Gathering of the Journalos: The Lessons of Tila Tequila
The music festival known as the Gathering of the Juggalos took place in Cave-in-Rock, Illinois this past weekend. You might have heard about this otherwise non-event because Tila Tequila, a celebrity who is famous for being a celebrity, was pelted with rocks, water bottles filled with urine, a bag of chicken tenderloin, and even human feces during her rap performance. Tequila persevered at first but the show was cut short. Security guards escorted her offstage, her face covered in blood, her breasts still exposed from a last-ditch attempt at pacifying the crowd.
The Village Voice‘s Camille Dodero, a fantastic journalist and a friend of mine, was there in person and reported out the whole thing, down to how the attack appears to have been premeditated on Juggalo message boards. “Everybody that comes — they know where they’re going and they know who they’re performing for,” said Violent J, a member of the Insane Clown Posse, at a public forum afterwards. He said he felt bad for Tequila, and wished the Juggalos “wouldn’t throw the shit, man.” In a different situation Shaggy 2 Dope, the other ICP rapper, joked, “I’ll throw my dick at her.” Tequila intends to sue the festival organizers.
The Juggalos are devotees of the Insane Clown Posse, a manic-depressive “horrorcore” rap troupe from Michigan that, like Camus’s Meursault, proudly refers to itself as “the most hated band in the world.” Both the band and the fans are a marginalized slash self-marginalizing populace, which is canny and preemptive. It’s a way to elude criticism from the mainstream, i.e. people who are not Juggalos. The mainstream never understood Juggalos in the first place, which is why there are Juggalos in the second place, and so on.
Despite the particulars, the Gathering is your standard outdoor drugs-tits-tents debauchery type deal, with a sidestage repertoire not unlike ones at Woodstocks and Bonnaroos and Phish concerts. I receive a now yearly email from a friend who insists the Gathering is due for a “full-on New Yorker-style” treatment — ”the Juggalos are our country’s last viable subculture” — but I don’t see deeper meaning here. Like any bacchanalia, the Gathering is a psychic exhaust pipe, a break from self-awareness, a last stand on the world’s complete indifference to you. At best this festival, now eleven years in, has the added charm of being the only place and time where Juggalos believe they enjoy complete acceptance. You hear the cheer “Fa-Mi-Ly” a lot at this thing apparently — right up there with “Show Your Tits.”
Insane Clown Posse, whose fans decode their every move and lyric in search of messianic messages and truths to live by, are always the Gathering’s main headliner. Subsidiary bands on ICP’s label Psychopathic Records provide the necessary ramp-up to the big event, and since the third Gathering, festival organizers have invited musical acts and comedians just outside the Juggalo sweet spot to perform, too: forgotten rappers like Coolio, Bushwick Bill, Killah Priest, Ice-T, and Vanilla Ice. Many of them work out fine; others just don’t. At the height of his popularity, the emotive white Southern rapper Bubba Sparxxx was booed off the stage so memorably that there is now an unofficial Bubba Sparxxx Award, given to the artist who just can’t handle the abuse.
The Juggalos turned it into a game, in other words: heckling, booing, throwing things at the guest artists, trying to get them to break. There is an element of role reversal — the bullied are now the bullies — but again, there’s this self-preservational aspect, too. Nobody forced the artist to appear on stage. The artist knew upfront he was about to sit in a snake pit. Why is he surprised he got bit?
(The festival pays well, I’m told: a lesser-known New York comedian was supposedly given $5000 for his appearance this year, so you can imagine what the bigger snake-pit acts like Lil Kim or Tom Green pulled.)
For musicians and comedians who believe their art has some kind of transcendental appeal that can reach even the darkest, most compromised corners of humanity, an invite to the Gathering is an interesting dare. I’m reminded of a very important scene in the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, when Pee-Wee is at a private biker bar and knocks over a long row of motorcycles outside. The bikers intend to kill him for this mistake. Before that they grant Pee-Wee one last request. Pee-Wee queues up the jukebox, assembles himself on top of a table, and when the song comes on, he does that goofy dance he does. The bikers’ anger melts away. All is forgiven. They are so moved they even let him borrow one of their motorcycles to continue on his journey. (The song Pee-Wee played was the instrumental rock tune “Tequila,” by one-hit wonder the Champs.)
So I can see why Tila Tequila might have thought she had a fighting chance at this thing. Leading up to the Gathering, she was not exactly well loved. When her fiance Casey Johnson died from diabetes complications this past January, the gossip world didn’t take well to Tequila’s stunt-like grieving — twittering constantly, keeping the spotlight on herself at all costs. The petite Singaporean-born 28-year-old is a very modern celebrity, in that her most notable achievement is that she became a celebrity. She peaked with a two-season stint as host of her own reality show, but the world was done being kind with her after that. When she took the Gathering gig, maybe she was in fact “down with the Juggalos,” a camaraderie shared in both feeling hated.
And yet just as clearly, here was a woman who represented the complete opposite path that any self-respectingly self-pitying Juggalo would take. Far from sticking to her guns as an outcast, a reject, Tequila disavowed herself completely, to the point of being a cipher. She rapped, she acted. She modeled, she was your whatever you want. She wanted to be loved in a way that no Juggalo ever wants to be loved. Scorn for her made more sense than for any other Gathering guest act prior. The justification would be twisted (or “twiztid”), but still, Tequila was a Judas figure. How dare she turn her back on the rest of us losers?
Granted, I don’t think any of that was going through the heads of these rock-throwing dread-and-circus hooligans. The ignobile vulgus doesn’t have the best track record, especially when on PCP. And yet every side of this ordeal walks away with exactly what they wanted in the first place. Tequila has undergone a biblical amount of hatred. The fame whore was publicly stoned. This is real pain, and beyond the immediate bump in public interest, she now has something the public might validly point to as a jumpoff for real, transportive artmaking. She has sublimated herself, or at least has made herself seem sympathetic, which is not a bad spot for her. Tequila accepted the Juggalo dare and, with the right producer and ghostwriter and PR blitz, might catch that second wind she needs.
And beyond the taste of blood, the Juggalos enjoy a renewed sense of their misfitry — reveling in the public’s distaste for more or less everything about them. Which strongly ties into the walkaway for the journalists who covered the event, or who are processing it from afar, or who hope next year they can convince an editor that there is a real David Foster Wallace type story to tell here.
Because usually there is no story to tell here, or not one that’s remotely objective. There is a funny story, one that involves recounting the absurd goings-on in a cold and effectively detached manner, letting these people explain themselves, i.e. letting them make fools of themselves. There is the Attempt To Sympathize story for the Gathering, wherein one tries hard to understand Juggalos from their point of view but ultimately can’t because he can never shake the very ‘objective’ reason for wanting to write the piece in the first place, which is strong evidence, even before arriving on site, that the emperor/clown prince wears no clothes. There is the Contrarian Case for this story, building off of Jonah Weiner’s argument that ICP is more self-aware than we give them credit, more deliberately funny, though in the case of the Gathering, I suspect that would involve a complicated crab walk along the mobius strip of new criticism. No observation comes without equal consequence to the observed — but there are exceptions, and Juggalos might be one of them. This subculture is a black hole that, if it is to continue existing, must devour all our attempts at trying to understand it. Including this one.