"The Paradox of Eminem: Will the Real Slim Shady Please Stand Up?," The Free Radical 46 (April/May 2001): 2-7. [Reprinted excerpts in "Commentary," Society for Lesbian and Gay Philosophy (Spring/Summer 2001): 5-7. Also adapted for use in the course, "Backlash Against Women," taught by Tugce Arikan at Bilkent University, Bilkent Ankara, Turkey, for the week 9-13 December 2002, highlighting "Misogyny in Music.")
THE PARADOX OF EMINEM: WILL THE REAL SLIM SHADY PLEASE STAND UP?
By Chris Matthew Sciabarra
Damn! How much damage could you do with a pen? -
The pen is mightier than the sword. - Edward Bulwer-Lytton
It was a warm August afternoon, and all of the windows of my apartment were wide open. I could hear the playful screams of several young kids in the alleyway below. I had decided to listen to the newly purchased "Marshall Mathers LP" as I prepared my lunch in the kitchen, so I had to pump up the volume on my audio system in order to hear it. A voice bellowed: "This is another public service announcement brought to you in part by Slim Shady. Slim Shady does not give a fuck what you think. If you don’t like it, you can suck his fucking cock. Little did you know upon purchasing this album, you have just kissed his ass. Slim Shady is fed up with your shit. Anything else? Yeah, sue me."
Actually, by the time I’d heard the first expletive, I made a dash from the kitchen to the living room in a hapless quest to lower the volume before any other obscenities made it out of my speakers; I didn’t want to be accused of corrupting the youth! I soon discovered that this was one CD that had to be heard with earphones—especially if one wants to get the full effect. I’d known about the controversy, but nothing had quite prepared me for the experience of entering into Eminem’s deranged world, even if I had to kiss his ass as the price of admission.
Who is Eminem?
Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, the 28-year old singer took the stage name of Eminem, and developed a rapping style that was akin to stage acting. He cultivated an uncanny ability to alter the sound of his voice and to portray a series of personas that would dramatize the tensions in his life. The tensions are real: His mother has sued him over the lyrical content of those songs that are directed against her, and his wife Kim reportedly attempted suicide. After a messy separation from Kim, physical custody of their daughter was granted to her, while he retains joint legal custody and visitation rights. Still, he has been known, in concert, to kick around the stage an inflatable doll in Kim’s image. In mid-February, he pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon, but is also charged with pistol-whipping a man who allegedly kissed his wife outside a nightclub. Sentencing on the first charge won’t take place until April.
Chief among his alter egos is the misfit misanthrope, Slim Shady, who became a kind of therapeutic outlet for the rapper. "My true feelings were coming out," Eminem writes in his new book, Angry Blonde, "and I just needed an outlet to dump them in. I needed some type of persona. I needed an excuse to let go of all this rage, this dark humor, the pain, and the happiness." Once he did this, he became distressed "that people [had] started overanalyzing [his] lyrics." "I don’t need therapy. My music is my therapy." But he insists: "Every single word I say doesn’t necessarily mean something." For a generation that embraced a President who wondered "what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is," Eminem’s attitude is hardly rebellious at all; it captures the same ambiguity of language on display in contemporary American political culture. Yet, when Eminem publishes a book with his lyrics, how can one not analyze the text as a poetic expression of something deeper? At the very least, this rap artist is one smart entrepreneur: he knows that this is part of a multimedia marketing campaign, and that some of the analysis might resemble psychobabble. But even as he protests against this, he invites the parsing of words.
And the marketing has worked; debuting at number one on the Billboard album chart, his newest CD has sold about 10 million copies thus far in the U.S. alone, making it, easily, the fastest selling hip hop release in history. Eminem was voted "Sexiest Musician" on the Cosmogirl website, garnering about 50% of the vote among the top ten, a total of over 30 million votes, more than the #2 (Kevin Richardson of the Backstreet Boys) and #3 (Justin Timberlake of NSYNC) runners-up combined. More importantly, the album has been uniformly praised by critics, even those offended by its explicit lyrics, as "innovative," "groundbreaking," and great "storytelling." Named "Artist of the Year" by Spin magazine, and hailed as "arguably the most compelling figure in all of pop music," by Newsweek, not even protests against his "hate speech" have failed to shut down his performances on such college campuses as the University of Illinois. The fact that, on technical merits alone, he is a sharp, articulate rapper with a hard rhythmic sense who verbally punches each line with lasik precision, and that he is a white oddity in an otherwise black-dominated field, has only increased his marketability.
