The Juggalos have marched on Washington. While a novelty in the history of protest movements, this has greater implications for religion and social class in America than many people realize.
“Juggalos” are fans of the Detroit-based white rap duo Insane Clown Posse (ICP), comprised of Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. Widely mocked, critics disparage them both for their class background (“white trash” is one epithet likely to be hurled at a Juggalo or Juggalette) and for being fans of dumb music.
It is easy to verify the dumbness of the music: as you listen to ICP, you can feel your IQ score ticking downwards like the red numbers on a time-bomb in a James Bond movie. You’ll be lucky if it stops at any point higher than .007. ICP’s now-legendary track, “Miracles,” contains lyrics that launched a thousand memes: “F-ckin’ magnets, how do they work? And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist / Y’all motherf-ckers lyin’ and getting me pissed.”
Lyrical misogyny of a sub-Eminem level is also par for the course. But this is just to tell you what you already knew: ICP are not exactly Emily Dickinson, eating scones and drinking tea in Amherst. Occasionally, their lyrics do jump out at you, presenting something a bit more creative, often related to heaven and hell, good and evil.
Where Juggalos Are Coming From
Thanks to their obscure and questionable musical preferences, not only do Juggalos face the disdain of coastal elites, but the FBI labeled them a “loosely affiliated hybrid gang” in 2011. In fact, this was the major motivation behind the Juggalos’ march, which took place on September 16. They want to be considered a subculture, another fan-base, and not automatic criminal suspects.
As Violent J pointed out, the gang designation has huge negative implications for Juggalos: a Juggalo’s spouse could accuse him or her of being in a gang in divorce court, and, according to the government, this would be true. Besides, no one ever labeled Deadheads a “loosely affiliated hybrid gang,” despite all the nitrous oxide balloons getting inflated at Grateful Dead shows. And are Juggalos really more likely than Beliebers to get high on PCP and go on a stabbing rampage? (Technically yes, but…)
ICP comes out of the same Michigan milieu that gave birth to Eminem and Kid Rock. Their music appeals largely to young members of the working class living in declining Rust Belt cities and rural areas, and is undoubtedly popular in counties that voted for both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. It shares an audience with professional wrestling, which makes sense, given that both combine lowbrow antics and operatic theatricality with a rather complicated mythology. (ICP has participated in wrestling events many, many times, and founded their own wrestling federation, as if you didn’t already intuit this).
Sure, it’s not great art. It’s mostly garbage, in fact. But is this great art? It’s hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at any rate. And no one ever labeled the art wonks who gawk at it a “loosely affiliated hybrid gang,” although they probably should.
‘Profound Alienation and Social Rejection’
Adam Theron-Lee Rench makes some acute observations on the Juggalos’ current social and economic situation: “They are the cashiers at Walmart and the servers at McDonald’s, spectacles of misfortune either ignored or blithely exploited for cheap laughs. They live a life of menial labor that elite ideology insists they deserve… Many liberals, who would blanche at the use of racial slurs, are nevertheless quick to call them rednecks or trailer trash — undesirable miscreants at best, socially backwards adversaries at worst. But, if we bracket their hatchet-wielding, face-painting, Faygo-spraying theatrics — and any other cultural trappings that allow so many outsiders to feel smugly superior to ICP’s acolytes — we are left with a working-class community acutely aware of, and actively resisting, its profound alienation and social rejection.”
This is true and well-observed. At the same time, we should be on guard against sentimentalizing the Juggalos: they are not a crowd of Tiny Tims all sitting down to exclaim “God bless us, everyone!” over a Christmas goose. But they certainly are forgotten, treated as the dregs of society. They deserve, at the very least, our consideration and a shot at opportunities for social mobility.
But the Juggalos not only thirst for Faygo, their preferred brand of cheap soda, and for a solution to their economic woes, they thirst for faith. The climax of the song “The Unveiling” reveals the true source of Insane Clown Posse’s inspiration: “Truth is, we follow God, we’ve always been behind Him / The Carnival is God and may all Juggalos find Him.” “The Carnival” is a reference to ICP’s “Dark Carnival” mythology, which I’ll explain shortly.
