switched on pop

The Beauty and the Horror of Insane Clown Posse’s Gathering of the Juggalos

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

For more than 20 years, Insane Clown Posse has convened an annual festival known as much for its mayhem as its music, and in just a few days, this year’s Gathering of the Juggalos will kick off its 2021 edition in Ohio. ICP’s songs are hyperviolent and profane; their stage show features grotesque clown makeup and blasting the audience with their favorite drink, Faygo soda. They’ve even filed (and lost) lawsuits against the government to stop the FBI from designating their fandom — said Juggalos — as a loosely organized gang.

Musically, mainstream critics have rejected them: The Guardian has called ICP “a magnet for ignorance” and Blender once ranked them No. 1 on its list of the 50 Worst Artists in Music History. But Switched on Pop host Nate Sloan became fascinated with Insane Clown Posse after watching the 2011 documentary American Juggalo, a film that helped him realize there’s more to the group and its fans than he previously thought.

For the second episode of our summer-festival series, we dig into the sound of Insane Clown Posse to ask, Is their music really as bad and offensive as all the critics say, and what’s the public missing that ICP’s fans are hearing? To find out, Nate Sloan asked someone who knows firsthand: journalist Nathan Rabin, the author of two books on ICP and a Juggalo convert.

Here’s an excerpt from that interview, with the full audio below.

You became interested in ICP and Juggalo culture as a disinterested reporter, or maybe even as a slightly biased reporter. Now, you’ve come to embrace this band — from ironically to unironically. What broke you down and turned you from a dismissive observer into an enthusiastic participant?
When I started writing about Insane Clown Posse, the scope of the book and the title of it was going to be Confessions of a Pop-Culture Masochist. The idea was that I would be this hipster, with-it guy from The Onion going to cast a snarky judgment on all of these weirdos. I went in being like, Maybe this will be scary. Maybe these people will beat me. There was a threatening, angry aura about it. And instead, it was the exact opposite.

These people were having the best time of their lives, and they’d rather be at the Gathering than anywhere else in the world. People are very accepting, and there’s also — there’s a sentimentality to ICP that people don’t necessarily expect. The theme of this year’s Gathering is “Luv rises from the ash like the butterfly.”

Not what you would expect from the most hated band in the world. A lot of people judge Juggalos without really knowing anything about them. I was one of those people and then I had to experience it myself in order to have a richer understanding of what the whole scene is about.

Let’s talk a little bit about the music of ICP. Is there one song that has pride of place at the Gathering of the Juggalos, that captures the spirit of the event and that fans look forward to every year? And if so, why does it resonate with people? 
The music of Insane Clown Posse was designed to be performed live. It’s not necessarily headphones music. The idea is you sing these songs out loud with your friends, and you celebrate being there, you celebrate being together, you celebrate being outsiders. And if I had to say one song, it’s probably “Down With the Clown.”

Violent J [one-half of ICP, alongside Shaggy 2 Dope] has a great line: “The colder it is on the outside, the warmer it is on the inside,” and it is never warmer than it is at the Gathering of the Juggalos “Down With the Clown.”

Why did Faygo soda become a staple of Juggalo culture, and why does this soft drink mean so much to Juggalos?
Part of the whole aesthetic of ICP and the Gathering is to romanticize being broke and to romanticize being poor and to romanticize just barely getting by. The whole embrace of Faygo is fetishizing things that are cheap. [Plus, Faygo and the ICP are both from Detroit.] It’s much cheaper than Coca-Cola. It’s much cheaper than Pepsi. It’s got crazy colors and flavors like Redpop and Moon Mist and all of these different things. I think that’s also part of the Gathering, that you’re getting to experience your childhood again but only the good parts and at a place where being an outsider is cool and accepted and not something to be ashamed of.

On your most recent trip to the Gathering, you wrote, “The Gathering of the Juggalos is still a cesspool of depravity, of nakedness and open drug use and gleeful profanity, but it has become a very nice cesspool of depravity. It is defined as much by its sincerity as its hedonism. It’s a rare open space for men, scraggly, bearded, manly men, to express love and appreciation for other men … without fear of being judged soft or weak.” I love that description. But it also makes me wonder who can be part of this community. Is it just men? Is it just white people? Which seem to be the majority of the fans. When Tila Tequila performed in 2010, she was harassed and physically abused by fans. Juggalos have even been classified as a loosely organized gang by the FBI.
I think people go to the Gathering expecting something crazy and hostile, and they find something much different and much more accepting. I mean, part of me is just sort of bracing myself and hoping for the best, but I also have been very happy to see that the vibe has changed considerably over the last 11 years or so.

I think Juggalos have grown up. I think ICP has grown up. They’re less about shock and transgression and more about being responsible fathers of the subculture and to these people who look to them for a community. I can’t imagine a Tila Tequila incident happening today.

I think this is also a space where there are a lot of badass female Juggalos who confidently assert their space. And I feel like it definitely has become less leering, less pervy. More family oriented and a lot more diverse than people necessarily think. There are a lot more, uh, Juggalos of color.

There are not a lot of disabled Juggalos, which is telling because Gathering is great, but it’s not terribly wheelchair accessible. And there are also a lot more queer Juggalos than people might expect. And also, Juggalos are not gang members. Despite what the FBI might say, they’ve been very misunderstood.

What do you think other music festivals could learn from the Gathering of the Juggalos?
For a band that are very good businessmen, there’s kind of a nicely anti-capitalist streak going through pretty much everything Insane Clown Posse does, including the Gathering of the Juggalos.

The Beauty and the Horror of the Gathering of the Juggalos