But this is no mere Pat Boone-like cashing-in on black music; Eminem is produced by black rap artist Dr. Dre. And black consumers are clearly purchasing his product, helping to place his album at the top of the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop chart as well. Whites are buying him in droves, however. In fact, young white males have become the biggest buyers of rap in America, making up 70% of the consumer market.
Hip Hop Culture
Born in the mid -70s, in the poorest neighborhoods of the South Bronx and Harlem, among such pioneers as Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc, and Afrika Bambaataa, the music hit the pop mainstream in 1979 with the Sugar Hill Gang’s "Rapper’s Delight." What was perceived as a novelty record was just the tip of a cultural iceberg; an industry—built by the hard work of entrepreneurial visionaries, like Russell Simmons and others—has taken hold of American youth, becoming a dominant force in music, advertising, and fashion.
The rebellion of youth in music is nothing new. The 20s had its Charleston, the 30s had its swing music, the 40s had Frank Sinatra. But throughout the twentieth century, even in the 50s and 60s, when Elvis moved his pelvis, and the Beatles let their hair down, the music centered on love found and love lost. Among Presley’s first hits were "Love Me Tender" and "Heartbreak Hotel," while the Beatles were singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Can’t Buy Me Love." Heartbreak can be found on Eminem’s albums too, but one won’t find any tenderness or hand-holding in songs that dramatize wife-killing and mother-raping. Still, even the themes that Eminem raps about are nothing new; it is only the packaging and the stinging delivery that have raised more than a few eyebrows.
Rap artists have always prided themselves on "keeping it real," telling stories that reflect the truth about people’s lives. As the late Tupac Shakur once said: "Hip Hoppers were given this world; they did not create it." So as rap has developed, the central aesthetic tension has been between a kind of lyrical Naturalism, which condemned kids to that world, and an incipient Romanticism, which held out the possibility of changing it. An art form that began as party music of the "put-your-hands-in-the-air-and-wave-em-like-you-just-don’t-care" variety, soon began to reflect—and reproduce—the ills of the communities from which it drew inspiration.
I was intimately aware of the music from its earliest days, because, as a college student, I earned extra money as a mobile DJ, mixing records at sweet sixteen parties and proms. Back then, when I played infectious hard-core songs like "The Message" (1982), by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, and "White Lines" (1983), by Melle Mel, the dance floor would become packed. These tracks had killer hooks and beats; they portrayed the disaster of cocaine and crack in the ghetto, which was "like a jungle sometimes," while nary an obscene word was uttered. The picture painted was frightening, but "the message" was a moral one: you have the volitional power to change your life. Aspire to something better. Nobody could ever accuse these rap pioneers of glorifying violence, drug use or the abuse of women.
Thereafter, the music developed in a number of directions—from Pop Hop to Radical to Gangsta. Among its universal themes, rap often focused on the braggadocio of rappers, who competed with one another in terms of who had the best "MC" skills, or the best riffs, or the flashier style, or the bigger car. Sometimes, the competition has spilled real blood, taking the lives of such artists as Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. And though men like Sean "Puffy" Combs remain tabloid fodder, the warfare is not restricted to men. The newest rap-cum-real-war has been sparked by a feud between Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim, leading to a recent shootout in Greenwich Village.
Not unlike lyrics in hard rock, metal, or even country, some rap has contained violent, sexist, misogynist, and homophobic content. 2 Live Crew’s "As Nasty as They Wanna Be," which featured songs like "Me So Horny," eventually led to a criminal prosecution in, of all places, Broward County, Florida—Town of Pregnant Chads—where, in June 1990, the U.S. District Court ruled the recording obscene. That decision was overturned on appeal in March 1993. But by February 1994, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on the effects of "violent and demeaning imagery in popular music on American youth." Periodic government hearings continue as industry leaders, artists, and politicians routinely debate the issues of censorship and artistic freedom.
