ICP: RIP, Part 2

This is the second installment of a three-part essay. Part 1 can be found here; Part 3 is here.

In recent years I’ve watched the reemergence of Weird Al Yankovic with a bewilderment bordering on irritation. As a child, I always responded to his music with something like a feral baring of teeth; he was the kind of goof I spent my childhood trying to maim with dodgeballs. (It saddens me to admit that I was that kid whose popularity, looks, athleticism and cruelty peaked in the sixth grade; every day since has been a slow slide into mediocrity and tolerance.) I was secretly glad to see Weird Al’s career wane. And for most of the 21st century, he stayed out of sight, excluding the occasional appearance on VH1’s I Love The 90s.

Then, one night at a party in Brooklyn, I made a joke about a friend having been the president of his local Weird Al fan club, and easily half of the room turned on me with daggers in their bespectacled eyes. Some time in the interim, it seems, almost every person I knew had become hugely and unironically nostalgic for the genius of Bad Hair Day. Many, many of my friends know every word t0 “Amish Paradise” but can’t even remember Coolio’s name. I have since heard Weird Al praised for his lyrical deftness on all of my favorite comedy podcasts (Comedy Death Ray, WTF w/Marc Maron, The Pop Culture Happy Hour) by people who are much too old to have ever listened to him as pre-teens. However, by and large the praise I hear for Weird Al seems to be markedly past tense and un-theoretical, spoken through the fog of childhood memory.

Alongside this Clinton-era revivification has been another, much more public one: that of Eminem, who has returned to prominence by burrowing deeper into the depths of his blue collar, dry-drunk rage. Gone is the TRL-baiting jester of old; his hair is dark now, his cheeks sunken. His new flow seems stuck in a low gear of perpetual, monotone shouting, and his lyrical wordplay is about as playful as a pet vulture. When he collected his Grammy this month, Mathers—the man who once jokingly dropped a handful of Vicodins on stage while digging around for his acceptance speech at the VMAs—didn’t crack a joke, or even a smile.

Even if I no longer enjoy his music, something about Eminem’s comeback is historically satisfying; it’s as if B-Rabbit, Mathers’ semi-autobiographical character from 8 Mile, had walked off down that darkened alley and, rather than getting a peroxide dye-job and starting beefs with a succession of ex-Mouseketeers, instead chose to spend the next decade making music that his co-workers at the auto plant would enjoy. Weird Al has gone in the opposite direction, pulling in gigs and guest-spots by remaining anachronistically stuck in the comedic sensibility of his heyday—in other words, by stubbornly remaining the person his fans so fondly remember.

I don’t begrudge people the masturbatory pleasures of snuggling up in the flannelly warmth of former musical crushes. Early adolescence is that magical time when we have a burning passion for music, but almost no critical faculties with which to judge it. Of course we would form our most searing—and most embarrassing—artistic attachments then. What doesn’t make sense to me, though, is why the Insane Clown Posse, who lie somewhere dead smack between the twin poles of Weird Al and Slim Shady on the artistic/comedic spectrum of adolescent nostalgia, at the very moment that these two re-ascend, has fallen so hard.

******

It was a lovely day, the first time I heard ICP. The sun was bright, and the suburbs were shining. Grasshoppers and lawn mowers thrummed against my bedroom windows. It was the summer of 1996, and I had just returned from the local record store, where I had impulsively picked up ICP’s third LP, Riddle Box, because I thought the cover art looked cool. (It depicted a kind of deranged, forked-tongued Grateful Dead Bear jumping out of a music box. (I was 11.)) I remember slipping the CD into my stereo, hitting play, and then quickly ejecting the disc, because what issued forth from my speakers—an introductory skit in which a man dies in a car accident and then is asked, by a demonically cheerful voice, to turn the crank of the riddle box to find out his fate—was the single scariest thing I’d ever heard on a record. I didn’t even make it to the skit’s ear-splitting conclusion (a form of artistic cruelty I now put on par only with the dumpster-monster scene in Mulholland Drive). I shuddered, tossed the CD case under my bed and went outside to play.

On a second listen through, weeks later, lying in bed with my Discman, I skipped the intro track, and what I found was the sonic equivalent of a good low-budget horror movie: a mixture of scares and laughs that bear an inverse relationship to one another over time. To my young ears, the duo’s raspy, constricted delivery—racially indeterminate but distinctly urban—sounded like Cypress Hill’s, only without all the esoteric drug references. In their place were explosively violent screeds against rich kids, Southerners, sluts, and any and all forms of authority.

“We represent the people that were born without a silver spoon in their mouth, but instead with a rusty fork,” the group told Fox News in 1995. That kind of populist invective was catnip for a kid like me—guiltily privileged and possessed of a loose mental equivalence between scariness, danger, and cool. One of the album’s tracks, called “Ol’ Evil Eye,” quoted Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” at length. Another, titled “The Killing Fields,” depicted a nightmarish, Lovecraft-esque wasteland of bloody rainclouds and walking dead. The beats made my head nod, the lyrics were easy to memorize, and best of all, my mom fucking despised it.

But just as importantly, it was funny, in that intentionally stupid way that the Jerky Boys and Beavis and Butthead were funny. And as in a horror movie, the humor was weirdly intensified by the creepiness. One of the magical things about rhyming—whether it be in a rap song, a limerick, or a nursery rhyme—is the way that it creates its own intra-linear tensions, hidden little mousetraps that the artist can release in surprising and comical ways. As we grow older, our understanding of rhyme sharpens, and we find ourselves groaning at predictable couplings, but when we’re young, we can still find the internal echoes of a lyric like “Abracadabra boom shacka day/ I’m Violent J, and I’m back like a vertebrae” or an off-rhyme like “I met Milenko, he gave me three wishes/that night, I fucked three fat bitches,” unfathomably clever.

This was, keep in mind, still three years before the release of The Slim Shady LP. In fact, my first impression of Eminem was that he sounded like a sped-up version of ICP. (One day someone should put together a game wherein you try to blindly differentiate between ICP lyrics and early Eminem lines. For example, who once rapped, “It’s almost dark and I’m still tryna nail a trailer park bitch/ I met a slut and said ‘What up, its nice to meet ya’/ I’d like to treat ya to a Faygo and a slice of pizza’”? (Hint: Not ICP.)) No doubt in part due to this uncomfortable resemblance, Eminem spent much of his early career trying to differentiate himself from ICP, sparking a kind of nuclear arms race of homo-erotic/-phobic diss tracks that lasted throughout the early aughts. In the end, for me, as for most, Eminem emerged the clear victor. Not only was he funnier, and his fans less ridiculous looking, but also—I came to realize as my testicles descended and my brain sprouted critical faculties—he was infinitely more talented. In comparison to his densely rendered, hallucinogenic, multi-syllabic rhymes, ICP’s lyrics sounded like what they were: hastily drawn cartoons. The Insane Clown Posse once hinted that when their sixth “joker card” album dropped, it would mark the end of the world. In 1996, there was still a small part of me that naively believed it could be true; at 11, I may have stopped believing in Santa Claus, but the eschatology of the dark carnival did not yet seem too farfetched. By the time the fifth joker card album was released in 1999, just five months after The Slim Shady LP, I no longer even cared enough to buy a copy.

In Part 3: The Insane Clown Posse finds God (sort of), loses fans, and uncovers the meaning of life.

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