From Sex to God
This is something Theron-Lee Rench, being concerned exclusively with Juggalos’ material impoverishment, did not discuss. The Juggalos desire “a chicken in every pot” and the order and light a religious worldview brings. They are, in part, a demographic ripe not just for populism but for a spiritual version of it, like that of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Workers.
True, some of them may be fond of selling or smoking meth. True, some may be ready to shiv you when you’re eating pudding in the prison cafeteria. But there is a broadly religious message to ICP’s music, which appeals to many of their fans.
Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope, whose real names are Joseph Bruce and Joseph Utsler, explicitly acknowledge that their music has a religious message. Admittedly, it differs from the music you hear on Christian radio stations in its relentless profanity, obscenity, and obsession with comic violence and homicidal fantasy. You can’t put your hands in the air and sway side to side, closing your eyes, as you feel it move over you. But God is, amidst the murk, present.
Violent J explained: “[Sex and violence is] the stuff that people are talking about on the streets…to get attention, you have to speak their language. You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you’re one of them. You’re a person from the street and speak of your experiences. Then at the end you can tell them God has helped me out like this and it might transfer over instead of just come straight out and just speak straight out of religion. ”
ICP’s music is defined by a core mythology, referred to as “The Dark Carnival” mythos. It began in a dream Violent J had, involving a traveling “Dark Carnival” filled with the souls of the damned. The Carnival is a limbo-like dimension in which the violent and depraved participate in nightmarish fairground rides and activities, before being sent to hell.
In developing this mythology, Insane Clown Posse occasionally alights upon ideas that are authentically creative. For example, they imagine a character called the “Ringmaster,” who directs the Dark Carnival and leads the souls of the damned into hell. Interestingly, the Ringmaster is created by one’s own sins: he is the personification of the evil you have manifested in your own life.
This mirrors an insight from the great nineteenth-century British writer Thomas DeQuincey. DeQuincey recounts the near-death-experience of a woman who nearly drowned in a river but survived to claim that she had relived every moment of her life, seeing each in a new light. He goes on to speculate that “the dread book of account which the Scriptures speak of is in fact the mind itself of each individual.” ICP’s Ringmaster character definitely has a similar vibe.
Of course, if you sat down to listen to the songs that develop this mythology, you would constantly throw up in your mouth. But if you tease the idea out of the matrix of ignorance in which it is embedded, you can (kind of) appreciate it.
Where Sin, Death, and the Devil Can Lead
An obsession with sin, evil, and death can be mere macabre camp or the indication of a warped psyche, but it can also betoken an actual religious sensibility. You are getting the sense that things are not as they should be. The world is out of balance. Your own mind is out of balance. You have become conscious of sin. That, at least, is one reason to put on evil clown makeup. (Outside of Halloween, it is probably the only semi-legitimate reason, as well).
There are Pacific Islanders who, not understanding the merely material and mechanical nature of the airplanes and ships that brought crates of goods to their islands, formed religions to prophesize messianic figures who would bring more cargo. These religions are called “cargo cults.” ICP’s version of monotheism is like a cargo cult version of Christianity and Judaism.
ICP heard about those religions, as kids. They like God. But, by their own admission, they are utterly uneducated in the merest basics of these faiths. They are resolutely un-churched, inventing their own religion from scratch, which highlights the miserable state of religious education in the United States.
The great Christian thinker Soren Kierkegaard once said the aim of life is to “find a truth that is true for me, something for which I can live or die.” Isn’t this what the Juggalos require? As a population at the bottom of society, shouldn’t this message have been ministered to them at some point? Without any guiding ideas about religion to start with, you have to re-invent it all, using the little scraps you’ve picked up here and there.
Of course, a Juggalo could always go to church of his or her own volition or get a library card and read up on religion. But in 2017 that’s like demanding a quest beyond Game of Thrones’ giant ice wall: few have the heart to undertake it. We need apostles who can deliver a message that pierces the heart and raids the mind: not the vacuity of the prosperity gospel, but something that brings our existential situation home to us. We live in a world full of suffering, in a state that seems broken and meaningless. But there is a way out.
I cannot guarantee this sobering message will win the hearts and minds of the Juggalos, but it’s worth a try. After all, inside every scary clown, there lives a sad clown.