No obscenity charges have yet been filed against Eminem, though violence and graphic sex are key to his lyrical content. He tells us in "Criminal," that "half the shit I say, I just make it up. To make you mad." The real questions then are: what half is real and what half is fake? For Eminem, "anybody with half a brain" could see that his lyrics are satirical and sarcastic, designed to show "how fucked up the world is." But they also reflect a dysfunctional childhood, in which he was alienated from his mother, unknown to his father, raised on welfare, and savagely bullied in school (as he tells us in "Brain Damage"). Drawing from these experiences, he has become one of the most successful rap artists in music history. In fact, at a recent Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibit, "Hip-Hop Nation: Roots, Rhymes, & Rage," his jumpsuit and sneakers are on display as cultural artifacts. Like ruby slippers in a glass case, his Air Jordan sneakers sit alongside those of Run-DMC and others. (Given the larger than life controversy, I was surprised to see that he has relatively small feet; "you know what they say about small feet?," I overheard somebody say. Could it be that, in the rap wars, size really does matter?)
Misogyny and Homophobia
In "Bitch Please II," Eminem claims that "somewhere deep down, there’s a decent human being in me. It just can’t be found." And in "Marshall Mathers," he raps: "I think I was put here to annoy the world. And destroy your little four-year-old boy or girl." Given the content of many of his tracks, it is easy to take him at his word, but it is also true that the meanest content is often provoked by critics who dare him to up the ante. Nobody escapes Eminem’s wrath; he "disses" boy bands and girl singers, Sonny Bono, Bill Clinton, and even the quadriplegic Christopher Reeve. But his most venomous raps are reserved for women and homosexuals. He lashes out at women in general and at the two most significant women in his life: his mother and his wife. In "Kill You," he makes fun of those who suggest that he’d rape his own mother for a laugh; so he tells his mother to "just bend over and take it like a slut." When he feels that his "Slim Shady" character has gone over the edge, he laughs it off and says: "I’m just playin’, ladies. You know I love you." Such double messages from competing personas pervade Eminem’s lyrics; he’ll giveth and taketh away in the same track, reveling in the moral ambiguity of it all.
The misogyny takes on more violent dimensions in such tracks as "‘97 Bonnie and Clyde," from his first album, "The Slim Shady LP." Eminem explains in his book that Kim, his wife, had used their daughter "as a weapon against me and she wasn’t lettin’ me see her." So he sampled Hailie’s voice on the recording, which dramatizes a guy who cuts his wife’s throat, throws her in the trunk of his car, and throws the body in the water as his little daughter watches "Mama" go "bye-bye": "One, two, free, . . . WHEEEEEE! (Whooooooshhhhh) There goes Mama, spwashin’ in the water. No more fightin’ wit Dad, no more restraining order."
This theme is revisited in "Kim," where he alternates between "I love you" and "I hate you," until he chokes his "cheating," screaming wife: "Now Bleed! Bitch, Bleed! Bleed! Bitch, Bleed! Bleed!" He tells us in Angry Blonde that when he played the track for his wife, it helped them to open up communication again after a long impasse—this, despite the fact that he continues to sport a tatoo on his abdomen that says: "Kim—Rot in Pieces."
Such songs have prompted protests from women’s groups, but the real outcry has come from gay and lesbian groups, like GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), whose members have been horrified by the artist’s apparent hatred of homosexuals and his frequent use of the word "faggot." This whole controversy began in the aftermath of his first album, where he rapped about how his junior high school teacher had "wanted to fuck" him; the "only problem was my English teacher was a guy." When Kurt Loder of MTV asked Eminem if this was an expression of homophobia, Eminem was dumbfounded. "It was just something funny, but like most of my lyrics, it got analyzed too much. Right away, people started saying all kinds of shit. Like I don’t like gay people. I don’t hate gay people," he protests, "I just don’t stray that way. That’s not me, I don’t care about gay people. Just don’t bring that shit around me." (Here, Eminem simply echoes the attitudes of his producer, Dr. Dre, who, with a smirk on his face, told MTV: "I don’t really care about those kind of people.")
In more recent interviews, Eminem has explained that the "lowest, degrading thing you can say to a man when you’re battling him is to call him a faggot." For Eminem, "‘Faggot’ . . . doesn’t necessarily mean gay people. . . . ‘Faggot’ to me just means . . . taking away your manhood. You’re a sissy. You’re a coward. Just like you might sit around in your living room and say, ‘Dude, stop, you’re being a fag, dude.’ This does not necessarily mean you’re being a gay person. It just means you’re . . . being an asshole, or whatever. . . . That’s the way the word was always taught to me . . . I like gay men."
