Author Interviews
2:22 pm
Sat July 6, 2013

Finding Meaning In The Mosh Pit Among Often-Reviled Groupies

Originally published on Fri July 12, 2013 9:49 am

The bands Phish and Insane Clown Posse have spawned some of the most rabid fans in music history. Their world of obsession is not an easy one to break into, but on a warm December night in Miami back in 2009, pop culture writer Nathan Rabin went to see a concert that would inspire him to enter the orbit of these infamous groupies.

He wrote a book about them, You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me, and tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Sheir about his first-hand look at the two often-reviled sub-cultures.


Interview Highlights

On learning to understand the passion of Phish's devoted followers

"Going into the book, I had my own kind of preconception. I already had my own stereotypes, and over the process of writing this book, I think, one of the things that made the the journey that I went through was about rejecting irony and rejecting cynicism and rejecting snark.

"For example, the first year that I followed Phish — this was in 2010 — I followed them for eight, 10, 12 shows and I didn't get anything out of it. There was this barrier between me and this world that I wanted to be a part of, but I just didn't know my way in. And I remember looking at people dancing to, say, 'Boogie on Reggae Woman' — which is a cover they do of a Stevie Wonder song — and I remember the first time I heard it thinking, 'Ugh, this is just embarrassing. Middle-aged white men should not cover a song called "Boogie on Reggae Woman." '

"But the second year that I followed Phish, when I kind of let all that irony go, when I let all that critical distance go, I just found it to be unbelievably joyous. And I would look at people dancing at Phish shows and just feel like these are people who are overcome with joy and feel the need to express it. And it's both reductive and insulting and doing violence to the human spirit to look at that and just judge it and not just feel that sense of joy that permeates Phish shows."

On Insane Clown Posse's elevation of poverty

"There's also this kind of deification and romantization of poverty and a specific kind of poverty that I think is both really fun and refreshing, and also, I think, very liberating for poor kids who tend to be Insane Clown Posse's core demographic. if you grow up a latchkey kid and come from a broken family and don't have anything, you can't really relate to the Jay-Zs of the world but Insane Clown Posse, they kind of make it seem cool to be poor and reviled and one of the scrubs of life. I that I think is really really appealing and not just to kids and weirdos and outcasts the world over, but to me while was writing this book."

On the macabre aesthetic of Insane Clown Posse

"A lot of the Insane Clown Posse's imagery is very dark, is very disturbing and very violent, but the overall message of it is to lead a good life and to be good to your fellow person and to love thy fellow Juggalo [fans of Insane Clown Posse]. At the heart of it is basically this fundamental Judeo-Christian mythology to live a good life and you go to heaven — which they call Shangri-La — be a bad person, exploit other people, rip off the poor, you go to hell's pit."

On the significance of annual Insane Clown Posse gatherings

For 360 days, being a Juggalo makes them an outcast and makes them reviled and makes them a pariah. But four or five days of the year, being a Juggalo makes them the king of the world and everybody loves them and Insane Clown Posse is the most popular group in the world. It's this alternate universe they can escape into from the dreariness and the mundanity of everyday life. I feel like that's something that Phish and Insane Clown Posse both offer is this possibility of transcendence that is very rare in our culture.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

If you are just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Sheir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEIR: Back in 2009, on a warm December night in Miami, a pop culture writer named Nathan Rabin walked into an arena to see a concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEIR: For Rabin, it was the start of a two-year adventure as he followed around two of music's most divisive groups: this jam band Phish and a rap duo known as Insane Clown Posse. In time, Rabin would come to love both.

NATHAN RABIN: (Reading) But that first weekend, I held on to cynicism like a life preserver. I thought I needed it. I thought I needed my defenses. Time would prove me wrong. I wouldn't get anything of value out of travels until I let myself go, until I abandon and detach critical perspective and made a conscious decision to lose myself in the moment.

SHEIR: That's Nathan Rabin reading from his new book titled "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me." He says his motivation was partly anthropological as he sought to document both group's famously rabid fans. But it was also a personal pursuit inspired by, as he writes in his book, a girl - a girl with a history of Phish fandom.

So for Rabin, coming to love Phish, who some call the spiritual heir to the Grateful Dead's hippie following, well, that was one thing. But coming to love Insane Clown Posse, that was something else altogether.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEIR: Insane Clown Posse hails from Detroit and performs a kind of hardcore hip-pop known as horrorcore. ICP's fans are Juggalos. And the Juggalos adore Insane Clown Posse, so much so that two of ICP's albums have gone platinum. But, as Nathan Rabin points out, ICP's fans are way outnumbered by haters.

