Interview with Jenny Benevento
In preparation for R. Kelly 101 at Hungry Brain on 10/9, we interviewed Jenny Benevento, who will be speaking at the event. In the interview she gives us a sneak peek on what she will be covering at R. Kelly 101, also an insight on her career and the very interesting topics she delves into in her free time on her blog and podcast.
1. What do you find interesting about R. Kelly? And can you give us some insight on what you plan on speaking about at R. Kelly 101?
I find the fact that he was allowed to spend music labels’ money to do a 20+ part “urban” hip hop opera (or “hip hopera”) insane. The extremely high price tag, incredible probability of that bombing, and how much it opened him to ridicule in a musical genre (sexy R&B) where being laughed at could kill your career. I also find it interesting that someone who sings primarily about sex was able to reach the peak of his career during a time when he was in a sex scandal. And not just an average sex scandal, but kinky sex with a minor. Why would that not tarnish his career? Why would fans continue to support him?
In the talk I’ll be giving some background on his life (from his autobiography, other biographies, and interviews) how he sees it, and how others do, and how it led him to come up with this huge bizarre project.
2. I read an article on how you became a Juggalo expert, and you were quoted describing yourself as being “obsessed with anything evangelically insane.” How did you become so fascinated with evangelical Christianity?
Well, I grew up going to 14 years of Catholic school and pretty much everyone I knew until college was Catholic. Maybe a few Lutherans. Evangelical people weren’t even on my radar. They seem so without the tradition & history & grounding in biblical rules that I grew up yet way more insistent on all these social mores. In college, I figured I’d been to a LOT of Catholic masses, but literally no other church’s services, so I just started going to different ones.
I have a degree in Soviet History. I focused on propaganda. While many people might take offense at me calling what evangelists do “propaganda,” I find any technique used to convince a lot of people to convert to your way of thinking really interesting. Cults are specifically interesting, and megachurches, which tend to be evangelical. How do you get that many people to join the flock?
3. Can you explain to our readers how you became a Juggalo expert?
About seven years ago I realized that the Insane Clown Posse still existed as a band, still put out records, and was actually more commercially viable than it ever had been. I had assumed they had broken up and were a band that was only listened to by high school burnouts. It blew my mind that looking at the numbers, that could not be true. So I started doing more and more research on them, listening to their songs, etc. I have a personal blog in which I comment about pop culture and I put up a post about the things I was learning. it was BY FAR the most read and most commented thing on my blog. It was posted to juggalo forums, where they argued about me pro- and con. They came and commented on my blog too and some of them met up from meeting in the comments! It was crazy! This was a band that was totally forgotten/disregarded by most people I knew, but they were using insane apocalyptic allegory over a dozen concept albums. Who does that and still makes money? While wearing face paint!? So the more I researched the more I put out online and people started to think of me as the juggalo expert. That has led to presentations, interviews, consulting, etc.
4. I’m interested in knowing what Love & Death in Precious Moments is about. I saw your slides on the subject, but can you explain it further?
Sure. It’s a monologue/lecture about Precious Moments and the artist who made them, Samuel Butcher. They’re this hokey, bubblegum, pastel tchochke that is omnipresent in American society. People think they are overly sappy. But they have this extremely sad and moving history: the great majority of them are based on actual dead children, including one of the artist’s son. People whose children have died write the artist and he will make statues of their kids. At the Precious Moments Museum they have book after book of people visiting saying these things got them through the death of their baby. It’s mindblowing.
5. How does your profession inform your approach to researching these weird topics you take on?
Well, I am a librarian, so the research skills definitely help! The whole propaganda theory background helps. In my day job I am a taxonomist, which means I categorize things for a living. Essentially I judge what something is and where most people are likely to find it. In a lot of cases, the proper place for something isn’t where people will find it, and that’s exactly what I try to reveal in my talks—hey you think of this thing as something in a box over here, but actually it’s a totally different thing!
6. Do you have any other events coming up? Anything you’re working on that you can tell us about?
I like to look for subjects people write off as silly or insincere. In our culture, especially youth culture right now, it’s not cool to be totally invested in something, to do something completely non-ironically or non-sarcastically. People write these things off and scoff at them in a really holier than thou (no pun intended) way. Like, “oh only losers listen to ICP” or “oh these figurines are SO TACKY!” because they don’t even think for 2 seconds what the product is about or why other people like it.
Generally the talks come out of something I obsessively research in my personal time and think of an angle on later I can talk about. I am currently doing a lot of research on Disney World, and specifically, Celebration, FL which is a town Disney built to be a managed community people live in that would be 24/7 Disney. I am VERY focused on the ideas of authenticity in all of my talks and Disney is so into authenticity in the fakest way possible—Everything must be exactly how this building in Nepal is, except we have an animatronic Yeti popping out of it and people ride a roller coaster through it. They don’t even think twice about it.
In a similar vein, I am really interested in the life of Thomas Kinkade, known as The Painter of Light. He died recently so a lot more information will be coming out, but essentially he was a religious painter whose work was often sold as incredibly inflated prices to religious people. There’s some evidence that there was a lot of pressure put on religious art buyers to buy this stuff, and they were lied to egregiously about the resale value. Kinkade himself was an alcoholic, in and out of recovery and died in an overdose that his family attempted to cover up. Like these other subjects I have researched there’s this double edged sword of being a great artist but also the pressures of an audience. In ICP’s case there’s mostly a pressure to NOT talk about their religious ideology. In Kinkade’s case, quite the opposite.
I also do a lot of worshipping in my pop culture podcast. My cohost and I will talk a lot about something and listeners can request subjects that we should talk about.