Well, OK. This particular use of the word "faggot" can be heard in quite a few of his tracks, including "Remember Me?" and "Kill You." And it is not exactly a novel use of the word. Veteran newspaper columnist Ed Lowe points out that back in the 50s, the word was a virtual rite of passage for many boys. If you were called a "faggot," it simply meant that you were the type of kid who "wore high, polished oxford shoes" and who raised your hand in class and handed in neatly written homework assignments on time. I went to elementary school in the 60s, and, yeah, even I remember being called a "faggot" once or twice just because I was a good student—though I never wore high, polished oxford shoes.
But even when Eminem acts conciliatory, his ultimate response is to rile his critics. In "Bitch Please II," he says that "when you see me . . . using the ‘fag’ word so freely, it’s just me being me. Here: You want me to tone it down? Suck my fuckin’ dick, you faggot. Happy now?" Instead of defending himself against charges of homophobia, he simply went full throttle on "The Marshall Mathers LP" with some of the most vile statements about gays and lesbians that he could dream up.
In "The Real Slim Shady," he presents himself as the "antidote" to a world where people "hump dead animals and antelopes" and "a man and another man [can] elope (EWWW!)." And in "Marshall Mathers," he screams: "‘Slim Anus,’ you damn right, Slim Anus. I don’t get fucked in mine like you two little flaming faggots." He attacks a critic who says he "fabricated my past. He’s just aggravated I won’t ejaculate in his ass." (Of this last statement, one of my interview subjects said that "if he keeps getting into trouble, he’s gonna go to jail, and then somebody will be ejaculating in his ass.")
But Eminem’s fascination with gay men is epitomized in his character, "Ken Kaniff," who surfaces several times on both of his CDs. Actually, the twelfth track on both "The Slim Shady LP" and "The Marshall Mathers LP" is called "Ken Kaniff." On the first album’s track, "Kenneth Kaniff from Connecticut" places an obscene crank call to Eminem, his "cockboy," his "bitch," telling him how much he wants to "lick [his] ass." On the second album, we get to hear the slurping of two guys performing oral sex on Ken; he asks them to say his name, but when one of them, in the heat of the moment, utters Eminem’s name instead, Ken is incensed. He storms off angrily: "If you want Eminem, you could have Eminem!" Ken can also be found in "The Kids," where he’s a teacher "out with pneumonia—HE’S GOT AIDS!," and "I’m Back," where he not only "finds the men edible," but is an Internet pedophile "tryin’ to lure your kids with him, into bed."
Ken also shows up in "Criminal," the most oft-quoted track by those wishing to document Eminem’s gay-hate. Not even murder victim Giovanni Versace is spared: "My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge. That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or lez. Or the homosex, hermaph, or a trans-a-vest. Pants or dress—hate fags? The answer’s ‘yes.’ Homophobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic. Starin’ at my jeans, watchin’ my genitals bulgin’ (Ooh!) That’s my motherfuckin’ balls, you’d better let go of ‘em. They belong in my scrotum, you’ll never get hold of ‘em. Hey, it’s me, Versace. Whoops, somebody shot me! And I was just checkin’ the mail. Get it? Checkin’ the ‘male’?" And then, as is typical with this master of ambiguity, Eminem raps: "C’mon! Relax guy, I like gay men. Right, Ken [Kaniff]? Give me an amen (AAA-men!)"
Here, of course, the use of the word "fag" has nothing to do with being a coward. It is used as an epithet for a gay man. And in concert—a concert that opens as a take-off on the "Blair Witch Project" and other horror movies, with the artist appearing on stage in a "Jason" hockey mask, chainsaw in hand—the performance of "Criminal" is even more over-the-top. As if to magnify its implicit homophobia, one of his posse chases people around the stage with a huge blown-up penis: that fear of the male homosexual member, writ large. The crowd loves it, and everyone is encouraged to hold up their middle finger.
Surprisingly, conservative Lynne Cheney, wife of the Vice President and mother of a lesbian daughter, joins GLAAD in lamenting Eminem’s lyrics. She rejects the view that he’s simply being ironic: "Give me a break. This is a man who talks about murdering his own mother, he talks about murdering women generally. He talks about killing them slowly so you can hear them scream for a long time." For Cheney, "Eminem is certainly . . . the most extreme example of rock lyrics used to demean women, advocate violence against women, violence against gay people." Likewise, GLAAD representatives decry Eminem’s irresponsibility, his promotion of "material that encourages violence and hatred," which "is especially negligent considering the market for this music has been shown to be adolescent males, the very group that statistically commits the most hate crimes."
