The Konformist

August 2000

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In Defense of Eminem

Robert Sterling

Eric Boehlert, in his critique of Eminem for Salon, asks the question which anyone I know who listens to his music is asking: how can listeners excuse his cruel, crude and nasty message? How can anyone overlook the ugliness of his tales of rape, murder and hate when discussing his supposed art? Considering the offensive misogyny, homophobia and nihilism in his lewd and lurid songs, how could anyone like his music?

The answer is a simple one: the songs of Eminem are hilarious.

To Mr. Boehlert, that may be a weak excuse, but it is a truthful one. And it is a truth that doesn't translate well onto paper, as reading the sample of Eminem's lyrics clearly shows. Indeed, after hearing Slim Shady last year, I was telling a friend of mine (who isn't P.C. by any stretch) about the songs, and after hearing the description of Eminem (in an Animal House inspired spoof) advocating drunken date rape and decapitation of cheating spouses, he responded, "You know what, I actually am offended." Reading Eminem's lyrics are shocking, and listening to them are perhaps even more shocking.

Shocking, yes, but there's a difference between Eminem's music and Axl Rose's whine in "One in a Million". The difference is a minor one and yet all important. It is the difference between Sam Kinison and Andrew Dice Clay, the difference between Madonna at her best and Courtney Love at any level. It is that fine line between a talented manipulator who delights at rubbing people's nose in taboo, and a second-rate media whore wallowing in shock because they have no other way to grab attention.

Central to the pleasure of listening to Eminem is how he dares people not to laugh at his music, yet still manages to do precisely that. The fact that it is entertaining is certainly disturbing, just as the anti-social ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange was. Stanley Kubrick (and Anthony Burgess before him in the novel) made people squirm by forcing them to watch Alex and his fellow misfits beat a man viciously, then leave him helpless as he watches them gang rape his wife. The dark secret is what made people really squirm was how much fun it was to watch.

Of course, you don't need to go back to Kubrick at his peak to find such delightfully disturbing mayhem. Look at Joe Pesci in his master performance as a lovable psychopath in Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, or John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson having a nice chit-chat before performing a mob hit at the start of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Musically, you don't have to go far: Eminem is following in the footsteps of his mentor Dr. Dre and his partners in musical crime NWA, who took sonic shock to depths that Eminem is now only arguably surpassing.

Yeah, I know, these are the usual suspects that Mr. Boehlert claims are used to supposedly justify Eminem's nasty message. The reason I list these suspects is because behind all this shocking fun there is a deeper question: why is it so entertaining?

This is the real subversion and relevance in Eminem's work. We live in a society built upon anti-human values, where there is more money in blood than there is in life. We live in a dog-eat-dog economic system, where, paradoxically, corporations demand people to squash all individualism and become obedient organization men to survive. The choice to many is a simple one, become a mental slave or become a sociopath.

Given such options, is it really surprising that Eminem is such a blast? Is it a surprise that Burgess and Kubrick expect people to cheer the celebration of destructive free will over being an unwilling drone? Is it a surprise that Robert De Niro in Scorsese's Taxi Driver is such a sympathetic hero, despite being a guy nobody in their right mind would want to hang out with for even five minutes? Eminem is certainly in this tradition, the tradition of classic Stones, The Sex Pistols, and even GNR at peak form wallowing in the Appetite for Destruction.

Perhaps Mr. Boehlert thinks I'm ignoring Eminem's message here. Here is something he ignores: Eminem (whose real name is Marshall Mathers, hence the title of his latest album) sings his deranged attacks under a character named Slim Shady. Slim Shady is not Eminem or Mathers, no more than De Niro was the racist, violent Travis Bickle or Jake La Motta. Indeed, in his hit single "The Real Slim Shady" he alludes to killing Eminem's mentor Dre and hiding the corpse in his basement. Clearly, this is not to be taken seriously: why should anything else in his songs be? Part of the humor in the song "Guilty Conscience" is that Slim Shady's id is contrasted with Dr. Dre as the enlightened ego, who comes off even less convincing than Clint Eastwood's treacherous gunslinger-for-hire did as Sergio Leone's supposed "Good." The message is clear: Shady is sooooo shady, he even makes Dre look like a model citizen.

In the end, nothing I write can defend the work of Eminem from Mr. Boehlert's well-argued critique. The only thing that can is the music itself. You can intellectualize music all you want, but in the end you either like something or you don't. Go ahead, give Eminem's CDs a spin (or download his MP3s from Napster if you wish.) For what it's worth, I think this is the finest rap album since Dr. Dre's last great protege Snoop Doggy Dogg gave us Doggystyle, and the greatest piece of anti-social cultural subversion since Beavis and Butthead. In a pop music world filled with fabricated fluff like the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync, I'll take Shady any day. And even with its vicious satire, it is more honest than the dressing like Lolita whores while feigning good-girl virginity by fake-boobed harlots like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera (and don't I love them for it.) Eminem is a welcome relief from the TRL drivel normally served up by Carson Daly and co., and I for one consider Eminem rock music's new great hope.

Con: In Defense of Eminem

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