Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time
Eminem - "White America"
Written by Marshall Mathers, Jeff Bass, L. Resto, and Steve King
From The Eminem Show (Aftermath, 2002)
I'll just say it right out front: I didn't learn to appreciate Eminem until 2002, a-thousand-in-hip-hop years after his commercial breakthrough. It would be dishonest to state or imply that I "slept" on him at first. The fact is, I actively avoided Eminem's work from the beginning. I figured that I, a funkafied, culturally-savvy mixed-race Californian musician old enough to have original Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five 12-inch singles in the crates, needn't pay heed to this perceived imposter from the heartland who, as far as I knew, was just party-crashing the most important musical development of the late 20th century. I had also heard horrible things about his rampant homophobia and other questionable philosophical positions. I changed the channel when his videos came on TV, and closed my ears when folks tried to tell me he possessed skills. Then one day, shortly after the release of The Eminem Show, I heard "White America", and had to take a closer look.
Songs that deal with race and racism in American pop music can usually be traced to a handful of specific traditions. There's a protest/socially conscious tradition, which typically laments the current race relations climate, and sets eyes on a future where things will be better for all (e.g., Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come", Janis Ian's "Society's Child"). There's a more confrontational tradition, which aims for revealing uncomfortable and previously unexpressed truths about race relations, often addressing institutional power (e.g. Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam", the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, and Oakland hip-hop artist Paris). There is also a more observational and/or metaphorical tradition, which aims to teach about the perils of racism through a story, observation, or ironic narration (e.g., Bruce Hornsby's "The Way It Is", Kid Creole's "Consequently". Lastly, there's a kind of transcendent tradition, which aims to transcend racial (and other societal) barriers by refusing to acknowledge or believe in the barriers in the first place (e.g., Michael Jackson's "Black or White", Prince's "Uptown", any song with the phrase "black, white, red, yellow, or brown" in it).
Eminem, whose pop success and drama-filled personal life unfortunately sometimes blunts the impact of his trenchant lyrical abilities and masterful (and often radical) approach to phrasing, started off as an angry white Midwestern kid. One presumes he had only a cursory familiarity with these song traditions. It makes perfect sense that "White America", which is mostly about race and racial perceptions in America, fits into none of the typical traditions. Instead, it is an unapologetic, deceptively sophisticated rant from someone who knows very well what he is and isn't (racially), and what that represents (fairly or not) to the bulk of the titular masses, and everyone else, too.
"White America" accomplishes a lot, lyrically, in its album run-time of 5:24. Over a self-produced rock-informed doomy brand of boom-bap, the first verse marvels at the legions of fans he has managed to acquire thus far, and gleefully revels in the fact that authority figures (Congress, "the government") are displeased with his work. The taunting chorus is the most revealing of the song's intent, however: "White America! / I could be one of your kids / White America! / Little Eric looks just like this / White America! / Erica loves my shit / I go to TRL / Look how many hugs I get!"
From Eminem's perspective as a sort of insider-outsider/proxy-minority within the dominant culture of "white America", the chorus serves as a wake-up call, a middle finger, and a boast all at once. He knows that as a white kid with black heroes, black friends, and a black subculture as his adopted milieu, that he embodies the worst fears of racists: the white race-traitor. He also knows that this perception is ridiculous, especially because millions of young American white kids have similar interests and experiences, and he's more than happy to let the parents of those kids know that what he represents is not so much an exception, but rather the new rule of the day. As someone who is (ethnically and in appearance) on the inside of "white America", but who considers himself having earned the right to call himself culturally, spiritually, and mentally outside of it, Eminem here pulls off something that, for obvious reasons, folks like Gil Scott-Heron and Chuck D can't seek to accomplish in a song: an implicit negation and implosion of white racism, from the inside out. Dig the bulk of the third verse:
"See the problem is I speak to suburban kids / Who otherwise would have never knew these words exist / Whose moms probably woulda never gave two squirts of piss / Till I created so much motherfuckin' turbulence / Straight out the tube, right into your living room I came / And kids flipped when they knew I was produced by Dre / That's all it took, and they were instantly hooked right in, and they connected with me too because I looked like them / That's why they put my lyrics up under this microscope, searchin' with a fine tooth comb, it's like this rope / Waitin' to choke, tightening around my throat / Watching me while I write this, like I don't like this (Nope) / All I hear is: lyrics, lyrics, constant controversy, sponsors working round the clock / To try to stop my concerts early / Surely hip-hop was never a problem in Harlem, only in Boston / After it bothered the fathers / Of daughters starting to blossom..."
That dazzling verse ends with the following line, wherein Eminem drives home the fact that he indeed is part of "white America", but not an antiquated white America, rather, a new, hip-hop-infused white America which will not be going back to the way it used to be: "Just look at me like I'm your closest pal / The posterchild, the motherfuckin' spokesman now, for (white America)...."
In a strange way, the tradition from above to which "White America" is probably most closely related is the protest/socially conscious tradition, as Eminem seems to have his eyes on a future where Americans learn to accept the shifting cultural landscape (and face their own attendant hypocrisies). The song is also unrelentingly confrontational, of course, with its taunting and knowing tone directed at folks stuck in denial, clinging to an aging and soon-to-be dead worldview regarding race and culture. As angry and bratty and belligerent as Eminem comes across in this song (and there are certainly some unattractive sentiments and language in the piece), at root, "White America" actually seems to encourage listeners to get-with-it and learn to accept things that at first might seem too new or different or not-quite-right. In my case, that means loosening my preconceptions about a bottle-blonde white rapper from the trailer parks of Detroit, so that I could appreciate his staggering gifts, unfettered by my own prejudices and judgments.
Eminem's cryptic but nevertheless discernible push towards open-mindedness and understanding in this piece, as well as the sass-back line "I could be one of your kids!", ultimately makes "White America" similar in message to folkie Janis Ian's classic interracial love-story, "Society's Child", which I mentioned above. Snobs, haters, purists, and by-the-book boomers who maintain that they will experience philosophical dissonance while trying to draw a musical line from Janis Ian to Eminem do so at the risk of missing the point entirely.