Some artists, such as Moby, have expressed similar disapproval of the homophobic and misogynistic tone of the music. But the overwhelming majority of artists have focused on Eminem’s right to free expression, including performers such as Stevie Wonder, Madonna and Bono of U2, and such openly gay artists as Melissa Etheridge and Elton John. Even singer Jennifer Lopez has spoken up in his defense. (Lopez’ support comes despite the fact that he targets her on his album: "If this chick was my own mother, I’d still fuck her with no rubber and cum inside her. And have a son and a new brother at the same time. And just say that it ain’t mine.")
In one respect, as John Leo has observed, Eminem might be symbolic of a huge youth reaction against the stifling atmosphere of political correctness, which regulates every form of speech in schools and colleges across the country. But in another respect, even Eminem has not crossed the PC line on certain subjects. He says he’d never joke about his little daughter; but one will also not see any tracks on his CDs that target blacks or Jews—no tracks titled "Lynch the Nigga" or "Throw Another Kike on the Fire." As long as it remains socially acceptable to use the word "faggot," Eminem will continue to explore its multiple connotations in ways that, I’m sure, he’s not yet exhausted. Indeed, in the aftermath of all the protests, he promises that his "next album will counter everything the critics said this year as far as gay bashing" is concerned. Who knows? Maybe it will be called "The Ken Kaniff LP," and we’ll be offered a poetic and graphic take on the joys of gay sex.
When Eminem is not sending out mixed messages about women and homosexuals, he’s busy providing us with sickening snapshots of people overdosing on drugs ("My Fault") or of parental irresponsibility ("Who Knew"). In the latter track, he takes aim at the hypocrisy of a political culture that excuses Presidential infidelity, while demanding censorship of his lyrics: "You want me to fix up lyrics while the president gets his dick sucked? Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts. Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up. Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor. Quit tryin’ to censor music, this is for your kid’s amusement. (The kids!) But don’t blame me when li’l Eric jumps off of the terrace. You shoulda been watchin’ him—apparently you ain’t parents." Bill Clinton gets honorable mention in "Criminal," as well, where Eminem tells us that his "morals went thhbbpp when the President got oral sex in his Oval Office on top of his desk off of his own employee."
While he hardly offers a moral ideal, he uses perverse humor to portray social ills as things that should not be emulated. And the rapper is careful not to present himself as a role model. In "Role Model," he explains that "the message . . . was just complete sarcasm. I wanted to be clear: Don’t look at me like I’m a fucking role model." And so, he offers this chorus of self-contempt as a warning to those who would idolize his wretched Slim Shady alter ego: "I came to the club drunk with a fake ID. Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me! I’ve been with ten women who got HIV. Now don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me! I got genital warts and it burns when I pee. Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me! I’ll tie a rope around my penis and jump from a tree. You probably wanna grow up to be just like me!!!"
No track is more chilling than "Stan," in which an obsessed fan (named Stan) writes Slim Shady to tell him how much he worships him. He sent Slim quite a few letters that had gone unanswered, but figures they must have gotten lost in the mail. He tells him how his girlfriend is pregnant, just like Slim’s, and that he’ll name his daughter after Slim’s daughter. He owns every one of Slim’s recordings, and has plastered all of Slim’s posters and photos around his apartment.
When he doesn’t hear from Slim, he sends yet another letter, this time a bit more irate, because Slim didn’t have the decency to say hello to him or to give his younger brother Matthew an autograph at the last concert they attended. He identifies with the intimate details of Slim’s life. "Everything you say is real," he tells Slim, which is why he now sports a tatoo of Slim’s name across his chest. He says he talks about Slim "24/7," so much that his girlfriend is jealous. In a postscript that borders on homoerotic obsessiveness, he tells Slim: "We should be together too."
Six months, and no response from Slim. So, Stan’s last letter is dictated on a cassette recording as he is drunk and driving at 90 m.p.h. on the freeway, his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car. He tells Slim he ripped all his pictures off the wall. He’s angry that Slim didn’t even attempt to rescue him from the ills of his life. "I love you Slim, we coulda been together. Think about it!" But now, doomed to an unrequited love, he’s blaming his idol for the impending tragedy, and tells Slim that he hopes his conscience eats at him. The car goes plunging off a bridge, into the water.
