Defending Eminem: Or, Steely Dan Ain’t Nothin’ to Mess With

So Eminem didn’t win the Grammy for Album of the Year and Steely Dan did. (You didn’t know they put out a record this year? That’s okay; I don’t think they did either).


Not because he didn’t deserve it — even Radiohead, his only worthwhile competition in the category, told every available media outlet that he did. It’s just better that he lost, because in this validation-obsessed culture, winning Album of the Year or Best Picture or whatever the top prize is at the People’s Choice Awards, becomes a stamp of across-the-board credibility, a stamp that Eminem and his supporters don’t need and shouldn’t want.

By sweeping the rap categories but losing the big one, Eminem stays inside his own territory, throwing smart bombs against the cement wall that separates youth culture from the grown-up mainstream. And that is perfectly fine with me. This way, Eminem stays illegitimate in the eyes of those haters who have either never heard The Marshall Mathers LP and just reject it because they’ve been told they should, or those who have heard it and hate it because they assume that Eminem’s epithets must be 100% indicative of his “true” personality. If he remains somehow “illegitimate,” he also remains viable, capable of pissing them off, and intriguing.

He remains that way despite the asinine hype and hubbub about his Elton-ized “Stan” (which turned out to be nothing more or less than a nice little piece of pop theater carried out by two blondes who are both really good at producing just that) and despite the overblown introduction to his performance by NARAS figurehead Michael Greene. Em simply laid back, won three awards, cleverly sang his smartest song, and then flipped everyone off, arm in arm with the outest and proudest gay male in entertainment. A potent non-statement, from a dissected artist to an expectant public: “All this controversy and hand-wringing has been your problem all along.” A middle finger jutting above the camera’s borders. “And after all that build up, it still is.” As we cut to commercial, there will be no resolution.

How beautiful. At popular music’s senior prom, Eminem did what he has done perfectly for the past two years: pissed in the punch and left us to deal with it. Disagreeable or not, it’s refreshing to see a pop star fan flames and not feel immediately compelled to play the firefighter right afterwards. It’s also refreshing to see somebody stand on the global stage and relentlessly toy with social constructs, the cult of celebrity, and the English language, all at the same time.

Now that Eminem has been safely rebuked by the thunderous event that is Steely’s Two Against Nature, the coast is apparently clear. The feared invasion is not coming, at least not yet, and Eminem will probably go away for a little while, at least if you take him at his word, which I know you all do! So now that things are safe and sound and the battle has been won, I extend an invitation to the haters: reconsider while you still can, before the inevitable burn of overexposure sets in and renders Eminem irrelevant.

Come along and think a little before giving in to a knee-jerk reaction. You may find yourself packing in an extra prayer before bedtime, begging the sweet Lord to leave Slim on the charts for a long, long while, if for no other reason than because he’s the only artist in the Top 40 doing anything that inspires any kind of serious cultural debate and involved analysis. Or you might just turn full circle and revel in the red-faced fury of The Marshall Mathers LP, the first truly dangerous pop album in ten years, and the first hip-hop record ever to so effectively mix thug sensibility with the snarling nihilism of punk rock and the firecracker irreverence of Lenny Bruce. If you still can’t get past the nasty little cuss words, well then, by all means continue gardening or rockin’ out to Matchbox Twenty, because people like you have never wanted (and will never want) anything vaguely challenging or subversive in your mainstream, from Elvis Presley to Andy Kaufman to Public Enemy to Marshall Mathers.

Obviously, I like Eminem. I like him a lot. I think there’s much more to him than there is to the average pop star: he could be a genetic splicing of Kurt Cobain’s wounded anger with Axl Rose’s hair-trigger temper, raised on a steady diet of NWA and George Carlin records. I like his fearlessness, the way he gets a kick out of the whirlwind he’s caused. I envy his ability to come up with monster dis after monster dis, because it’s pretty impressive to be the best argument-ender in rap music, a game where you’re often judged by how much creativity you can put into a kiss-off. I like his grossly underappreciated sense of humor, as sarcastic and self-effacing as it is juvenile and self-aggrandizing. Most of all, I like his skill. None of this would be happening, not the tens of millions of records sold worldwide, not the Haddasah Lieberman-led Congressional Hearings on his lyrical content last fall, and certainly not the deafening racket over these silly awards if Eminem couldn’t hold it down. He can, as well as any other MC out right now, and that’s the biggest reason why people don’t know what to do with him: he’s really good.

I must admit that before I came down on that side of the fence, I had to think about it long and hard. There’s plenty to digest on The Marshall Mathers LP. It’s a 75-minute sustained howl, vicious rhyme after vicious rhyme about homosexuals, women, violence, drugs, Columbine, his own mother, and all sorts of mayhem, filtered through three distinct personalities vying for airtime in one young man’s throat. Some of the material, like “Kim,” where Mathers plays himself and his wife in a graphic and disturbing murder fantasy, came closer to scaring me upon initial contact than any music had since I was 6 and used to freak out about Michael Jackson’s song on the E.T. soundtrack. I ascertained pretty quickly that this was not kid stuff, and that the quirky and comparatively innocuous bubble-gum name-calling in the TRL smash “The Real Slim Shady” was an exception, not the rule.

