Clowns, Gangs, and Bad Taste

We seldom write about politics here at Bums Logic because, after all, we are a blog about music and culture. If you want to read about politics there are no shortage of sites, blogs, feeds, Tweets, photos, videos, podcasts, and hand-outs to catch yourself up with the latest.

In a band with a gang???

However, today I feel compelled to write about a group I never thought I would ever even consider typing words about, let alone think about: The Insane Clown Posse. If you don’t know who these guys are by now, then just click here. These two handsome fellas, Violent J (Joseph Bruce) and Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Utsler), have been performing their unique hybrid of rock and hip hop for close to 20 years now.  Their fans are known as The Juggalo’s, and like other fringe-worthy sub-sects of society they are an oft misunderstood group. In 2011, though, the FBI (yes, that FBI) designated The Juggalo’s as a gang. On September 16, 2017 (I am writing this the day before) The Juggalo’s are marching on The Mall here in Washington, DC to protest this designation. I, for one, am in full support of their march. I simply don’t see how anyone that cares about the first amendment could think otherwise.

From Alice Cooper and Kiss in the 70’s to GWAR in the 80’s to Marylin Manson in the 90’s, artists have been pushing the artistic definitions of taste to extremes to varying degrees of success (and this doesn’t even take into account filmmakers and visual artists). Some do it for profit, others for the art, and a few for both. The great thing about any art form or any artist? You don’t have any obligation to consume the work. If you don’t like it….then you have every right to ignore it.

When the FBI concluded that because certain groups of people who considered themselves Juggalo’s committed crimes and therefor all members of this fan base constitute a “gang” a first amendment line was crossed that, at least in my lifetime, was unprecedented. The FBI essentially said: you are guilty of being a fan of an artist.

Why does this matter? I know it’s hard to take grown men and women dressing in ridiculous clown outfits, spraying soda on each other, and generally acting adolescent and decadent seriously, but this is actually quite a serious thing. There are stories of people losing their jobs because they are fans. Stories of small crimes being embellished with a convenient tack-on charge of “gang-related” or women losing custody battles because a judge thinks they are part of some nationally syndicated crime family (that just so happens to wear clown makeup and listen to shitty music).

Have some of The Juggalo’s committed crimes? Of course. Do some of them consider themselves as part of a gang? Sure, just like my friends and I came up with names for our “crews” back in high school and college. Did the FBI deem DeadHeads a gang because some of them sold drugs (in mass quantities) at Grateful Dead shows? Are Billy Joel fans all gang members because a few of them looked at kiddie porn before the show and all dress like cloned suburban dads? To think that The Juggalo’s are equivalent to The Bloods and Crips, MS-13, or The Aryan Brotherhood is like saying marijuana is equivocally as dangerous as heroin, cocaine, and opioids (Oh wait, our Government does say that. More on that another time…).

I listened to an interview today with Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope (I mean, do these guys even take themselves seriously?) and they seemed like pretty normal, intelligent guys that are pretty self-aware of who and what they are and represent. And I love that they make no apologies for it. They understand their style is not for the mainstream and they don’t want it to be (part of their appeal is just that). They also share a lot of similarities with their fans: raised poor in an America that they think overlooks them. Their escapism was to form a band, sing about what they know, and shock some people along the way. It has given them a long-lasting career, extremely loyal fans, and millions of albums sold. Then they mentioned how they had recently reached out to close to 100 fellow musicians, looking for support for their cause, and how only one—ONE!!!!—responded. Dee Snider of Twisted Sister fame. (This came as no shock to me since Dee has been fighting the freedom of speech cause since the early 80’s when Tipper Gore and her Uptight Housewives of DC started the PMRC and tried to get albums to have ratings on them. It was Dee, Frank Zappa, and John Denver that went before Congress and testified on behalf of the music industry.)

But why aren’t more artists speaking up? Why aren’t painters, writers, filmmakers, etc. raging at the idea that our government can and will decide that someone who enjoys your art can be considered a criminal for doing so? Where is the so-called “music community” that easily organizes around numerous just causes? Does no one take this seriously because of who it’s happening to: a fringe subculture of mostly white, socioeconomically-challenged fans with bad taste in music and soda? If, tomorrow, the FBI raids a meth lab in Sarasota, FL and finds seven people wearing Jimmy Buffett t-shirts and proclaiming themselves as “Parrot-heads“, will all Jimmy Buffett fans suddenly be criminals in the minds of the US Government?

There was a time when Chuck Berry was considered lewd and in bad taste, a time when Jerry Lee Lewis was bad taste. Shit, even The Rolling Stones early “bad boy” image was considered “edgy” and Link Wray had one of his most famous instrumental pieces banned from radio for being too “sexually suggestive”—and that was a fuckin instrumental!!!! So there is precedent for some form of censorship in the arts. But never were fans held accountable for listening to these artists. Never were the sins of a few collectively attached to the whole.

I know the FBI doesn’t considering the act of listening to the Insane Clown Posse’s music a criminal one (though I do). By designating The Juggalo’s a gang they have essentially laid way for local police to use the tag as an umbrella to make mass arrests at any show, citing it as a “gang meeting.” This hasn’t happened. Yet.

Meanwhile, the Insane Clown Posse have tapped into an overlooked sub culture that does more to unite folks than drive them apart. Considering the backgrounds of many of their fans it would be quite easy for some of them to fall into the familiar traps of much worse groups (see: Charlottesville). But with The Juggalo’s, they have found a “family” that is supportive and inclusive while the rest of society shuns their existence. Are there some bad apples? Oh yes. Are there some assholes? No doubt. Find me a fan base of any group that doesn’t have both.

The saying goes: Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.

Look, the only thing The Juggalo’s are collectively guilty of is bad taste.

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