Friday, March 26, 2010

COLUMN: Juggalo

I can't believe I'm about to do this. Steady hands. Deep breaths. Positive thoughts. You've done worse, Shane. Focus.

I am about to -- (shudder) -- defend the honor of the Insane Clown Posse.

ABC News' Martin Bashir is one of my least favorite people ever. Some (aka ME) feel he is an over-the-top muck-raker with a habit of sensationalizing one-sided stories for mass consumption of shock and awe. He first came to prominence with his revelatory interview of Princess Diana of Wales, where he easily got his subject to open up about everything from bulemia to divorce. A good interview, yes, but there were rumblings at the time that Bashir had goaded Diana into such a confessional through faux friendship and ingratiating himself into the family.

After spending years trying to gain the reclusive singer's trust, it was Bashir's hour-long interview with Michael Jackson that got the attention of the world. It was the biggest, fastest celebrity flame-out in history. At the beginning of the program, you thought Michael Jackson was a wacky, eccentric, misunderstood pop star. By the time it was over, you were putting chain locks on your children's doors to keep Michael out. Jackson's camp at the time said that Bashir promised it would be Michael's chance to be heard and turn his life around. Instead it turned him into a suspected child molester and global joke, despite Jackson's wounded claims of "betrayal" and "deception" against Bashir.

Well, now it looks like Bashir's got a new victim in the form of a two-headed, face-painted juggernaut: The Insane Clown Posse.

It shouldn't have shocked me when I was channel-flipping the other night and caught the teaser: "Tonight on Nightline, Martin Bashir explores the underground world of HORRORCORE music. While groups like the Insane Clown Posse rap about acts of savagery and violence, some of their devoted fans are living them. Should these artists share in the blame?" For the next ten minutes, I watched as Bashir presented horrorcore as the biggest danger to hit the youth of America since mixing Pop Rocks with soda. I call hooey.

The Insane Clown Posse (ICP to their fans) are a DIY pop culture phenomenon and the perfect case study for any Marketing 101 class. The ICP duo began their career in the same Detroit rap scene that spawned Kid Rock and Eminem, but there's not much similar between them. Dressing in clown make-up and spitting lyrics that would make Freddie Krueger proud, the decidedly MTV-UNfriendly ICP shuffled from one record label to the next with mediocre sales while their contemporaries found global success.

Eventually, ICP shunned the mainstream altogether and set up shop for themselves, releasing records on their own label, Psychopathic. Somewhere along the way, it clicked. Gaining a reputation for their carnival-like concerts and absurdly violent lyrics (it's like listening to Alice Cooper rap the plotlines to every "Friday the 13th" movie,) the band quickly gained a wide underground network of fans known as Juggalos. Today, nearly every ICP album that's released sails effortlessly to the top of the charts without a lick of radio or TV airplay to support it.

Instead, the ICP marketing machine rolls forth a surplus of products aimed directly at the Juggalo fanbase. From albums and t-shirts to lighters and belt-buckles, if there's a way for Psychopathic to stick their Hatchet-Man logo on it, it's probably on sale to the Juggalo Nation. There are movies and DVD's and documentaries. Heck, they even have their own wrestling league. ICP knows how to make money and keep their fans happy.

They just don't know how to make good music. Sorry, Juggalo family, I'll defend you 'til I'm blue in the face, but I really can't stand ICP. It's puerile, poorly produced, thoughtless playground humor. There's not a music critic alive that's had much good to say about ICP, but that's part of the magic. Every time someone new comes along and hates them, the band gets to go, "SEE, Juggalos? They just don't understand what we're about!" Juggalo Nation draws together and unites as fans. More belt buckles are sold. Everyone wins.

ICP tends to connect with the outcasts and the misfits. Once upon a high school, I was an outcast and misfit myself. Back then, I sought solace with bands like Joy Division and The Cure (who are, in essence, the Depressed Clown Posse.) I forged friendships for life based primarily on shared music interests. We had a nickname back then, too - they called us "corn chips." (No, we don't know why.) But had the corn chips not stuck together, we probably would have been beat up consistently by the metalhead kids. I know the power that music holds.

What it DOESN'T hold, though, is the power to influence deranged action among the innocent, and that's where Bashir's story went. In short, some nutbag somewhere went on a killing spree and was photographed being arrested in an ICP t-shirt. Hence, the music MUST be to blame. I'll give ICP some credit. They consented to an interview and heroically stood up to Bashir's pointed questioning.