So I kept listening — to the record, to the explosive responses from indignant gay rights groups and PTA presidents, concerned women and government officials, confused rock critics and hiphop heads. Before long, I realized I was listening to the album in its entirety more than once a day. I started memorizing lines, at first to make my friends laugh, and then because I couldn’t help it. People kept debating, on MTV, in Rolling Stone, in The Source, in Congress (hearing Mrs. Lieberman recite “Kill You” was, um, unsettling and surreal), on street corners. My dad asked me about “this Eminem guy.” And Marshall himself just rolled right through, pistol-whipping someone outside a nightclub, counter-suing his mother, selling out stadiums, and refusing to answer any questions about the volatile content of his hugely popular album. And then, at some point, all the static and all the question marks went away, and my take on the whole thing turned crystal clear. I decided that this record is brilliant, as brilliant as anything I’d heard in a long time, because it’s that rarest of beasts: an artistically satisfying multi-platinum major label hit that galvanizes cultural reaction and challenges the way we receive popular music.

Here’s what I mean by that last part. Eminem uses words like “‘faggot” and “bitch” as frequently as most people use “and” or “the,” and litters his rhymes with tales of fantastic violence and substance abuse. He also quite intelligently challenges parents to take care of their children and quit blaming celebrity culture, cautions against obsessive fanaticism by clearly delineating the stark line between performer and performance, and takes on the government for its wild-goose-chasing after the entertainment industry following the tragedy in Littleton. And whenever there’s a space to be filled, he stuffs it with wise-ass wordplay and high school-level bathroom jokes.

This is pop art at its finest: three completely different styles, three completely different characters, seamlessly woven together on one record. Slim Shady is the brutal, close-minded evil that blossoms inside disenfranchised men with spirit-crushing jobs, dysfunctional family lives, and bleak prospects: Fight Club gone ignorant. Marshall Mathers is the struggling voice trying to find reason, the flickering porch light in the downpour, the angry kid shouting at the top of his lungs because he doesn’t know how else to respond to a world so profoundly messed up. Eminem is the stage name, the class clown willing to say just about anything to avoid being bullied, hungry to soak up the attention so sorely lacking elsewhere in his life.

Pretty involved stuff. But does that make it cool to spew endlessly about killing gays and women, all the while employing wildly offensive phraseology? Nope. Is it true that much of our literature and film is pockmarked with such scumbag sentiments, and that we never so much as bat an eyelash because, hey, that’s what writers do? Yup.

And so we revisit Slim and Dre’s own not fully articulated but quite credible line of defense, the same one Ice-T himself threw down over that whole “Cop Killer” fiasco. If Marshall Mathers was a screenwriter who crafted a screenplay of comparable complexity to what he’s achieved with this record, creating these characters for a film about an abused and abusive young man whose deep emotional scarring manifests itself through manic depression and schizophrenia, he’d probably be hailed as an incisive postmodernist or at least a credible and imaginative artist. Ditto if he was a novelist or playwright. He certainly wouldn’t be castigated for conjuring up such an over-the-top homophobe, as we are all educated pretty early on to distinguish between the author and the author’s characters. If he was a performance artist who never broke character(s), even in interviews, so as to keep everyone guessing about when the “real” him was talking, he’d probably be called visionary for subverting our expectations and commenting on the audience/artist relationship. He’d probably even draw comparisons to Andy Kaufman and other confrontational entertainers who have blurred the distinction between where the act ends and reality begins.

And if he were a stand-up comic, using taboo phrases and derogatory terms initially to shock but eventually to numb his audience to the ridiculous stigma attached to simple little words, he’d be the heir apparent to Bruce and Carlin, the latest in a line of risk-taking First Amendment mavericks. I think Eminem does that, to a large extent. But he’s a pop musician, and in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the public, pop music doesn’t qualify as an art form. We want three minutes of clear-headed finger-snapping bliss, not loaded material that actually requires us to come armed with our analytical skills. The response to The Marshall Mathers LP from disconnected conservatives and hypersensitive liberals is hard and fast (and, amazingly, gleaned not from their own interactions with the author but from taking everything Mathers says on the record at face value): Eminem’s a hatemonger and a psychopath, a degenerate in need of muzzling.

Slim is doubly screwed as a rapper operating on the fringes of the pop world. He is bound by genre constraints that don’t apply to similarly themed works by such “peers” as… well, Steely Dan. It should be noted that Two Against Nature sports one song in which a first-person narrator has an affair with an underage woman and another in which some dude sexually propositions his cousin. But these men are in their mid-40s, and they play guitars and such, so they must be storytellers! Eminem, on the other hand, raps. Off go the boomer alarms and, by and large, the boomers are still the (white) boys and girls voting for the Grammys. In their eyes, he must be cut down for raping his mom and killing his wife in his songs, because, well, because it’s just different! After all, what rapper is sophisticated enough to be a storyteller?

A lot of them, actually, and perhaps particularly this one. But it doesn’t really matter. It all rolls off Eminem’s back like re-pressed records off an assembly line. His biggest win on Grammy night was not winning. And if you still want to hate, be my guest. I’m sure Marshall Mathers wouldn’t have it any other way.