Slim finally responds to the letters he’s received, apologizing for not having written sooner. He sends along an autograph for Stan’s little brother. He tells him how his lyrics are "just clowning." He urges Stan to get some counseling, fearful that he’s taken this hero-worship to dangerous lengths. He tells Stan that he should embrace his girlfriend and treat her better, and though he is happy to be Stan’s inspiration, he is a bit alarmed by his fan’s obsessiveness. He relates how he’d heard on the news about a drunken driver who, in a similar fanatical state, went off a bridge—and then, in a flash of insight, he realizes that this was Stan, after all.
Throughout the rap, Eminem samples Dido’s haunting "Thank You," which was sung by Elton John in a duet with Eminem during the penultimate moments of the Grammy Awards broadcast on February 21st. John, who also presented Eminem with Best International Male Artist honors at the Brit Awards on the 26th, wanted to make a statement in support of artistic freedom. He admits that "the content of Eminem’s music . . . appeals to my English black sense of humor." He characterizes the material as "brilliant," "politically incorrect," "funny," "clever," "poetry." At the end of the performance, the two gentlemen hugged, while the audience gave them a standing ovation. Before he left the stage, Eminem flipped everybody the middle finger—his way, he said later, of telling his critics what they could do with their charges of homophobia. He swept the rap categories and won 3 Grammys, but failed to win the coveted "Album of the Year" award. He thanked "everybody who could look past the controversy to see the album for what it was—and what it wasn’t."
Derek McGovern ("Headbanging Caterwaulers," TFR, February-March 2001) asserts that "Gangsta Rappers such as the hugely popular Eminem do not require their audiences to think. Quite the contrary, in fact. Their music appeals to listeners precisely because of its anti-mind qualities." The music "cater[s] to the disaffected and the vulnerable," and teenagers are the "easiest prey."
But the problem here is that audiences are required to think about this music—and those who think about it are more likely to find startling levels of irony. The danger comes when the lyrics are accepted as is; in such cases, they reflect little more than cultural rot. Since Eminem’s humor often comes at the expense of his own grotesque, contemptible Slim Shady alter ego, however, there is more message to his methods than is at first apparent. This does not erase the fact that some of the content is sick and revolting, bordering on the pathological.
It might also be said, as Brian Doherty (Reason, December 2000/March 2001) observes, that Eminem’s negative lyrics capture an adolescent outrage and powerlessness. In a sense, they also capture all of the insecurity and sexual fragility of adolescence. But Eminem’s rebellion remains entirely other-defined: if others like it, Eminem hates it. This is not an individualist rebellion born out of authenticity and self-definition. It is for this reason that a song like "Stan" stands out as the most responsible track on his recent album, and why it seems to appeal to people—even his critics—the most: Because it dares to talk about individual responsibility and being your own person, rather than a mere carbon copy of somebody else.
I asked some local youth what they thought of Eminem, and this is what I found: Few of those interviewed took his hateful rhetoric as anything but a sick joke. None took his calls for criminality and drug use as something to be celebrated. But some worried about his influence on very young kids. Enzo, 22, likes Eminem’s beats, but he thinks the rap artist has "too much anger in him." He fears that "some kids might make him into a hero, or might think it’s OK to do what he says." Connie, 19, Enzo’s girlfriend, also worries about Eminem’s impact on the young. "He degrades a lot of people. I think there’s something wrong with him mentally." But she admits that the "disgusting words" he uses can be regularly heard "around junior high school and high school." She wishes the government could regulate minors’ access to the music, but she knows it can’t be controlled. "If kids can’t buy it, they’ll tape it, or get it off Napster. Sometimes if you make something illegal, you make it more desirable," Connie says, "just like drugs."
Like Connie, Aysha, 19, also thinks government censorship is futile. She appreciates Eminem’s talent and creativity, but criticizes his "narrow minded" rejection of any artists outside the hip hop community. Aysha thinks, however, that Eminem’s "music is not to be taken literally," and that his lyrics could "only provoke hatred of other people" among the "ignorant and [those who] were never taught values."