"How do you respond to a 21-year-old who kills a man in a gay bar with a hatchet and calls himself a Juggalo?"

"There's something wrong with that kid," replied the duo. "You better holla at his parents and see why they raised him all messed up."

Not English majors, then, the ICP - this is, after all, a band whose most Shakespearean moment to date is the line "We be underground famous/from Pluto to your anus." But I can't help but agree with them. There IS something wrong with that kid and somebody HAD better holla at his parents. Sadly, Martin, nutbags are everywhere. I'll guarantee that someone out there has had a murderous thought while listening to the Backstreet Boys. I can tell you in all honesty that Celine Dion's voice makes me think violent thoughts (mostly towards my radio.) Charles Manson, the grand high poobah of nutbags, thought that the Beatles were telling him to start a race war. Did we send a lynch mob after Ringo?

I just wanted to say it because no one else seems to want to in print: Parents, don't listen to the hype of sensationalist journalism, and don't fret if your kid's a Juggalo. He or she is just trying to fit in and find their niche. ICP are no more likely to cause killing sprees than your average slasher flick. The only thing horrifying about the Insane Clown Posse is their rhyming skill. If you've raised your kids right, have confidence in their actions and tastes - just maybe slip 'em a Radiohead record or something when they're not looking.

Friday, March 19, 2010

COLUMN: a-ha

I'm a child of the 80's. Well, kinda.

Technically, I was born in 1971, which by definition makes me a child of the 70's. But I've never really claimed that decade, nor am I in any real hurry to. Platform shoes, bellbottoms, and KC & the Sunshine Band? No thanks.

I recall embarassingly little of my first nine years of existence. I remember Barry Manilow and ABBA. The hostages in Iran. My mom taking me to my first R-rated movie: "Saturday Night Fever." The blizzard of 1978. Riding my Big Wheel. But mostly, I just remember spilling the Kool-Aid.

Why the Kool-Aid memory sticks with me, I don't know. I didn't even get in trouble for it. I accidentally spilled some Kool Aid, I felt bad about it, and my mom cleaned it up. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is where my autobiography starts. It is my first discernable memory -- and honestly, the highlight of the 1970's as far as I'm concerned.

Instead, my formative years were spent squarely in the nurturing bosom of the 1980's, and I couldn't be happier about it. Come on, was there EVER a better decade? Well, okay, the Sixties were pretty rockin' and perhaps the focal point of 20th century creativity. But it seems like a prerequisite to that creativity was growing your hair out long and smelling kinda funky and walking through mud in bare feet. Besides, the Grateful Dead sucked - it's just that their songs were so long you forgot how much they sucked by the eighteenth minute. And the 60's had their share of war and death and upheaval and I'm kind of okay that I missed out on all that.

No, I'm perfectly fine with the 1980's, thanks much. We didn't have to worry about Vietnam or dodging the draft. We just had to worry about dodging those pesky barrels that Donkey Kong kept throwing at us. Think about it - what WASN'T awesome about the 80's? The fashion was so bad it was magical. The TV gave us talking cars and Mr. T, J.R. Ewing and Boss Hogg. The movies gave us E.T. and Indiana Jones and Porky's and, well, let's just say that BEING a teenager when John Hughes was making movies ABOUT teenagers was most fortuitous indeed. Before the 1980's, culture was just culture. It was MY decade that added the POP to culture.

But above all else, the 80's gave us music. I was in junior high when MTV suddenly appeared on the airwaves and pop music suddenly became the most important thing in my life. I would RACE home from school just to turn on MTV and let Martha Quinn tell me what was cool. The 60's can have their Hendrix and the 70's could keep their Zeppelin. I had important bands. Bands that knew how to whip it and whip it good. Bands that walked like Egyptians and woke us up before we go-go'd. Bands that relaxed and didn't do it, whatever the mythical "it" was in my 12-year-old brain. I might have been a nerdy kid, but in my heart, I knew I was cool, because I knew exactly what it sounded like when the doves cry.

The music of the 80's was a perfect slice of what it was like to live in that era. Most of the music doesn't translate well now, nor do I really want it to. A few years ago, I saw a reformed Flock of Seagulls play a tiny club in Rock Island -- and to see the essence of 80's cool as chubby, middle-aged, balding dudes now doing sub-par rock music was a bit disheartening (we stayed for a few songs and promptly ran, ran so far away.)

