The kids are all right

Donna Gaines saw beyond a Teenage Wasteland

Untroubled youth Music isn’t just magic; it’s aspirational, an expression of class values. (Paul Bergen / Redferns / Getty)

Three years ago, I found myself floating along the East River with the Insane Clown Posse. They had recently played a concert in New York City for the first time in nearly 10 years, an occasion they marked by inviting more than 200 fans to party on a boat with them, a DJ, a cash bar, and a hotdog warmer.

I was on staff at the Phoenix, Boston’s erstwhile alt-weekly, when my editor ran into the Posse’s publicist at South By Southwest, and later arranged to send a reporter on their party boat. I recall several colleagues warning me that I would contract syphilis the moment I got aboard.

At the time, the Detroit-based rappers—two men who wear clown makeup and call themselves Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope—and their fans, known as Juggalos, had recently captured the imagination of the general public. In 2010, they had gone viral with the video for “Miracles,” a song that marveled at everyday phenomena. Representative lyric: “Fucking magnets: How do they work?” That same year, the Juggalos pelted the reality television star Tila Tequila with bottles and rocks at an annual music festival in southern Illinois known as the Gathering of the Juggalos.

Working-class kids revered Led Zeppelin precisely because of the band’s proud bone-headedness.

The low-budget, extremely long infomercials for said festival, which routinely featured D-list supporting acts like Tequila, Vanilla Ice, and Gallagher, transformed ICP and its fans from novelties into internationally famous weirdos. Suddenly, everyone who read pop-culture blogs was fascinated—and sometimes alarmed—by the Juggalos: their face paint, their drug use, their enthusiasm for pouring off-brand soda all over each other. Vice wrote about them in 2007, and others followed: n+1, Wired, Rolling Stone.

Some ran explainer pieces from afar, while others sent writers, photojournalists, and filmmakers to Cave-in-Rock, IL, to observe the Juggalo in his natural element. The Guardian sent Jon Ronson to write a snotty profile of ICP and published an op-ed fingering the group as a symptom of America’s decline. The general tenor of all this coverage was one of sneering wonderment that a fan group like this could exist. Who were these goons?

My anxiety surged on the dock, surrounded by hyped-up 20-somethings in clown makeup and clothing decorated with meat cleavers. I wasn’t afraid of them hurting me, exactly, but I was part of a tribe that had pilloried them for months; and with my tortoiseshell glasses, reporter’s notebook, and a good decade on everyone else there, I was readily identifiable as such. Kids in clown makeup started coming up to me, asking if I was with the media. Was I there to make fun of them or what?

Donna Gaines would have known what to do. Almost 30 years ago, she embedded with a much sadder group of maligned young people in the working-class town of Bergenfield, NJ, where in 1987 four teenagers asphyxiated themselves in a Chevy Camaro as part of a suicide pact. Gaines, who spent her 20s providing youth and family services on Long Island, was working on a PhD in sociology and freelancing when the story broke and her editor at The Village Voice dispatched her to Bergenfield to discover what kind of environment could foment such horror. What Gaines found was so compelling it would become her dissertation and the book Teenage Wasteland: Suburbia’s Dead End Kids, published four years later by Pantheon.

What a dispiriting mission. Four teenagers was a shocking number that, hyperbolically, earned the event comparisons to Jonestown. Bergenfield residents wanted no part of it, distancing themselves from the dead kids by calling them “burnouts” and “losers” in the papers. The papers themselves called the victims “dropouts” and “druggies.” They had been rock fans; an AC/DC cassette tape was found in the car stereo.

I started to wonder what the big deal was about Juggalos. Their only crime, it seemed, was not being middle class.

Gaines took offense at these characterizations. She came from the suburbs of Long Island, a place that is derided nearly as often as New Jersey, and like plenty of Baby Boomers had done her share of naughty things during her teenage years. Moreover, she was a rock fan herself and something of a scenester: At the time she wrote the book, she was well into her 30s and still going to shows; her acknowledgements thank a good number of rockers, among them Johnny Thunders and Joey Ramone. She identified with kids labelled as burnouts, with their alienation and drug use, and she wasn’t going to pretend their behavior existed in a vacuum. By 1989, drugs and defiance had been firmly entrenched in youth culture.

