fans, each party uses the same word: family. Utilizing various methods to create a Juggalo world, including albums, low-rent spectacles at their shows, comic books, a wrestling federation and the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, known as the Juggalo Woodstock, the band is clearly tapping into a deeply felt need for social connection that undergirds all subcultures. However, the use of the word family to describe this group in the midst of 1990s discourse around “family values” is telling. Positioned against both the Christian cultural conservatism of groups like Focus on the Family, which privileged one monolithic blood-and-marriage vision of “the family,” and the cynical, ironic appropriation of the nu-metal Family Values music festival tour, the ICP uses family sincerely and emotionally. This self-selected, supposedly open community offers its members connection to others, but does so through replication of the gender and sexual hierarchies of the wider society. The ICP’s admittedly problematic homophobia and misogyny have received an inordinate amount of media attention, with pundits like Bill O’Reilly railing against the group. Yet, this ignores the larger social world in which the ICP’s family rhetoric exists. On “Down With the Clown,” J and Shaggy virtually beg listeners to pledge Juggalo loyalty until they’re “dead in the ground.” Cartoonish and inane as Milenko sounded to outsiders, its verses, skits, and carnival mythology resonated deeply with its fans, who enthusiastically made the pledge. Looking beyond the knee-jerk dismissals and admittedly accurate and necessary critiques from progressive opponents and critics governed by conventional aesthetic rubrics, this chapter reconstructs the affective investments solicited by Milenko for its actual fans.

 

Ch. 3: Juggalo Nation

When we spoke with a 31-year old man with “Juggalo” tattooed on the back of his neck outside a Philadelphia Psychopathic Records show starring Twiztid, we asked what had gotten him into the ICP. “When the label tried to get rid of The Great Milenko, I had to hear it” was his response. The album crystallized the group’s self-positioning as anti-corporate rebels, who pioneered a DIY movement that looked nothing like the monopoly on “DIY” that punk claimed for itself. Yet as the Juggalo juggernaut evolved into a branded empire marketing everything from shoes to the ICP’s two feature films (one a western!), a more unexpected shift transpired: the ICP went from the most hated band in the world to being welcomed into the inner sanctums of hipsterdom. From performance art pieces about the band to the near-daily “discovery” of the ICP by another freelance journalist, the ICP’s place in the popular cultural hierarchy has seemingly been reversed. In this concluding chapter, we consider the relationship between these two trajectories which began withThe Great Milenko—the national growth of the ICP’s fanbase and the cultural upcycling of its image. Questions of cultural and social capital undergird both, as the fans hold their outsider status as a badge of honor while the cognoscenti embrace white working-class culture to prove their cultural capital.

Approximate date of completion: one year from contract.

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Marketing Plan

Given the recent upsurge of interest in the Insane Clown Posse outside its fan base—fromSaturday Night Live’s parody of the band’s viral video for the song “Miracles,” to a partnership with Jack White—we feel that our book would have a wide range of potential readers, including those who have heard of the band, but don’t know much about it; those who are interested in studies of whiteness, class and postindustrialism; and, we hope, fans of the band and its music, which, as we show, is a large and extremely loyal subculture.

Both authors would be willing to promote the book vigorously. Academic conferences, especially the Popular Culture Association, American Cultural Association, the Experience Music Project, and the American Studies Association would be venues to engage readers who are both scholars and educated music consumers. Strub and Rizzo have both presented extensively at such conferences and are confident that they would be able to organize panels or lectures at these national meetings. Additionally, targeting specific Midwestern regional association meetings, such as the Midwest Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association annual conference, would be a useful way to reach a base of readers who may be drawn to the geographic focus of the book, which considers working-class whiteness within the specific location of the greater Detroit area.

As this suggests, we see this book as having potential interest for college-level classes, especially those in American Studies, cultural studies, contemporary American history and sociology. For example, Rizzo, who has taught American Popular Arts and Public Life, 1940-Present several times at the University of Minnesota, as well as Gender and Popular Culture at The College of New Jersey, would use this book in these classes as a case study that shows how popular culture can be a window into contemporary issues of whiteness, class and masculinity.

Strub, a former music critic for Popmatters, would utilize his connections to this site to have the book reviewed. Strub is also an active participant in online music message boards, another means through which to bring the book to the attention of an ideal audience: individuals who are already interested in music writing.

Rizzo, with her expertise in nonprofit event organizing, would use her national connections, gained through her current work in the public humanities and public history, to promote events at cultural centers, universities, bookstores, record shops, libraries and elsewhere, where both authors would discuss the book. We feel that such events, spread throughout the northeast where the authors currently live, and the Midwest, where both authors have lived previously, would be an ideal method of connecting the book to academics who would be encouraged to utilize it in their classes and with general readers interested in music.