But for me, one band stood atop all others when it came to fantastic 80's music. They stormed the MTV charts with one video, one song, and one chorus that no one from my era will ever forget:

Taaaake ooooon meeeee (Take! On! Me!)
Taaaake meeeee onnnnn (Take! On! Me!)
I'll beeee gonnnne,

Okay, I might not have that last line right. Wait, lemme look it up. Ahh. It's "in a day or two." Still, he could have been singing "I've got to poo" and I'd still scream along.

a-ha (and yes, you're always supposed to spell it in all lower case) arrived in 1985 with synth flourishes, a singer with a glass-shattering falsetto, totally sweet animated videos, and awesome names like Magne Furuholmen and Pal Waaktaar. But as quick as they arrived in the States, their flame burned out almost immediately.

Why? Simple. a-ha had the misfortune of being pretty-boys. And before you could say "Pal Waaktaar" (however one says "Pal Waaktaar,") the band was plastered all over the covers of TigerBeat and marketed almost exclusively to 15-year-old girls. And, well, me.

But here's where I defend both my masculinity and my musical tastes: a-ha were a really good band. A band way ahead of the trend, ahead of the 80's, and way too extreme for the likes of the TigerBeat crowd. Thus, when their challenging and weird second album showed up in stores, no one bought it. Instead of "Take On Me," there were dark songs loosely involving a murder storyline. Not exactly what the teen scene wanted, so they moved on to the next flash-in-the-pan.

a-ha's second album, "Scoundrel Days," was my soundtrack to high school. Their third, "Stay On These Roads," saw me through the summer before college. Their fourth and fifth were vital additions to my growing CD library. After that, they got dropped by their American label, but it didn't stop them from releasing records to a still-vigilant European audience. I bet you didn't even know a-ha were still together today.

And this year, after releasing their NINTH studio album, they've decided to call it a day. A final tour, aptly named "Ending On A High Note," begins this week in South America and winds across the globe to a 3-day December finale in their native Norway.

This weekend, I scored tickets to their Chicago farewell show in May. To say I'm excited is putting it mildly. It will be the first time they've taken an American stage since 1986. With me will be my girlfriend (to prove that I have testosterone,) my friend Stuart (to prove that I'm not the last remaining male a-ha fan on the planet,) and a sea of whatever former 15-year-old TigerBeat readers have evolved into.

In all honesty, a-ha were only one-hit wonder prettyboys in the States. In Europe, they were (and are) a critically-acclaimed band. Contemporary artists like Radiohead and Coldplay cite a-ha among their major influences.

As for me, what can I say? I'm just a child of the 80's. Inn-stay-ah QUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

COLUMN: Babysit

My girlfriend works her tail off every week teaching first grade at a Bettendorf private school. For this, she's awarded ALMOST enough money to live. She off-sets this a little by babysitting for extra cash several nights a week. She watches two girls, ages 5 and 6, who cling to her enormous family tree somehow by parental marriage (I always get confused when she tries to explain it.)

The two girls might just be the cutest, sweetest pair of siblings ever made. Think Rod & Todd Flanders from The Simpsons in human form and you'll be kinda close. The first time I ever met them, they both came running into my arms with huge bear hugs going, "WE MISSED YOU!" When I complimented one recently on her obvious haircut, the other pulled me aside a few minutes later, looked up at me with huge puppy-dog eyes, and said, "I gotted my hair cut, too." They can melt ANY heart with little more than a glance.

So I didn't think much of it the other day when my girlfriend said, "Hey, I didn't get a chance to go to the gym today. Would you mind watching the girls for an hour while I run over there?" Strangely, at the time, this sentence didn't come with a sound effect of "dun dun DUN!" It would have helped. It would have helped me say, "Actually, there aren't enough words in the English language to express how much I would, in fact, mind doing this."

Instead, what my mouth inexplicably said was, "sure." Weirder still, my brain MEANT to say "sure." What's so hard about watching a couple of adorable kids for an hour, right? My girlfriend does it all the time, so what's the big deal?

Not only am I a single guy with no offspring, I'm also an only child who grew up on an isolated 50-acre farm in the middle of nowhere with nary a kid for miles around. I haven't been around little kids since I WAS a little kid. This explained the lump in my throat when Amy said "bye" to head off 6 blocks away to the gym.

