I murder a rhyme one word at a time.
You never heard of a mind as perverted as mine.
You better get rid of that nine, it ain’t gonna help.
What good’s it gonna do against a man that strangles himself.
—Eminem, “I’m Back”
Eminem, you can melt in my mouth anytime.
—Eminem fan, homemade poster
Eminem had a hard life coming up, violent and traumatic. He felt abandoned by his single mother, watched a lot of TV, was beaten into a coma by classmates, quit school after three tries at the ninth grade, and flipped burgers for a spell. In between, he paid his MC dues at local contests and on all kinds of stages. This much you know from the bijillion and one interviews the 27-year-old Detroit native has done since turning out two multiplatinum records within a year. And yes, homeboy’s come out on top: however dreadful his childhood, he’s learned to work his demons. Check the lyrics quoted above, off his new album, The Marshall Mathers LP: what’s more awful than a man who will do damage to himself? Or these lyrics, from the song “Under The Influence”: “Some bitch asked for my autograph / I called her a whore, spit beer in her face and laughed / I drop bombs like I was in Vietnam / All bitches is hos, even my stinkin’ ass mom.” (This would be the same mom who has famously hit him with a $10 million slander suit.) Eminem deploys his bad experiences like artillery, rat-a-tat, and doesn’t mind displaying his pissed-at-the-planet mania like some kind of medal he’s awarded to himself: good job, asshole, you’ve survived.
Angry and sad, boastful and self-disparaging, Em follows many artists who’ve emerged from bad beginnings, maybe a little surprised that he’s made it, but also resentful and looking for payback. Most accounts of Eminem focus on his true survivor status, because, you know, authenticity is important for credibility, not to mention sales. In the star profiles and the feature stories, Em comes off as really angry, really crazy, really belligerent, and, even better, really having reasons to be all of that. Those reasons make him good copy. And his whiteness makes him simultaneously terrifying and unscary, the perfect pop product. As the flavor of the minute, he’s the cover boy for Spin, The Source, Muzik, Stress, and XXL. He’s touring with Dre and Snoop for Up in Smoke, partying hard and causing trouble, just like he’s supposed to. Mad at his detractors, he accuses them of hypocrisy, of not accepting him as he thinks he is. In “Bitch Please II,” he spews, “So when you see me, dressin’ up like a nerd on TV / Or heard the CD usin’ the fag word so freely / It’s just me being me; here, want me to tone it down? / Suck my fuckin’ dick, you faggot.” You see the pattern, and it’s not news.
That Eminem’s imagination takes him to dark and disagreeable places is predictable; that he exhibits it so relentlessly and so profitably is something else. When people fret about Eminem’s wickedness or call him out for writing misogynistic and homophobic lyrics, they’re only stating the obvious, what he and his fans already know. And he’s ready with an answer. Or better, he is the answer, a walking-and-talking cultural symptom. In “The Way I Am,” Eminem expounds, “Since birth I’ve been cursed with this curse to just curse / And just blurt this berserk and bizarre shit that works / And it sells and it helps in itself to relieve / All this tension, dispensin’ these sentences.” So there it is: he’s performing therapy. And the culture in turn rewards him for being “outrageous,” for marking its limits. Undoubtedly, these limits are familiar. Eminem is no different from other wild-white-boy celebrities who punch out paparazzi, crash their cars, or dis their girls in public; sometimes they even smoke dope and carry concealed weapons. But they’re never so alarming as black men with guns. Not even. Eminem’s anger confined to specific targets and characters and often funny in its delivery is somehow understandable, even when it’s whiny. Listeners can assume he’s not talking about them (“I’m not a bitch!”). He claims to speak for social and political victims, kids who don’t get respect, who are pissed off and afraid (for instance, on the new record, the Columbine shooters, verbally abused by their classmates). He says he speaks for those who can’t speak for themselves (excepting, of course, those “bitches” and “fags,” who apparently don’t deserve to speak anyway). True, he’s no longer disenfranchised, but he remembers it well enough, at least for the moment, to act like he is.
This is, of course, the standard dilemma for artists whose currency is being—or seeming—real. There’s no way to win at this game: the industry loves authentic artists and immediately turns them not-authentic (the dreaded sell-out). Which means that even those performers who don’t claim authenticity (say, ‘N Sync), eventually succumb to its demands, assuming songwriting or producing duties on their albums, even if they’re not equipped. Eminem is working very hard to maintain his measure of realness. But it’s an uphill struggle. For all his raging and cursing, he’s adorable. Girls and boys love him on TRL, voting him into the same countdown as the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera (and, to be fair, those rebels Limp Bizkit and Korn). Hilariously, the kids vote him in even though his video is all about hating the consuming conformity exemplified by Britney, et. al. (And in fact, we’ve been here before, with Blink-182’s “All the Small Things,” a dis of popstars that made them popstars).
In a number of songs on the new album, including the current single, “The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem slams his “enemies” with comic book intensity. In the video, he wears a superhero costume and an insane asylum straitjacket while rapping, “I’m sick of you little girl and boy groups, all you do is annoy me / So I have been sent here to destroy you / And there’s a million of us just like me / Who cuss like me; who just don’t give a fuck like me / Who dress like me; walk, talk and act like me / And just might be the next best thing, but not quite me!” Of course, the irony is built into the song: Eminem’s signature style the bleached blond hair, pale skin, humungous T-shirt has spawned droves of lookalikes and wannabes. Voila, he’s a teen idol. Poor Em, can’t win for losing.
Perhaps this is just desserts. As XXL and Salon, among others, have noted, Eminem’s targets are easy and have been hit previously by other social critics. On The Marshall Mathers LP, he repeatedly disses the usual suspects: Britney, Carson Daly, the Insane Clown Posse, his mother. These aren’t exactly folks who have done or will do him harm, and they don’t cost him much; most of his fans (and others) are openly delighted to see the Christina fuck-me doll caught between Fred Durst and someone who vaguely looks like Carson. You know, it’s like, awesome.
And so, that these days, Marshall Mathers is doing battle with himself, spitting venom and verse like there’s no tomorrow. He’s remade himself between the two albums: the first was named for the “real” Slim Shady, the new one for the “real” Marshall Mathers, as if either of them is “real.” Still, the concerns on the two records are not so different: he remains mad at his wife for cheating on him, the pop industry for being crass and commercial, homosexuals for threatening his manhood (or something like that). And yet, as hardheaded and fucked up as he is when in performance mode—which appears to be continuous—Eminem is nothing if not self-conscious of his own artifice and extremity. There’s may be some irony in his current circumstances: after a couple of scuffles, he’s been charged with assault and carrying a concealed weapon. Ever-ready to talk about himself, he’s now telling interviewers that his fame has turned into a “nightmare,” that all he ever wanted was a “career in hip-hop,” as if this is a simple and straightforward desire. More often than not, such a career involves controversy and noise. And so Eminem, demonically clever white boy, brings it.
What’s most notable about all this hasn’t been much noted in the press. He’s termed inane and offensive, clever and ignorant. But he’s not called representative, not for his race, generation, genre, or gender, not even for his class (whatever that may be at this point). No one is saying that Eminem’s vile language or violent imagery typifies the white race or even the young urban white male. In part this is a function of his own acerbic self-censure, which allows him a comedic, almost Woody-Allen-style cut-and-run. And in part it’s because he’s hanging with Dre and them: he doesn’t “act white.” But the more immediate and discomforting reason is precisely this: he is white. And white boys don’t have to represent.