What did set the ’80s apart from other decades was suicide. Suicide rates among teenagers increased 18 percent from 1980 to 1989, and enough of these cases had involved metal fans for mainstream society to assume causation. Gaines’ introduction is littered with examples, the most famous of which involved two Nevada teens who shot themselves after listening to Judas Priest—an incident that later escalated into a lawsuit against the band that accused them of implanting subliminal messages in their music. Even during a time in which teen suicide had reached such epic proportions as to inspire the Hollywood black comedy Heathers, the events in Bergenfield were considered especially heinous.

“I believed that the Bergenfield suicides symbolized a tragic defeat for young people,” Gaines writes in the introduction to Teenage Wasteland. “[N]obody seemed to be getting the point.” While the larger culture celebrated Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America, kids from blue-collar towns were facing dim prospects as the nation’s manufacturing base collapsed. Eager to assign blame to the nefarious influences of heavy metal music or the personal failings of the teens themselves, residents and reporters had missed the fact that society was failing vulnerable kids on a regular basis. Suicide was an extreme yet plausible reaction to negligent parents, to school systems ill-equipped to help children with behavioral issues and learning disabilities, to teachers and classmates who shunned those who seemed like losers, to a life sentence of tedious, low-wage work.

To set the record straight, Gaines conducted the kind of ethnographic study for which she was being trained. As she explains:

I might have continued working within the established discourse on teenage suicide. I might have continued carrying on the tradition of obscuring the bigger picture, psychologizing the Bergenfield suicide pact, interviewing the parents of the four youths, hounding their friends for the gory details. I might have spent my time probing school records, tracking down their teachers and shrinks for insights, focusing on their personal histories and intimate relationships.

Instead, she drove to Bergenfield and headed for the convenience-store parking lot. She met a group of kids who had known the victims, told them she was a reporter, and gained their trust by impressing them with her music cred. They allowed her to hang out with them, sometimes when they were wasted, and to pretend she was someone’s cousin. She asked the burnouts about themselves; she watched them closely. She got to know who they were, but she never ratted them out: “I never asked them for last names, or where they lived,” Gaines wrote. “And when it came time to tell their story, I made up their names from their guitar heroes, or from people in my own life.”

When I first read Teenage Wasteland at 19, I had no way to appreciate how brave Gaines was to do something like this. I was too close in age to her subjects to understand the terrifying gulf between a 30-something and a teenager, and I hadn’t read enough to know how rare it is to be able to write about a despised subculture in such an empathetic and respectful way. Later, I would realize that many writers struggle with first-person narration when writing about something other than themselves, how easy and common it is to rob a subject of the spotlight when you’re right there with them. It wasn’t until I became a journalist myself that I understood the difficulty of hiding, in the field or on the page.

Did I mention that she hung out with these teenagers for months? Many of us, myself included, would feel hopelessly old and out of touch when surrounded by reminders of lost youth. Not Gaines. “Because I was much older, and really tall, I looked really out of place hanging out with the girls,” Gaines wrote. “But with the older guys, I fell into an appropriate, existing street role: older, possibly divorced female burnout from another town, maybe involved with one of the guys, but mainly here for business (drugs).”

For her efforts, she wins access to the abandoned building where, she writes, kids took their dates to get wasted and have sex. She rides around with them as they move from place to place, always one step ahead of the cops. She pretends to be a 14-year-old’s mother to get her out of trouble. She gets accused of being a narc. She sees the scars on their wrists.

Of the group she fell in with, she grew closest to two boys named Nicky and Joe. Joe was a dropout, and Nicky attended a vocational high school. Both missed their dead friends, were mistrustful of police, and worked “shit jobs.” They told Gaines about their parents, their struggles, their diminished expectations and limited hopes. Sometimes they seemed like they might kill themselves, and her portrait of them is frequently heartbreaking:

Nicky and Joe saw themselves as the seventh sons of seventh sons—bad seeds, black sheep. They acknowledged their burnout roots as genetic, not social. They respected their parents, and they feared them. They loved and hated them as all children do.

Teenage Wasteland is not, of course, a mere personality study. It’s an ethnography of a subculture written for a general audience, filled with technical jargon that is helpfully highlighted with scare quotes and explained with ample contextual clues. Listening to Stevie Nicks and going to the mall become “traditional girlcult activities.” Music, Gaines reminds us, is not just magic or a way of getting by. It’s also aspirational, an expression of class values. Working-class metal kids revered Led Zeppelin precisely because of the band’s proud bone-headedness and defiance of middle-class mores. She calls marrying a rock star—something I desperately wanted to do until the age of 25 or so—a “suburban fairytale” for its spoils of a respected (if not respectable) husband and a really nice house. It is digressions like these that had the biggest impact on my future career as a journalist; the effects of knowing that something with the ability to inspire as much passion as music could be traced to one’s social and economic standing cannot be underestimated. Quite frankly, it blew my mind.