I was prepped and ready to mold young minds. I had seen Amy's babysitting prowess first-hand, and I thought I'd learned a lot: you had to be authoritarian, you had to set the rules, and you never ever wanted to be "IN BIG TROUBLE, MISSY!" But I also thought that if Amy played the strict card, I could play the nice guy card and still get the same result. I could be Totally Rad Uncle Shane, The Awesomest Babysitter In The Land.

Well, I learned some more things -- primarily that "Hannah Montana" is the most insipid program to ever grace our achy breaky airwaves. I know, I know -- it's a kid's show. But this thing makes Full House look like Masterpiece Theatre.

However, I also learned that Hannah Montana is the world's greatest babysitter. The girls were hyper and chatty and bouncy until I flipped that show on. Within 30 seconds, they had become full-on catatonic Hannah zombies, sitting in stony silence while Miley Cyrus hypnotized them into some kind of creepy, all-consuming Disney submission.

But then Hannah ended. Uh oh. As fun as watching The Disney Channel was, it was also elimination night over on "American Idol," so I thought I'd give it a shot. My channel change to Fox was met with exactly four minutes of complacency.

"Shaaaaane?" asked the six-year-old. "Can you put the TV back to the Disney please?"

"I will in a little bit," I replied. "Let's watch this for a while first. You girls like singing, right?"


In an eyeblink, they're running amok. While one demonstrated her ability to screech the Hannah Montana theme song, the other went straight to my box of video game equipment and pulled out a microphone from Guitar Hero.

This led to our own anarchic "American Idol" contest. Let's just say Simon would NOT have had good things to say about their performance, which seemed to fall in the realm of avant-garde jazz improv with the lyrics (I kid you not:) "American Idols, me and youuuu!/Diamonds On The Avenuuuuue!"

"Hey Shane?" said the 6 year old.

"What's up?" I asked.

"I'm hungry I'M HUNGRY TOO!" said the two-headed monster.

Okay, no problem, we've got a contingency plan in effect. Amy had laid out some cheese and crackers in the kitchen. My kitchen is exactly six footsteps away from my living room. In the twelve steps it took for me to get there and back, they had managed to find my box of cat toys and spread them allllll over the floor (the cats, meanwhile, had long since sought shelter in the bedroom.)

Now there's singing and squeaky toys and yelling and eating. Well, more like shoving cheese and crackers towards their mouth with total disregard as to whether or not their mouths were open at the time. This is my only explanation as to how 10% of the crackers ended up eaten and 90% turned to crumbs all over the floor.

"LET'S PLAY HOUSE!" one screamed without missing a beat.
"I'M THE MOMMY!" yelled one.
"I'M THE SISTER!" yelled the other. (Odd family.)

"Umm, what am I?" I sheepishly asked.

"You're the dog! Now BEG!"

House lasted five minutes, until Mommy and Sister got into a fight over who got to hold the Family Microphone. Tears were almost shed. I did the only thing I could: I changed the channel back to Disney. No Miley in sight. Curses!

Yelling. Singing. Dancing. A request for more water.

"Okay, I'll get you some mo--"


That was the moment that Totally Rad Uncle Shane died and was replaced by Mean Grumpy-Face Shane. Mean Grumpy-Face Shane said, "Okay, we need to SIT DOWN. NOW."

Soon, Amy came home. This might have been expedited by my text message which may or may not have involved immediate threats of amateur self-vasectomy. Amy walked in the door and sorted the situation immediately. I'm afraid we were all IN BIG TROUBLE, MISSY.

Final Score: Kids 1, Shane 0. But you can't just get on a bike and start riding, right? I just need practice. It could have been worse. I didn't need 911 or Poison Control. No bones or possessions were broken. The kids (and Amy) still like me. The cats may eventually forgive me. The training wheels are firmly in place. And now when Amy says she doesn't want to babysit, I officially feel really, really bad for her. Maybe that was the whole point.


A few weeks ago, I wrote a column about the nutjobs who think that the world in coming to an end in 2012. This is all based on a primitive calendar system developed by the ancient Mayan civilization -- a calendar system that inexplicably comes to an end in what we now call the year 2012. There's really no universally-accepted explanation as to WHY the ancient Mayan calendar had an endpoint, but some out there think the Mayans had some extra-terrestrial help in the building of their empire, and maybe these same extra-terrestrials clued the locals on to the End of Days. Why these all-knowing and all-seeing ET's didn't also say, "Oh, hey, and you might want to look out for the Spanish armada" is beyond me, but I digress.

