You Can’t Escape the Clowns

Compared to the hellish turn events have taken over the past four years, the Great Clown Panic of 2016 is easy to forget. But as I wrote at the time, this bizarre phenomenon – part prank, part media hype, part soccer mom moral panic – was not as alien to America as it appeared. Far from it, it seemed to be symptomatic of a country whose already threadbare psyche was completely unraveling. If you believed in omens, it would be easy to see this as a preamble to something far more menacing in store.

I don’t believe in omens. I also don’t believe in coincidence. Or at least I don’t believe in them in quite the same way we are taught to, as entirely random and ultimately non-sensical. Much like the surrealists, I believe far-fetched collisions of events tell us something about the world that fosters them. The trick of course is not letting this curiosity drift into mush-minded woo-woo, constantly reminding yourselves that a metaphor is indeed just a metaphor, but if that balance can be maintained it can yield profoundly useful materials for constructing alternative narratives.  

In short, dismissing coincidences as “random” denies us a chance to better understand. In this sense, the Clown Panic was indeed an indication of what was coming. I wish it hadn’t been, but here we are.

Flash forward four years and here we have another coincidence: the return of Clown Core. There is probably a German word for the emotional reaction these songs and videos provoke. Part disgusted terror, part giddy laughter, simultaneously disoriented and impressed. However we might describe it, the uncomfortable fact is that they are weirdly apropos to whatever historical moment we are currently in, bookended by Halloween on one end and an increasingly fraught and insane presidential election on the other.

Some will remember these maniacs from 2018, when they recorded a couple bump sequences for Adult Swim. Turns out the act goes back to roughly 2010. Though it hasn’t been confirmed by the duo themselves, their most plausible identities are that of Louis Cole and Sam Gendel of experimental electro-jazz group Knower. Both are academically trained and highly accomplished musicians, as the extreme range of Clown Core’s songs attest. As for their motivation behind forming Clown Core, it’s hard to believe it’s really all that relevant. Whatever they are, they’ve got a new EP out, simply titled Van.

It is difficult to ignore the timing of these videos, contextualized as they are by Halloween on one end and a presidential election that proves our collective insanity on the other. Much like the Great Clown Panic. One doesn’t want to take something too seriously that is clearly meant to toy with our hate-love of the crude, the grotesque, the scatological, the aggressively low-brow, but I find it bewilderingly compelling.

If it were all just as silly as the masks and fake turds had us believe, then it would be quite forgettable. But Van isn’t forgettable. Ever since Clown Core started releasing these videos a month ago, I’ve been unable to dislodge these songs or images from my brain.

Maybe it’s the vast disjuncture that makes it all so compelling. For something that revels in the crass with such aplomb, the musicianship is amazing. Not to mention how rare and novel it is to hear anyone so brazenly mix genres as disparate as easy listening, grindcore, smooth jazz, and electroclash without diluting any of the component parts. Maybe it’s that in doing so they’ve tipped themselves several times over through different levels of feeling, from irony into sincerity, then so sincere it comes back round to irony, the switches happening so fast that they basically become one and the same. This isn’t just pastiche. It’s pastiche performed with unapologetic aggression, aware of how abominable its mutant offspring is.

One of the topics discussed during the recently-released Halloween episode of Locust Radio is that, by and large, we have come to forget the cultural power of the prankster. To disrupt a community’s aesthetic conventions, what it considers “good” or “proper,” is to violate its sense of safety. When that safety is a false promise though, or when its built on making others unsafe or subjugated, then of course these kinds of violations are warranted. When, say, Rant Casey leaves a corpse in the grange hall at a Halloween church function of his decidedly conservative and hypocritical rural community, he is exposing how much of its existence is predicated on an illusion.

These gestures, as we discuss, come with no inherent morals attached. It is neither good nor bad, left nor right. Its absorption in one direction or another has much to do with what the pranksters do afterward, what kinds of spaces and visions they point toward. But when those who should by all accounts be acknowledging just how dismal this existence is begin to clutch their own pearls in the name of civility, when they leave exposures of shock to those nudging us in the direction of concentration camps… well, then we have a problem.

Which brings us back to Clown Core. Sure, that whole Too Many Cooks / Wonder Showzen / let’s-use-the-juvenile-to-eviscerate-our-meaningless-existence approach should have died out around the time the Clown Panic started to peak. It didn’t though. In fact, because playful subversion has so quickly come to be viewed as the purview of the alt-right and such, I’d reckon we’ve kind of left it frozen in stasis for the most part, thawing it out only partially and occasionally. Much as we would love to believe that the aesthetic posture of immanent critique has shifted or evolved over the past four years, we may be left with having to pick up where we left off.

The facts remain, however. Not only will the far-right’s bad faith pranksterism not be defeated by smug rationalism, but the system that gave rise to it deserves to be viciously and joyously lampooned more than ever. Perhaps this is why the videos for Van are so surprisingly refreshing, even cathartic. As large swathes of the suburbs abandon Trump for Biden so that they can go back to fucking brunch, it’s difficult to see these diabolical musicians piss blood all over the cruel monotony and not think “they deserve it.” Regardless of how the election shakes out, we can safely say that fear of offense, of abandoning the practice of playful subversion to our enemies, has gone disastrously.

After all, no posture or attitude is ever inherently one thing. All that matters is which way it’s directed. That includes gleeful nihilism. Maybe if we can’t keep that nihilism at bay, if we can’t purge it from our beings, then we need to really lean into it. Maybe we just need to become the nihilism, or at the very least its ultimate arbiters.

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