RABIN: They kind of have a reputation as the most hated band in the world.

SHEIR: But as abrasive as Insane Clown Posse can be, Rabin told me that by the end of his two years on the road, he'd come around.

RABIN: One of the many joyous, joyous surprises of writing this book is I came to really enjoy their music on a deep and ironic level. I mean, it's fun, it's enjoyable. There's this really goofy, really wild, really offbeat sense of humor that I really, really respond to. There's also this kind of deification and this romanticization of poverty and a specific kind of poverty that I think is both really fun and refreshing and also I think very liberating for poor kids who tend to be in the Insane Clown Posse's core demographic.

If you're - grew up a latchkey kid and you come from a broken family and you don't have anything, you know, you can't really relate to the Jay-Zs of the world. But, you know, Insane Clown Posse, they kind of make it seem cool to be poor and reviled and, you know, one of the scrubs of life.

And that, I think, is really, really appealing and not just to kids and weirdoes and outcasts the world over, but, I think, also to me while I was writing my book.

SHEIR: I want to hear more about the Phish fans.

RABIN: Yeah. There are a lot of different kinds of Phish fans. I think, you know, definitely going into the book, I had my own kind of preconceptions. I already had my own kind of stereotypes. And over the process of writing this book, I think one of the things that made the journey that I went through was about rejecting irony and rejecting cynicism and rejecting snark.

For example, the first year that I followed Phish - this was in 2010 - I followed them for eight, 10, 12 shows, and I didn't get anything out of it. There was like this barrier between me and this world that I wanted to be a part of, but I just didn't know my way in. And I remember, like, looking at people dancing to, say, "Boogie on Reggae Woman," which is a cover they do of a Stevie Wonder song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE ON REGGAE WOMAN")

PHISH: (Singing) So boogie on reggae woman, what you trying to do...

RABIN: And I remember the first time I heard it, I'm just thinking, like, oh, this is just embarrassing. Middle-aged white men should not cover a song called "Boogie on Reggae Woman." But the second year that I followed Phish, when I kind of let all that irony and let all that critical distance go, I just found it to be unbelievably joyous.

And I would look at people dancing at Phish shows and just feel like these are people who are overcome with joy and feel the need to express it. And it's both reductive and insulting and, you know, doing violence to the human spirit to look at that and just judge it and not just feel that sense of joy that permeates Phish shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOOGIE ON REGGAE WOMAN")

PHISH: (Singing) boogie on reggae woman, what you trying to do...

SHEIR: On the flip side, Insane Clown Posse. There are bright things but also there's a dark side to Insane Clown Posse. It's a group that's been associated with a lot of violence. You recount some of that in the book. Can you tell us what that was like?

RABIN: A lot of the Insane Clown Posse's imagery is very dark. It's very disturbing, it's very violent. But the overall message of it is to lead a good life and to be good to your fellow person and to love thy fellow Juggalo. And, you know, at the heart of it is basically this fundamental Judeo-Christian mythology: to live a good life and you go to heaven - which they call Shangri-La - be a bad person, exploit other people, rip off the poor, then you go to hell's pit.

And at the Gathering, there is a confrontational aspect. And there's always that capacity at the Gathering that something really dark will happen and that if the rules of men are suspended for four or five days, as they often are, bad things will happen. But I think bad things are going to happen at any festival, especially a festival where there are 14,000 people, like, very little oversight, very little security.

But there's also a lot of light at the Gathering. You know, there are also a lot of people who are just having the most ecstatic time of their life. There are also people who have really difficult, really painful lives who, like, you know, for 360 days being a Juggalo makes them an outcast and makes them reviled and makes them a pariah and for four or five days of the year, being a Juggalo makes them, you know, the king of the world and everybody loves them, Insane Clown Posse is the most popular group in the world.

It's this alternate universe they can escape into from, you know, the dreariness and the mundanity of everyday life. And I feel like that's something that Phish and Insane Clown Posse both offer is this possibility for transcendence that is very rare in our culture.

SHEIR: That's pop culture critic Nathan Rabin. He's the author of the new book called "You Don't Know Me But You Don't Like Me" about his years following the bands Phish and Insane Clown Posse. Thanks so much for joining us, Nathan.

RABIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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