Anyways, some folk (clinical term: nutbags) believe that we've got precious little time to enjoy our remaining Earthly delights (clinical term: Arby's.) A few weeks ago, I sort of ruthlessly mocked these folks in a column. Now I'm starting to realize that it takes a brave man to make fun of the Apocalypse. Folks, I'm here with some bad news. I'm afraid the end may be nigh. Behold, for I have borne witness to a clear sign of the End of Days. Locusts? Nope. Seas of blood? Not yet. It's worse:

I joined a gym.

If that's not a clear sign that the world as we know it's coming to a close, I don't know what is.

I wasn't trying to call forth the Four Horsemen, I promise you this. I was just trying to have a good Valentine's Day. See, Amy (the girlfriend) has been on an epic health kick of late. She's trying to shed a couple unwanted pounds, eat a little better, and adapt to an all-around healthier lifestyle. And the other day, I got the "...and I need your help to do it" speech.

Thanks to my mom, I'd already had practice being at the receiving end of this speech. When I was in junior high, my mom got on a similar health kick. She explained to my dad and I that she was making a huge lifestyle change, and asked that we be as supportive as possible. From us, she needed encouragement, incentive, cheering, cooperation, and love.

But what she failed to mention is that she also needed us to suffer through things like "celery casserole" (shudder) for dinner, as well as outright lies such as "if you cut squash up finely enough and bake it in the oven, it tastes JUST like a french fry!" (Wrong. Wrong wrong wrong.)

Still, I wanted to support my mom, so I dealt with it. And in the end, my mom lost 95 lbs. and was nominated as Weight Watcher of the Year, a feat that still astonishes me to this day. So when Amy came at me with a similar speech, I was ready.

"I just need your encouragement," she said.

"Umm," I replied. "You GO, girl?" Not good enough, I'm afraid.

I want to be the supportive boyfriend, I really do, and I'll never knock anyone's efforts to become healthier. That said, as God is my witness, I will NEVER eat celery casserole again. Instead, I figured out the PERFECT way to be The Most Awesomest Boyfriend Ever.

For Valentine's Day, I presented her with a membership to the 24-hour gym that's near my apartment. But to make it super duper romantic, I got memberships for the BOTH of us. I just, umm, never realized a membership usually entails GOING.

But go I have, on several occasions now. I'm not just a gym member, I'm a gym participant. Maybe even a gym-nast. And after my first week foray of fitness, if I had to put my experience into one word, I guess that word would have to be:


As I speak, my legs are two noodles held in place by taut rubber bands. Muscles I didn't even know I had are announcing their existence with painful confidence. If this is what physical fitness is about, I might be better off with my usual sedentary lifestyle and the sweet release of premature death. Why does "getting in shape" have to involve feeling like a truck just hit my shape?

It's a learning experience, and I've been learning a great deal about the gym, such as a few helpful definitions:

STATIONARY BIKE (n.) An ancient torture device. Built to provide you all the fun of biking without all that pesky travelling, sight-seeing, fresh air, and stopping to get in the way.

RESISTANCE LEVEL (n). A setting on aforementioned bike, created to finally answer the age-old question, "I wonder what it would be like to cycle through tapioca pudding?"

RECUMBENT BIKE (n). A scientific and engineering break-through in exercise biking, ushering in a new era of uncomfortability and awkwardness.

ELLIPTICAL MACHINE (n). I'm still not quite sure. I think it's an ancient Mayan nausea inducer.

I'm rapidly learning that there are Care Bears more manly than me. I know that I'm a wuss, okay, and I've pretty much been cool with it my whole life. But lately I've been crossing the line from wussy to outright FAT. At first, I thought I'd wait and make sure the AMA didn't announce that skinniness causes cancer and fat people had it right all along. But no luck. Contrary to my personal belief system, a pizza a day does NOT keep the doctor away.

In my late 20's, my metabolism started going down and my weight started going up. This was when my uncommon sense kicked in and I figured out the answer: Buy baggy clothes in bulk and ignore it 'til it goes away. But it's not going away. My clothes are now so baggy I've got shoulder hems precariously close to becoming elbow hems. I am Fatty McButterPants. And I'm going to stick to the workout regimen, because I'd sort of like to hang around for the next few decades.

Assuming, of course, that there ARE more decades in store for us. At the very least, I'll be in MUCH better shape to dodge the locusts, flying horsemen, and seas of fire.