Plain Jane in the membrane

Lots of things look different on paper. The new puppy's errors in judgment, for one thing. Another was the Insane Clown Posse's show at the Bronco Bowl last Friday, February 27.

On paper, it read like one of the more interesting concerts this year. ICP is a Detroit-spawned rap group composed of two MCs: Violent J (Joseph Bruce, 25, the stocky clown with blonde dreadlocks) and Shaggy 2 Dope (Joseph Ultser, 22, the skinny one). Although they've been together since 1991, they burst upon the public consciousness last year when Disney-owned Hollywood Records signed the duo and put out their fourth full-length album, The Great Milenko, apparently without ever listening to them. Disney dropped the act the same day Milenko was released in reaction to a cry raised by the Southern Baptists (among others), who didn't care for ICP's lyric tendency toward death, dismemberment, damnation, and unfriendly sex with fat girls.

That, of course, was all it took for ICP to make national news, which is often all it takes for a band to break big. It was enough for the Clowns. They re-signed with Island, which re-released a restored Milenko (Disney had nixed three cuts), and hit the road. ICP shows have been described as "thematic riots," and they've been banned from many clubs. J and 2 Dope--performing in their black and white clowns-from-the-circus-of-the-damned greasepaint--have had eyes blackened and fingers cracked, and received numerous other injuries (Violent J has had dreadlocks pulled out of his scalp) at the hands of overzealous fans. The entire ICP entourage seems constitutionally unable to make it more than a day or two without getting into some sort of altercation, most recently a sprawling post-show melee in the parking lot of a pancake house in "Butt Lick," Indiana, that resulted in the whole crew being jailed. (A quick perusal of an Indiana map reveals no town named Butt Lick, although a park in nearby Kentucky sports the even better name of Big Bone Lick.)

So there you have it, on paper at least: a portentous combination of threatening bad-boy imagery that frightens parents and enthralls kids, the possibility of anything happening, along with danger, mayhem, and a general adventure in the erosion of core social values--everything rock and roll used to be about. From many angles ICP was a show as ominous as the riot-plagued Guns 'N Roses tour that staggered into Dallas in 1991.

At least this show started on time. In every other way, ICP's gig was just as big a let-down as the G'NR show, which seemed as ominous--prior to the fact--as an SS panzer division appearing on the horizon and ended up a rather ordinary affair.

Ditto the clowns. Their music takes a healthy dose of blue-collar Midwestern attitude--"whaddafuck you lookin' at?"--and pairs it with horror-movie imagery supporting a malevolent cosmology called the Dark Carnival, which promises impending judgment for all mankind. Yay. ICP has many marketable things going for it--a real sense of outsider-ism (only seven stations in America play their songs; they had to buy time on MTV to air their self-made documentary) and an attention-grabbing style that creates an almost-self-perpetuating vortex of hype. But at the Bronco Bowl Friday night, all it amounted to was one average, anticlimactic night of Xeroxed rap.

The crowd was young and evenly distributed between the curious, the believers, the style counselors, and the kids. They sent up a mighty cloud of what was mostly--and surprisingly--cigarette smoke. Almost lily-white, the audience was at the same time lacking in whiggers and wannabes, as if this was one of those shows where it didn't pay to play black. (By the same token, last summer's Starplex show by the Artist [Formerly Known as Prince] was infested by Caucasians being "down"--saying "yo" and "boy-ee" and generally making asses of themselves.) The floor crowd was suitably (but not stunningly) into it, able to get the first 10 or so rows into unconsciously coordinated mass reaction--hopping up and down, waving their hands in the air--but unable to take it any further or higher. Stage-diving proceeded at a credible, but by no means extraordinary, rate. Behind the stage-front wall of the faithful, a clear spot formed by bulky morons crashing into each other moved about like an erratic hurricane system.

Fans took the trouble to duplicate the face paint of their heroes, but weren't putting in the two-plus hours that Midwestern diehards are known for; here, those who bothered were more lackadaisical--using two colors seemed the limits of their devotion. The stage was a haunted house-style living room, full of skewed angles a la The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it didn't really connect with a story line.

The essentials of rap and hip-hop are--visually--pretty boring: a guy with a mike, and a guy with a turntable or some other kind of machine. The Clowns know this and compensate for it not only by presenting the entire mythic Dark Carnival superstructure, but also by using extras on stage in other roles--wearing hokey rubber masks and playing zombie, or dressing up in standard red-wig "happy clown" outfits and capering about. It could be a nice touch, but ICP was too off-the-cuff: Often the clowns hadn't even bothered to zip up the backs of their floppy-shoed outfits, and everybody knows a rubber mask takes about three seconds to put on. The mask's smell was no doubt more frightening than its appearance. The one scene in which the lights suddenly come up on a darkened stage--revealing the mask-wearers in various poses of menace, aimed at the audience--was laughable. You could almost imagine the reaction of SCTV's Count Floyd: "Oooooh, kids--scary!"  

