REVIEW: Insane Clown Posse at the Hi-Fi

Everybody has things in their past you would never really guess. Things that are such a dim memory you nearly forget them yourself. For the year between my 14th and 15th birthdays, my favourite band was the Insane Clown Posse. I was a juggalo.

It’s rare that this comes up. Unlike a lot of the bands I listened to at that age I can’t remember any lyrics or song titles. They were something that came into my life suddenly, introduced to me by a kid named Jeremy who moved out to Mudgee from Sydney bringing all kinds of cool stuff. There were a group of us at school who were into ‘dark carnival’. We would quote lyrics at each other and managed to get their whole catalogue on our meager pocket money by buying an album each and getting our one friend with a CD burner to distribute copies to everyone. I used to draw the little ‘hatchet man’ logo and come up with plans to taste Faygo, the cheapo Detroit soda the band sang about.

These memories were crammed into the darkest corners of the back of my mind until it was announced earlier this year that ICP would be touring Australia. Once I heard this information there was only one conceivable course of action. I had to go. And so it was on Thursday night, I found myself successfully scamming my way into the Hi-fi in West End for a surreal experience I will try my best to relate to you.

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The highlight of the show was really before it started. Despite the early starting time, at 7pm there were hundreds of juggalos waiting to get in to the Hi-fi. There were loads of painted faces, ICP shirts, and a definite gender imbalance. The doors didn’t open on time, but people happily waited it out by singing lyrics together and chanting either “family!” or “whup whup!”. The queue stretched out for hundreds of metres around the block. Some guy came out onto his verandah to angrily complain to the venue management about the noise. Meanwhile patrons and staff of nearby establishments stared in open-mouthed astonishment. The feral face-painted masses had invaded Boundary Street.

I entered the venue to a crowd chanting “ICP! ICP!” in anticipation. The curtain opened to a huge cheer, and then there they were, bouncing around the stage. Two men in their 40s wearing black and white face-paint, truly living the Peter Pan dream of never growing up.

Within the opening couple of songs the first cases of soft drink appeared. They were shaken and sprayed into the crowd. ICP songs are about killing people and juggalos are on the FBI’s list of dangerous gangs, but honestly, face paint, confetti, and spraying soft drink? This had the vibe of a 12 year old’s birthday party.

In regards to the music the beats were pretty simple, accompanied by circus style keyboards or rap-rock crossover guitar. The lyrics were low on political correctness but high in stupidity, exploring themes involving murder, non-romantic sex, or both. Combined with the running imagery of religion, it created a truly bizarre mixture.

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But it didn’t really seem to be about the music, despite the fact a few people around me knew all the words and were dancing enthusiastically. It was more of a communal ritual – being with the “family” and getting drenched in the endless supply of soft drink sprayed into the crowd.

Violent J announced they would be playing their last song, “but there’s still lots of Faygo left”, which must have been a cue because when the song began people started rushing to the front of the stage and opening bottles. Soon there were fifty people on stage spraying the stuff around. I couldn’t possibly count how many bottles were emptied as box after box was brought out. People on stage were dancing, hugging, and soaked. It was an amazing sight.

The scene reminded me of another gig at the Hi-fi a couple of years ago – New York street punks The Casualties. At one point during the show there were more people on stage than in the audience. The Casualties use the same rhetoric of “family” and “us against the world”. They had a uniform– mohawks and patches, and the same simplistic music that seems more like a means to an end than an end in itself. One major difference is that the Casualties show was one of the most violent I have ever been to. I saw two people punched straight in the face in the pit. Tonight, at the ICP show, there is no hint of violence, and despite the audience being 80% male, no creepiness or harrassment of women that I could see. It really was just a big kid’s party.

At some point the band snuck off stage and left the delirious juggalos marinating in soft drink. The lights came up but nobody left, staying and chanting “fa-mi-ly! fa-mi-ly!” Soon enough security started to corral people out. Except the security guards, who had been standing at the stage, were completely doused in soft drink and covered in glitter; difficult circumstances under which to be intimidating.

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The crowd started moving out anyway, leaving the most bizarre sight – the front section of the Hi-fi was a massive pool of soft drink, ankle deep. One guy did a belly slide in it to big cheers, emerging fist-pumping. I had managed to avoid the soft drink geysers the whole night, but on the way out a lady came up to me saying “we’re family!” and hugged me, leaving a residue of sticky soda on the front of my shirt.

Outside the venue the joyful family vibe remained – more chanting, more “whup whup” (I don’t know what it means either), and overweight guys walking around with their shirts off. Like any good show at the Hi-fi the milling crowd blocked off the little side street and needed to be shepherded around by security. I hung around for a while, not really doing anything except soaking in the atmosphere, until it was only the dregs that remained.

The juggalo phenomenon is incredibly interesting. It would be easy to pick holes in it or make fun of them, but they bring up so many interesting questions. How did this whole cult develop? What binds these people together? Is it really just a crappy hip-hop group from the other side of the world? What do juggalos stand for?

There is a general anti-mainstream sentiment and occasionally something vaguely resembling a political idea in the lyrics, but that’s pretty hard to find amongst the cartoon violence and teenage-boy humour. There’s the religious theme, and maybe that’s it – like many religions it’s about personal transformation. ICP definitely engender the sense of self-empowerment some outsider sub-cultures produce. Maybe it really is like family, intangible but unquestionable bonds that tie you to other people for life. In a society lacking in community and connection, these wicked clowns fill a gap that people need.

However you see it, there is an enthralling and intoxicating energy to the whole thing. I see a lot of amazing bands regularly, who I would confidently claim are musically better than ICP. But it’s very rare that I leave a show feeling as happy as I did on Thursday night.

 – By Andrew Paine

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