Gaines also excavates teen shibboleths, like Satan and school psychiatrists. She provides the recent history of a given topic, shows its relevance with recent statistics, notes its manifestations in teen culture, and gets apposite quotes from her subjects to bring it all home. (A boy named Scott on a juvenile justice system filled with underprivileged kids: “Parents just don’t give a shit, they don’t want to face problems until they blow up.”) This strategy is used to glorious ends in two chapters about metal, where she traces the history of Satanism from Anton LaVey to Led Zeppelin (a band she aptly describes as “liberation theology in vinyl”), clarifies the primacy of the 7-11 parking lot in suburban metal culture, considers the longevity of The Grateful Dead, and explains the social hierarchy of metalheads vis a vis other teen subcults:

The classical heavy-metal legacy of spandex and dick-oriented lyrics remained associated with corporate rock in sexist, capitalist America. Left-leaning hardcore kids hate metalheads for their bad politics; right-leaning skins hate them because of their passivity and drug abuse and political ignorance. All the things the punks hated the hippies for, and some of the things the hippies hated the greasers for. Basically, metalheads just want to have a good time, and as we move into the 1990s they are still beating the shit out of each other.

Gaines took painstaking care in finding higher meaning in lives thwarted and dismissed by those in power. What’s more, she thought to look where nobody else had bothered.

It’s not that nobody paid attention to heavy metal kids—quite the contrary. Some eighteen months before the Bergenfield suicides, Tipper Gore and her cohort in the Parents Music Resource Committee had stood before the US Senate to plead the case that the record industry should put stickers on album covers warning parents of objectionable content. Nine of the worst offenders—on a list dubbed the Filthy Fifteen—came courtesy of metal or hard rock bands. Parents worried those same bands were encoding Satanic messages in their songs, a worry that proliferated when several teenagers cited metal lyrics in their suicide notes.

And Gaines wasn’t the only one to spend time with metal fans. Penelope Spheeris’ 1988 documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, was a sympathetic look at the hard rock bands of the Sunset Strip and their local groupies. In Heavy Metal Parking Lot, a short documentary from 1986, filmmakers Jeff Krulik and John Heyn messed with dozens of inebriated kids tailgating in front of a Judas Priest concert at an amphitheater in suburban Maryland; whether it was the editing or the drugs, the subjects came out looking like buffoons, the societal factors leading to their buffoonery left entirely untouched. Though both films would eventually become cult classics, neither made an immediate impact on the larger culture or the slightest dent in the way prejudiced adults perceived surly teens in leather jackets. They have, however, enabled subsequent generations of college kids to laugh at terrible ’80s clothes.

It takes an unusually sensitive grownup to listen hard enough to create an affecting portrait of the kind of wasteoids in Heavy Metal Parking Lot, and an even smarter one to add depth to what others so frequently made into caricature. Gaines came to her subjects as a reporter and a friend.

I first encountered Teenage Wasteland in 1998 while working a minimum-wage job of my own at an independent bookstore next to the Chicago suburb where I grew up. I had recently, after only two years, left St. John’s College, a tiny, East Coast liberal-arts school where I flailed academically and partied a bit too much. The novelist Salvatore Scibona, a fellow working-class Italian-American, has written movingly in The New Yorker about St. John’s, but I found the seminar discussions and boarding-school sophisticates too intimidating to do well there.

I can’t remember why I picked up Gaines’ book, but I suspect it had something to do with the grainy cover portrait of five menacing metal dudes and the ransom note-style lettering ubiquitous on punk albums and fanzines. I can see why the back-cover blurb might also have enticed my 19-year-old self: “Teenage Wasteland provides memorable portraits of ‘rock and roll kids’ and shrewd analyses of their interests in heavy metal music and Satanism.” Excellent!

It is, though, easy to remember why I connected with Teenage Wasteland instantly and deeply. Bergenfield was a lot like Elmwood Park, the lower-middle class suburb where I grew up, “a 1950s town living in the 1980s. Its stores and homes remain well-kept and ungentrified. No artfully quaint little shops, just the basic stuff, most everything you need with no frills.” A place where the high school had a well-enrolled vocational track. A place where everyone had religion but in whose creepy woods you always saw spray-painted pentagrams and the occasional menagerie of chicken bones scattered on the ground.

