Neal Medlyn has been channeling pop stars in New York galleries and theaters since the early aughts, and has built a repertoire of performances that run heavy on exhibitionism and intellectualism. His most recent show, Wicked Clown Love, which premiered at The Kitchen in February, is based on a trip to the Gathering of the Juggalos, the annual hardcore rap festival organized by the group Insane Clown Posse. Medlyn and I met at a bar in Chelsea, where he told me about how he made Kanye West cry, among other juicy tales.
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Liz Filardi: Insane Clown Posse became popular with a broader public in 2010 because of the ironic caricature that emerged after the video for “Miracles” came out. Is irony a muse for you?
Neal Medlyn: I have a complicated relationship with that idea, because I don’t want to make a parody. Part of the reason I wanted to use pop as material is that it’s very culturally important, and it was very personally important to me growing up. When I was kid, I didn’t have access to weird art things, so I had to imagine them based on what I was hearing on the radio. Because it was before the internet, I imagined it being much crazier. There was this Salt-n-Pepa song, “Push It,” and I thought they said, “Pick up those dicks” instead of “Pick up on this.” I was like, “Wow, what does that even mean? It’s so crazy.”
There’s some obvious irony to my work. I do a Hannah Montana show, and I’m a man in my 30s — there’s a literal irony there. But irony means so many things now. It’s almost freighted with more than it deserves. There are inherit ironies, but I’m trying to meld those with what’s happening. The thing that I reject about irony is how it gets used as a distancing technique. I don’t want to be distanced from the audience. I spend a lot of time trying to be as immediate and “in the room” as I can be with the people and the material.
LF: How did you hook up with Kathleen Hannah, who designed the set for Wicked Clown Love?
NM: I’ve been friends with her for a long time. She had wanted to work together on something for a while, so we had various meetings early on. She turned me on to Robert Bly, who was a writer and head of the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement from the ’90s. I had forgotten about that whole thing, and that sent me on a tangent of just looking at men’s groups in general.
The first thing I noticed about Insane Clown Posse was this man thing. And then I started reading the Robert Bly book, Iron John. The imagery in a lot of the stuff I got into was kind of the same — wolves, swords, wrestling, men talking and being together. It became really easy to just start pulling things, unlike with the Hannah Montana show, where the elements felt very disparate.
LF: I had a hard time trying to reconcile that men’s group therapy or disenfranchisement angle with the misogyny of Insane Clown Posse’s lyrics. I know that you dealt with that a little bit. You had women in the show post blog entries about it. How did you reconcile in the end?
NM: Well, for one thing, the number of women that were at the Gatherings or concerts was really fascinating. I basically decided to deal with that by having female characters. And then I would say to them, “Here’s all the material, and it’s really open ended for you guys to figure out how you want to interact with this material, and how you want to deal with it.”
The women in the show are part of the “in” group, sort of like, “Well, I’m not the woman that they’re killing in the song because I’m a Juggalo, too. It’s okay, because I’m not the bad person.” Part of being a Juggalo is that there’s this total acceptance. No matter what you’re going to say, no matter how fucked up it is, it’s okay. The Gatherings are safe places for the darkest parts of your mind. There is no point in which Juggalos can be like, “You just crossed the line. That is too dark or weird. That doesn’t go here.” So that’s part of what binds it, too — the idea that there’s total permission to just go way out and say crazy, dark shit.
I didn’t really want to pull any punches or act like the misogyny wasn’t really fucked up. I wasn’t going to change the word “bitch” out of the show or anything. I felt we just had to own what we were doing. When I was at the Gathering, I thought, “I wish there was some feminist scholar who would come here and write a fucking paper about this.”
LF: In Wicked Clown Love, you tell some personal, Juggalo-esque stories about writing hot checks and making mischief. Was this portion of the show influenced by the stage antics of Insane Clown Posse?
NM: No, I mean Violent Jay tells those stories in his autobiography, but not on stage. On stage there is almost no banter. It is funny, though — there is usually that part in the set list where you are going to do the ballad. In their concerts, everyone leaves the stage, there’s a blue light on Violent Jay, and he does the song “I Stab People.”
LF: Oh, you did that so well. There is one visually arresting moment leading up to that song, where there is only a red light and you and Carmine Covelli are wrestling in the background. Farris Craddock is in the foreground, dipping a slab of meat in the wash bucket of Faygo soda. It’s a surreal kind of foreshadowing.
NM: That actually happened at the Gathering. Farris and I went to this afternoon event, which was a Michael Jackson impersonator battling a Prince impersonator. We left the little structure, and in this weird, late-afternoon light, at a nearby pond they call Lake Hepatitis, there was a guy crouching and looking in the water. He was actually washing meat.
