It begins, as these things generally do, with a girl. When I was twenty-five years old in 2001 I traveled to Marietta, Georgia, to visit my younger sister, Shari, and became instantly enraptured with a radiant seventeen-year-old friend of hers I will call Cadence Caraway. Though we spent only an hour together having brunch, the memory of Cadence haunted me until eight years later when she contacted me on the message boards for the A.V. Club, the entertainment monolith where I have toiled as head writer since the beginning of time. We fell in love via e-mails and phone conversations before beginning a long-distance romance that found us shuttling back and forth between Providence, Rhode Island, where Cadence was getting her master's in teaching from Brown, and my hometown of Chicago.
In Providence one of our most beloved and oft-repeated rituals entailed compulsively watching the music video for "Miracles," from controversial Detroit horrorcore duo Insane Clown Posse. We were mesmerized by the surreal incongruity between the gothic artifice of Insane Clown Posse's wicked-clown persona and the video's glorious lack of self-consciousness. The self-styled World's Most Hated Group had been on the periphery of my consciousness since I started writing about pop culture for the A.V. Club. The band was an easy punch line for cynics, as well as the inspiration for the most mocked and reviled subculture in existence: Juggalos, the strange, often Midwestern creatures who wore clown makeup, greeted each other with hearty cries of "Whoop whoop," "Family," and "Magic magic ninja what!" and sprayed themselves with off-brand Faygo sodas during concerts rich in theatricality and homemade spectacle. They unite every year for an infamous multiday bacchanal known as the Gathering of the Juggalos.
Deans of pop culture had treated the duo with equal parts fascination and repulsion, but after "Miracles" my mild curiosity about Insane Clown Posse and the wild, weird, disreputable world they rule as clown-painted demon deities evolved into something more serious. Yet even as someone fortunate enough to be able to write about his obsessions for a living, I had only a fuzzy conception of what a massive role Insane Clown Posse (aka ICP) and especially their passionate, intense, and unique fans would play in the next few years of my life.
Cadence shared my intense obsession with "Miracles" even if the duo's self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek take on horrorcore couldn't have been further from her usual tastes. In one of her first e-mails to me, Cadence inquired, "Do you like the band Phish?" I freaked out a little bit. Asking someone if they like Phish is a loaded question. It's not like asking, "Do you like Squeeze?" Nobody is liable to care if you enjoy the music of the veteran British pop band behind "Tempted" and "Pulling Mussels from a Shell," but if someone says they're really into Phish, we're often tempted to make sweeping generalizations about their personality, intelligence, personal hygiene, sobriety, class, education, and taste.
There's a great T-shirt from my employers at the Onion that reads, stereotypes are a real time-saver. That's certainly true when it comes to Phish and Insane Clown Posse. Buy into the stereotype of Juggalos as uneducated, violent, racist, and ignorant, or Phish fans as unemployed, weed-smoking, unjustifiably privileged space cadets, and you don't have to waste time listening to their music or actually interacting with any of their fans.
Part of the revulsion people feel toward Phish and Insane Clown Posse is physical in nature. Being a hardcore Insane Clown Posse fan is an intensely visceral experience involving sticky clown makeup, soda-soaked clothing, homemade tattoos, and, in the case of the Gathering of the Juggalos, thousands of Juggalos gathering in a remote, drug-sex-and-alcohol-choked rural environment for days on end with extraordinarily limited access to showers, toiletries, and other niceties. On a primal level, a lot of people find Juggalos just plain gross.
Phish fans aren't held in the same contempt, in part because their fan base tends to be better educated and wealthier than the overwhelmingly working-class Juggalos, but as the biggest and best-known jam band in existence, Phish is one of the primary targets of our culture's long-standing antihippie bias. By the time I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1994, Phish was the hippie band, just as the Grateful Dead was the hippie band for generations before it. Like the Grateful Dead, Phish tends to be judged by the culture and attitudes of its fans as much as the content of its music. As a college kid, I came to see Phish as the band whose music you were casually forced to listen to in exchange for a free bowl of pot. I don't remember the music nearly as much as I remember those experiences. I think that's true for a lot of people's perception of Phish: The music floats away into a noodly, interchangeable blur of guitar solos and free-form sonic experimentation, but the stoned grins, tie-dyed shirts, and mellow vibes of fans linger on. In part because its oeuvre was critically unfashionable and terminally unhip, I let Phish's music wash over me without really thinking about it or really, truly listening to it.
As I grew older I internalized our culture's revisionist take on hippies as drug-addicted, myopic brats luxuriating in eternal adolescence. I inherited the widespread sense that hippies were getting away with something, that they were lazily opting out of civilization to get high in a field while the grueling machinery of late-period capitalism continued without them.
The hippie ethos and Phish's mythology are inextricably intertwined: Phish isn't a band; it's a way of life. It's a name that conjures up images of lost children with scruffy beards and tie-dyed shorts and sad, emaciated pit bulls on rope chains accompanied by dreadlocked white women habitually clad in flowing dresses.
"Do you like the band Phish?" implicitly means, "How do you feel about jam bands? How do you feel about people who follow Phish? How do you feel about marijuana and Ecstasy and nitrous and acid and mushrooms? How do you feel about traveling from town to town and devoting your life to the music of a group of middle-aged men? How do you feel about the Grateful Dead? How do you feel about the sixties? How do you feel about sex and freedom and the liberating powers of rock 'n' roll? How do you feel about the open road? How do you feel about earnestness and sincerity and sneering, protective irony?"
Did I like the band Phish? I had no idea. I'd lazily bought into the overriding cultural assessment of the band and its fans, but now I had a whole new frame of reference: my beloved Cadence.
From You Don't Know Me but You Don't Like Me: Phish, Insane Clown Posse, and My Misadventures with Two of Music's Most Maligned Tribes by Nathan Rabin. Copyright 2013 by Nathan Rabin. Excerpted by permission of Scribner.