J and 2 Dope employ a vocal style that reminds you of an enraged and possibly psychopathic drunk arguing with a mailbox. The pair rapped along the edge of the stage from one end to the other as they alternated lines on songs like "Piggy Pie" ("This little piggy, his house was made of brick/and this little piggy was a motherfuckin' dick"), well-constructed but hollow songs that took the audience to the realm of "their money's worth" and no higher. There were moments, however, when things--the band, the crowd, the link between them--seemed about to jell. The building momentum behind the story of urban frustration in "How Many Times" ("How many times will you honk your horn and say 'Fuck you?'/Now what the fuck does that do?/You feel better now? You didn't let me pass?/How 'bout I stop my car and beat your fucking ass?") featured J standing alone beneath a single spot that made his makeup and toothy grimace the stuff of nightmares and his impending meltdown very real. "House of Horrors," creepily resonant with its "Comes from a thin man" chorus, also strained to take the crowd further. But finally it fell back into the any-beat'll-do anonymity of songs like the Christmas reprise of "Santa Claus is a Fat Bitch," a number memorable for the blunt profanity of its title and little else.

The distribution of Faygo, however, was a fascinating thing to watch. Faygo is a soft drink native to Detroit that sells for 60 cents per two-liter bottle--cheaper than that bright-blue windshield wiper detergent. To ICP and their everyman legions (called juggallos) Faygo is a universal solvent, and the band dispenses hundreds of gallons of the stuff at each appearance by throwing it on the crowd. At shows closer to the group's rust-belt home turf, the crowds bring even more Faygo themselves, but in Dallas--as with the face painting--a more casual attitude prevailed.

Still, the amount of multi-hued soda (J and 2 Dope avoid red because it stains) dispensed from the stage was a mighty thing. The two rappers--dreads flying--were almost constantly going back and forth between the edge of the stage and two large misshapen doors at stage right and left. The one looked like it could be a closet or armoire door; the other, a refrigerator. The doors opened to reveal vast stacks of Faygo, which the pair opened as they returned to the crowd. Violent J in particular had a unique way of putting the two-liter bottle under his arm--holding it fast against his body as he twisted the top off--that resulted in about half of the sticky liquid splashing on him. The rest would be thrown at the audience, usually followed by the bottle.

They worked constantly, like ants, darting back and forth. At times it complemented their rapping--the Faygo-droplets-and-rhythmic-strobe effect could be quite striking--but more often it was kind of distracting, like listening to someone who's trying to open a stubborn jar of peanut butter while they're talking to you. Both men were soon drenched and dripping with cheap, artificially colored sugar water. At first the Faygo they were hurling didn't seem to have any effect on the front rows and the moshers, but gradually the packed, bobbing bodies began to glisten.

That was when there was this glimmer of a moment--the way that the rappers affected the audience immediately, and how the crowd begged for more, both of them sensing it--that could have lifted the whole thing to that next level. That's where you might justify all the misogyny and violent imagery, where you could accept the deeper message that 2 Dope and J claim lies beneath the surface of what everybody else dismisses as dumbass party music. Unfortunately, the pre-recorded tracks the two were rapping over plowed on unheeding, and it was gone; things fell back into just-another-show. More Faygo was dispensed in ejaculatory pulses, whipped out in violent arcs, and propelled in gouts over the crowd. When the sound technicians suddenly covered their mixing board with a plastic sheet, even the people above the floor of the Bronco Bowl--previously out of range--perked up.  

Yes, it was time for the Faygo guns, basically giant hypodermics about three feet long that were filled out of big plastic vats. The entire ICP retinue came out wielding at least one each; their range was in excess of 50 feet, dramatically expanding the Faygo-drenched circle of fans. Faygo, Faygo, everywhere. As the rest of the entourage left the stage, four clowns heaved the liquid remaining in the vats onto the audience, and it was hard not to think--in the best Motor City tradition--enough with the fucking Faygo already.

That was ICP's major flaw: their willingness to hit you, over and over again, until you're numb--the Faygo, the violence, the f-word, the aggression, the beats. Without something to tie them together, ICP only holds the interest for so long, and even in terms of just-a-show, you can do better. Alice Cooper is obviously a big influence on 2 Dope and J; they said as much Friday night when a brief sampled snippet of "Only Women Bleed" surfaced for a second before submerging again. (Cooper started out as a guest star on an early album, but now disses the band in interviews.) ICP has a long way to go before they can match Cooper's early-'70s theatrical heyday, but that's ground they've got to cover if their music stays as uninteresting as it was on Friday. Otherwise, they'll stay a crude novelty act, a unique case of musical Tourette's Syndrome.

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