Then, after we left, someone asked me, “Oh! Did you see that somebody died at the Gathering?” Someone had washed up in the Ohio River, and he had face paint on and the necklace. Nobody had noticed that he was gone. So I just conflated those two people in my mind. I wanted Farris to play that guy.
LF: Do you think of yourself as an ethnographer at all? Did you study ethnography?
NM: I hadn’t actually thought about that aspect of things for years. Recently, it just dawned on me — my college degree is in sociology. There was a lot of ethnography, because I also majored in anthropology and cultural anthropology.
The way I ended up doing this performance series was such a weird path that I guess I just never really put it together. It always seemed like a reaction or an idea based on something that had just happened rather than, “Oh, okay, this is all one continuous development.”
I was in this experimental band that had broken up, and then I quit my job. I was listening to a Julie Ruin record and this Sinead O’Connor album, Universal Mother, and watching all of these weird, obscure videos. I really wanted to put all of those things together. I subsequently became friends with Lisa Carver, who was touring with this group called SuckDog, doing what I also assumed Karen Finley was up to. I wanted to figure out a place where all those things could coexist, and I wanted to do it with pop music. I just started doing it at an open mic in downtown Austin at Movements Gallery.
LF: When you’re working on the show, what kind of things come out that surprise you, or that maybe you feel a little worried about? In the moment in the show, are you ever like, “I don’t know if this is going to work,” because it’s so vulnerable?
Oh, yeah. Pretty much every time I decide on what I’m going to do next, I spend most of the time that I’m working on it being like, “Wow, this is probably a horrible idea.” I had done this Beyonce show, and then I did this Britney Spears show, and then this Hannah Montana show. Then all of a sudden, I was going to do Insane Clown Posse. That’s a room clearer. It’s like, “If you enjoyed blah blah blah, then you’re going to hate the next thing!”
It seems like a horrible idea, and then I’m working on something and I just have to have a certain amount of swagger or intuition that somehow it is going to work out. It’s not logistically possible to pick a person, work on it for a year and then decide, “Yeah, that’s going to work.” You have to book things so far in advance that I have to put it out there and just believe that it will somehow wind itself into a thing.
LF: What have you learned about yourself or your work after doing these super flamboyant, really feminine roles? And what perspective did that give you as you hopped over the fence and went into this hypermasculine environment with Wicked Clown Love?
NM: In some ways, Insane Clown Posse was like a corrective to what I had been doing in this dreamy, misty place. Particularly with Britney Spears and Hannah Montana, I was really getting into a lot of personal and artistic places that were very ambiguous and romantic and sad and small and vulnerable and weird.
Particularly by the time I got to Hannah Montana, I got into this weird, trapped place. One thing that is maybe a bit troubling or weird sometimes is that I feel like, “Wow, I am exactly like this, and this is exactly where I am at this particular moment in my life or emotionally. I’m making a show that is deeply, weirdly, oddly biographical.” Since the Prince show, everybody that I’ve done has resonated with me almost too much. When I picked them, I felt like, “Did I just determine the next year of my own emotional life by picking this person? Or, did I pick them because somehow I feel myself coming into this particular place?”
LF: Your pop series feels informed by the content that pop fans are posting on YouTube — you know, dancing in their bedrooms and whatnot. You obviously tap into a different community performing live in these New York City downtown spaces, and you produce surprisingly little video content. Are you interested in pursuing your pop series on video or capturing the series for DVD at all?
NM: I’ve thought about doing a DVD retrospective of the series. Part of the problem with making a DVD is that there are rights issues.
LF: Don’t you think rights issues are sort of a thing of the past?
NM: It was definitely a bigger worry when I first started doing this thing. The last four or five people I’ve done, the artists had known about it. Kanye West came to this Kanye West thing that I did.
LF: What was it like to perform for Kanye West?
NM: He was really nice. It was a 110‑seat house, and he wanted 10 tickets or something. I mean, the show was sold out. But he came and brought a bunch of people with him, and they saw our show and then they went to see Grace Jones.
He got there early, before the show started, sat in the third row or whatever. After the show was over, I thought I should be available in case Kanye wanted to say anything. I was definitely prepared to be like, “I’m sorry you feel that way … ”
He was like, “Hey, yeah, that was really great, you really made me cry at the end.” Then he started telling me this personal story about where he was when he recorded that part of that album I had done. All this bad stuff had happened, and he wanted to quit show business. He was like, “I haven’t really listened to it at all. This was the first time I’ve heard it since it happened on stage. It just brought back all that stuff and made me think about how I feel about performing.” It was really crazy.