Essay: Paper Men

“All societies end up wearing masks.”
(Jean Baudrillard, “America” 1989)

What’s not to love about middle-aged men from rough neighbourhoods in Detroit painting their faces like mimes and comically rapping about cartoon violence, whilst dousing their audience in fizzy pop? I am referring to Horrorcore rappers, “Insane Clown Posse”, “Twiztid” and the many other musicians connected with Insane Clown Posse’s record label, “Psychopathic”. For the past twenty years this niche genre has been growing a subculture with followers numbering in the hundreds of thousands. These followers self-identify as “Juggalos” (male) or “Juggalettes” (female) and collectively call each other “Family”. I have started making art about Juggalos.

I’m increasingly interested in cultural heirarchies and, in the vein of theorist Roland Barthes, I’m especially curious about the cultural mythologies societies subscribe to. In a new departure, my attention has turned away from landscape painting toward portraits and away from Britain toward the USA; the global “Superpower”, arguably the furthest-reaching, most powerful cultural influence in the world and, famously, the greatest assimilator of every other culture on Earth. Aside from a fantastic new aesthetic to work with, Juggalo subculture has provided me with a particular insight into American social self-perception.

When I stumbled across the existence of Juggalos on the internet last year I found the whole idea so absurd I couldn’t leave it alone. Subjected to almost universal ridicule online, and seemingly a point of marked embarrassment for American society at large, Juggalos in many ways represent the “paradoxical idea of a realised utopia” that theorist Jean Baudrillard describes in his book, America. They are a product of an affluent consumerist society and they are the rejection of that society, operating in a manner similar to that of the “subaltern” of post-colonial theory.

Treated with contempt and subject of much derision, Juggalos are also feared and discriminated against. Somewhat controversially in 2011 the FBI classified them as a gang. As an outsider this seems a truly bizarre turn of events, why would the FBI have taken the unprecedented step of putting what is essentially a group of music fans on a watch list? Perhaps it’s indicative of the current Zeitgeist – Juggalos are seen as “other” by the cultural hedgemony, or perhaps it has come about simply by virtue of the fact Juggalos are members of a particularly outrageous subculture.

“[S]pectacular subcultures express forbidden contents (consciousness of class, consciousness of difference) in forbidden forms (transgressions of sartorial and behavioural codes, law breaking, etc.) They are profane articulations, and they are often and significantly defined as ‘unnatural’. The terms used in the tabloid press to describe those youngsters, who, in their conduct or clothing, proclaim subcultural membership (‘freaks’, ‘animals… who find courage, like rats, hunting in packs’) would seem to suggest that the most primitive anxieties concerning the sacred distinction between nature and culture can be summoned up by the emergence of such a group.”
(Dick Hebdidge, “Subculture:The Meaning of Style”, 1979)

After a number of months researching my new subject matter I find, unlike a gang (which implies uniformity, a primary objective of organised criminal behaviour, and conditional membership) there is no singular universal code of Juggalo behaviour or dress. There is no rulebook, no initiation and there are no rites of passage; it has even been stated that liking the music is not actually a prerequisite. The basic, consistent, ideology is of being true to one’s self, whatever that might mean. That said, there are commonalities such as a pervasive dark humour and a vested interest in hedonism, and – although there are Juggalos from all walks of life – the majority self-identify as misfits or outcasts and come from backgrounds of poverty and domestic difficulty.

“Juggalos wear their own marginalization and disempowerment from American consumer society (the “mainstream,”) as a badge of honor. In a fashion, Juggalo fan culture represents an alternative community where you don’t need to be embarrassed that your family drinks off-brand, cut-rate regional colas—instead, you baptize yourself in Faygo. Ours is a consumer culture that routinely communicates to working class, rural, and poor people that they are dumb, ugly, ridiculous and “trashy” …and then commodifies their tastes and fashions…”
(Michael Dwyer, “The American Realness of Juggalos”,2013)

Juggalo culture is a tasteless, explicit, gaudy, and shocking sensory overload. This runs in tandem with a more subtle complexity, wit, integrity, and a certain poetic melancholy. There is social critique in abundance and there is a healthy sense of empowerment of otherwise disenfranchised people; there is a strong theme of tolerance for other demographics perceived to be marginalised, and at the same time a particular brand of sexism and violence. Are Juggalos a bastion of American machismo? Are they the last-stand victims of open class-discrimination in America’s burgeoning era of political correctness? Are they Baudrillard’s simulacra manifest in human form? Or are they just a bunch of kids from Midwest “Rust Belt” towns with an axe to grind?

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