The overwhelming appeal of Eminem to young fans is that "he doesn’t care what people think," as Tony, 17, puts it. Or as Michael, 14, observes: "Eminem is just sayin’ what he wants to say." Michael, who is white, also identifies with Eminem because "he’s a white rapper and there aren’t that many out there." Still, he is appalled by some of the "mean" things that Eminem says about his mother and his wife. But his favorite track is "Stan." "I like him a lot, but I wouldn’t dye my hair and I wouldn’t try to look like him. Everybody’s got to be their own person." Michael acknowledges that some of the lyrics are offensive, and he admits: "If I was gay, I’d take it seriously." But if somebody goes out and beats up a gay person after listening to one of Eminem’s tracks, you can’t blame Eminem for that. Ultimately, Michael says, you have to hold individuals responsible for their actions.
John, 23, whose nickname is Rocky, echoes these sentiments. "You can’t blame the artist when people take what he’s saying literally." Rocky appreciates some of the themes that Eminem raps about; like Eminem, he never met his father. He lives with his girlfriend, and they are raising their kid together. He is most attracted to Eminem’s non-conformist attitude of "I say what I wanna say and do what I wanna do." If people tell Eminem not to say anything about gay people or about his mother, he goes against the grain. And there is nothing in Eminem’s lyrics, says Rocky, that is a revelation to any kid. "You go to a club, and everybody’s trippin’. People doin’ drugs, sniffin’ K." But trying to censor the music won’t work, Rocky says; "it’s un-American. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to it, don’t buy it. Period."
Anthony, 21, agrees with Rocky. For Anthony, Eminem’s lyrics are "horrible. But if the government suppresses that, then they’re going to have to suppress every other record that sounds like that. So I’d leave it alone." Anthony thinks that even parental advisory labels are "bullshit. You got 15 or 16-year-old kids sitting on the corner, smoking pot all night. And you’re worried about Slim Shady? The government can’t stop this, just like it can’t stop the selling of drugs or alcohol, or cigarettes to minors." Anthony understands why some groups are protesting Eminem’s lyrics, but he thinks protest is useless, and counterproductive. If he were a woman, or a lesbian, or a gay man, he observes, he would not give Eminem a second thought. "Protesting actually creates more interest . . . People will say: ‘I’ve never heard it, so I gotta go out and buy it’—and there’s another album sold." Anthony is not too thrilled with the state of rap music, even though he’s a big music fan. He thinks rap artists are engaged in "too much cursing" and too much boasting about "who they’re going to kill." Because he likes a song with a good beat, though, he enjoys Eminem’s "Real Slim Shady," and, given his own predilections for tatoos and body piercings, he also likes some of Eminem’s tatoos. But he doesn’t think Eminem is a role model. When asked: "Do you have any role models?," Anthony answers: "Yeah, me. Just me."
It has been said that a paradoxical writer uses words like bats, wherein we see both birds and mice. Eminem uses words in this fashion, but as long as he confines himself to metaphors and eschews brickbats, his freedom to say whatever he wants must be defended. Eminem’s music is not played much on the radio, except in some "expletive deleted" versions. A radio station in Wisconsin that played the unedited version of "The Real Slim Shady" now faces $7,000 in FCC fines; so much for free expression. Popular DJ personality, Geronimo, of New York City radio station WKTU-FM finds censorship contrary to "what this country is all about." He pointed out to me that he supports Eminem’s right to say whatever he wants, just as he’d support "a gay artist who would do a record bashing straights." Ultimately, however, the real value of the Eminem controversy, says Geronimo, is that it "makes people talk about music," and, indeed, this is a good thing. In fact, the music has raised consciousness; MTV, which featured an "Em-TV" promotional weekend, has also aired discussions and films on crimes directed against gays and lesbians.
Eminem has said that people should be taking his lyrics "with a grain of salt." He says it is not the kids who are freaking out, because they understand that "at the end of the day . . . it’s all a joke." So, now we understand the joke: most of the lyrics are deeply ironic and sarcastic, spoken from the misanthropic mouth of Eminem’s alter ego, Slim Shady.
But the bigger joke is on a generation of kids who listen to these endless tirades, hilarious though some of them might be, expressly crafted to offend the senses, and filled with little more than anger and pain. No love and no uplifting sense of the heroic potential and promise of youth. While it may be cathartic for some adolescents to laugh at the miseries of Eminem’s world as an expression of the pressures, pains, and insecurities they themselves feel, think of how much more helpful it might be if he gave kids something a bit more than a raised middle finger to cheer about. His "Stan" gives us a hint that some decency resides therein; a future album projecting that decency, even in the language that youths understand, might begin to fulfill one of the key functions of art: the communication of a moral ideal.