There aren’t many comparisons in American history for Thursday’s press conference in which Donald Trump suggested that the coronavirus might be defeated by shining lights inside human beings or injecting people with disinfectant. But there is the song “Miracles,” by Insane Clown Posse. In the much-memed rap-rock track that turned 10 years old this month, the makeup-caked tough guys Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope wonder, “Fucking magnets, how do they work?” before adding, “And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist.” They also express bafflement at giraffes and hot lava. What mattered in the song, as with Trump’s statement, was not the easily attainable truth underlying the mysteries. The point was in daring to ask the questions at all.
Really, I’m being unfair to “Miracles,” which expressed the sort of wonder-filled humility that Trump never pulls off. Insane Clown Posse, the vulgar Detroit duo whose super-devoted fans call themselves “Juggalos,” had already been in the news last week for canceling its legendary annual Gathering of the Juggalos (scheduled for August) because of COVID-19. Quickly, internet commentators crowed that the band that once rapped “I’m a circus ninja southwest voodoo wizard” was, as The Independent’s headline put it, “being more responsible about coronavirus than Trump.” It’s just the latest example that the portrayals of the president as a clown only end up insulting actual clowns, who probably don’t deserve the abuse. It’s also a sign that Insane Clown Posse is among the few cultural leaders who know that the pandemic-era role they should play is, simply, to tend to the community they’ve built.
There’s no great shock about any mass gathering getting canceled at this point in the pandemic, but each thwarted soiree signals a different aspect of the virus’s societal toll. South by Southwest’s early demise felt like a sign that isolation could throw cold water on the economy, especially for the creative industries. Coachella’s postponement represented a blow to big-tent pop culture. The Gathering of the Juggalos’ collapse conjures something else—the crisis’s disruption of subcultures for which belonging and togetherness can’t be taken for granted.
Around the time when a 17-minute trailer for the gathering went viral in 2010, it became habit for documentary filmmakers and prestigious essayists to parachute into the bacchanal. The commonly gleaned insights have become familiar. The Juggalos phenomenon on some level reacts to economic, geographic, and psychological marginalization; adherents (many but not all of them poor and white) speak of the gathering as refuge from trauma, rejection, and condescension. Of course, the community contains multitudes: When its members spray soft drinks at one another or throw junk at the stage, they are on some level making sport of labels such as trash and low class. Instances of violence by some fans have led to the FBI designating the Juggalos as a gang; an ICP march on Washington in 2017 protested that designation as prejudiced and stigmatizing.
In quarantine, shut out from such Gathering of the Juggalos delicacies such as Faygo showers and Lake Hepatitis, what’s a Juggalo to do? The answer is probably going to be similar to the one that members of any given aesthetic subculture might give, whether the example is drag queens or debutantes. You carry on with the dress-up when in need of a pick-me-up. You try to stay connected with your chosen family, online. You trust that your leaders are going to help rally you in that effort.
On that last count, Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope have delivered. There are pandemic-era cooking videos (“Shaggy Goes HAM on Ham!”). There’s a new Cameo-like app on which fans can (albeit for a fee) commission shout-outs from Violent J, Shaggy 2 Dope, and other band affiliates. ICP has donated band T-shirts to be repurposed as masks. It’s put together a pandemic-themed playlist to help keep the party rolling. And it’s canceled the all-important gathering with a heartfelt-seeming note emphasizing the community’s safety. “The bottom line is simply that we REFUSE to risk even ONE Juggalo life by hosting a Gathering during these troubling times,” the band’s announcement reads. The message is simple: You cannot have a carnival of carnage without healthy carnies.
Leaders elsewhere in both culture and politics have tried to maintain their prominence while telegraphing more ambivalence toward the general welfare—by, say, touting dangerous and/or unproven treatments to the coronavirus. Many celebs have turned out to only annoy and inflame during this crisis by flaunting wealth while asking for donations, preaching what they don’t practice, or just openly lusting for attention. All that most people need from their figureheads, clownish and otherwise, is the level of concern that ICP imparts on the first song of its quarantine playlist. “Watch your step, take it easy / You can’t replace what you mean to me,” goes the chorus of the song “Be Safe.” “Without you, tell me where the fuck I’d be.”