I knew those kids, too. I lived near a club called the Thirsty Whale, where future building contractors would dress up in shiny black stretch pants and leopard-print vests. My older cousin Richard played bass in a metal band called Blööd Bäth, and had a quote from the alternate cover of the Jane’s Addiction record Ritual de lo Habitual scrawled in magic marker on his wall, which read in part, “Hitler’s syphilis-ridden dreams almost came true. How could it happen? By taking control of the media.”

My mom sent me to a fancy Catholic prep school in the suburb with the lefty bookstore where I later worked. By the time I got there, in 1992, the burnouts Gaines wrote about looked slightly different, with flannel shirts and wallet chains. Anyway, we only had a few of them, most notably two boys, Jason and Bob, who sat in the back of my physics class and wrote the name of the nü-metal band Korn on the blackboard with a backward R—the way the band spelled it—whenever they got the chance. I encountered more burnouts around town. They hung out in the parking lot of the Dunkin’ Donuts on Clark and Belmont, smoking menthols and drinking weak coffee. They tore off their shirts and slammed into me at rock concerts.

But something weird happened to rock and roll and its habitués in the ’90s. Thanks to the rise of alternative rock radio and marketing companies’ newfound obsession with the edgiest of youth culture, expressing alienation became ubiquitous. Once rock and roll alienation was used to sell jeans, cars, and soda, middle-class kids looked to subtler, less overtly commercial ways of expressing difference, like wearing glasses and attending craft fairs. As we trudged past the millennium, the beef that hardcore kids had with burnouts—that rock qua rock was shorthand for everything from “unreconstructed sexist” to “corporate stooge”—became common wisdom among college-educated, right-thinking people.

I forgot about a lot of this when I stopped defining myself through the types of concerts I was willing to attend. As I aged out of my 20s, I stopped noticing the subtle ways those around me announced the nuance of their subcultural affiliations. In other words, I grew up.

Thus, when the opportunity arose to go on a boat with the Insane Clown Posse, I didn’t think much beyond, These people are very weird and silly. Besides, my assignment, a short front-of-book feature, didn’t require that I uncover the sociopolitical roots of an American tragedy—just take some notes and get material for a couple of jokes.

Although I had been nervous on the dock, things relaxed once I got on the boat. The Juggalos seemed content to dance and laugh among themselves, just like any other group of 20-somethings at a party. They were loud. They swore a lot. They smoked pot. They didn’t seem all that outlandish.

Still, the sight of kids in clown makeup against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline was jarring enough to prevent me from doing much actual reporting. I had wedged myself into the corner of the upper deck when the woman sitting next to me struck up a conversation. After vetting me to make sure I wasn’t there to make fun of her, she told me she had travelled from Michigan to see the show and to visit friends in New York. I asked her why she liked the Insane Clown Posse. She explained they were the band she and her friends had listened to in high school that she had never outgrown, but probably should have.

She was just a fan. She had friends, and a job. She wasn’t wearing clown makeup. She might have been a Juggalo, but she was a whole lot like me. I’ll admit to being shocked by her normality.

After our conversation, I started to wonder what exactly the Juggalos had done to become so reviled. So what if a big group of kids got drunk and high and acted stupid in a field? That happens dozens times a year all over the world. The clown thing, too—hadn’t teenagers been wearing weird makeup since the days of Bowie and Kiss? As for the violence, wimpy Smashing Pumpkins fans had crushed a young girl to death when I was in high school; Tila Tequila was both vaguely insidious and still alive. What was the big deal about the Juggalos? Their only crime, it seemed, was not being middle class. Burnout history repeats itself.

I can’t say I redeemed them. I didn’t stop anyone from making fun of Juggalos or help my readers gain a richer understanding of Juggalos as people. I just went back to Boston, filed a 400-word story, and moved on. Still, I’d like to think I did right by Donna Gaines. Weeks later, I got an email from the Juggalette I met on the boat. She thanked me for not making her and her friends look like jerks.

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Eugenia Williamson is a freelance writer, a columnist for The Boston Globe, and a contributing editor at The Baffler This story was published in the November/December 2014 issue of CJR with the same headline.