The authors are also interested in promoting this book through Juggalo websites and events. Having begun the process of interviewing fans of the band, we expect that we would be able to connect with the expansive infrastructure that Juggalos have created. From Juggalobook, which is a Facebook for ICP fans, to several band fan pages on Facebook, the opportunities to interact with the band’s most ardent listeners are extensive.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Relevant Competing Books

With titles like ICP: Behind the Paint and Insane Clown Posse and Their Dark Carnival, the few books that would directly compete with ours can be summarized as biographies geared for fans. Their focus is the personal stories of Violent J, who wrote Behind the Paint, and Shaggy 2 Dope, as well as the band’s rise from Detroit to national fame. While such books get rave reviews from Juggalos on Amazon, they are not likely to be read by a broader audience, or, certainly, to be assigned in college classes (indeed, Behind the Paintis nearly 600 pages long and mainly available through Hatchet Gear, the Insane Clown Posse’s online store).

 

The Great Milenko, however, brings a critical cultural and historical perspective to the diverse sources we use to tell our story, including media coverage, historical artifacts and interviews with fans and, we hope, members of the Insane Clown Posse. In this regard, our work is more likely to be seen as a complement to other cultural studies music analysis. Wayne State University Press’ MC5 Sonically Speaking: A Tale of Rock ‘n Roll(2010) and The Stooges Head On: A Journey Through the Michigan Underground (2011) both examine influential Michigan rock bands and their relationships with the tumultuous political and social milieus of the 1960s and 1970s. Our book would proceed similarly, centering the Insane Clown Posse and The Great Milenko within their geography and historical context, while also carefully attending to the album itself, from lyrics to sonic texture.

More broadly speaking, we see this book situated within the field of whiteness studies, which, as a growing body of literature, attends to the historical construction of white identity. Matt Wray’s Not Quite White: White Trash and the Boundaries of Whiteness(2006), for instance, shows the mutual constitution of racial and class identity, and informs our analysis. Particularly useful is the work of John Hartigan who, as an anthropologist, has productively studied the lived experience of poor whites in Detroit in books includingRacial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999) and Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (2005). With this specific geographic context, Hartigan’s work undergirds our understanding of the meaning given to the Insane Clown Posse in the city of its birth, and with its legions of fans.

As a rap group, the Insane Clown Posse has to also be understood within the history of hip hop culture, in many ways the defining soundtrack of America since the 1990s. Excellent academic works such as Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap (2004) by Eithne Quinn, inform our method. Quinn’s book is a multifaceted exploration of the politics and economics of gangsta rap through the figures of several of its most famous musicians. Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation (2005), is a more popularly written work, but with its extraordinary breadth, traces the development of hip hop out of the Bronx in the 1970s into its ascendance as mass popular culture. Yet even in this definitive history, the Insane Clown Posse is not mentioned (though, it should be noted, a number of rappers have performed at the annual Gathering of the Juggalos, including Ice Cube, Method Man & Redman, and Busta Rhymes, suggesting the group’s desired connections with the culture). As white rappers, however, with a primarily white audience, the ICP hasn’t received attention from scholars of hip hop, a gap that our book seeks to fill.

 

The Great Milenko

Mary Rizzo and Whitney Strub

 

Comparable Books In The 33 1/3 Series

Having read about a dozen books in the series between the two of us, we think the closest model for what we hope to accomplish in The Great Milenko is Nicholas Rombes’Ramones volume. While we love the narrative-memoir aspects of the Let It Be volume, the musicological detail of the Murmur one, and the fan-reminiscence/oral-history qualities ofBee Thousand, Rombes’ effort to situate the album in the cultural landscape and social politics of the mid-70s most closely approximates the approach we plan to take. We particularly appreciate the way he weaves together his analysis of the album with this contextualization, such as the discussion of punk’s convoluted politics and the complex, troubling use of Nazi imagery—this is exactly the sort of cultural/textual ambivalence we seek to mine in looking at the Insane Clown Posse’s simultaneously reactionary and oppositional stance.

As academics who also blog, write music criticism, and participate extensively outside (and also within) the Ivory Tower, we’re excited about the new, more explicitly scholarly direction of the series, and feel very well-positioned to write at that register while still including the fans and popular readership. With that in mind, another good precedent is Franklin Bruno’s Armed Forces volume. While we don’t aspire to Bruno’s brilliantly idiosyncratic organizational structure for the book, his situating of Costello’s music and ill-chosen personal behavior against the backdrop of both British and American racial tensions is one of the strongest contributions of the entire series, we think, and another model of sharp, incisive analysis integrated seamlessly into consistently engaging music writing, such that it appeals to both scholarly and general audiences.

In short, the previous 33 1/3 moments we most seek to emulate are the ones where cultural criticism is delivered rigorously enough to satisfy the criteria of scholarly inquiry, yet deftly enough to remain accessible and engaging to readers with other interests and backgrounds.

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