Who can listen to Eminem’s discography today and not be struck by one of popular music’s most prolonged and extraordinary expressions of interminable sadness?
"My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge / that’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or les / or a homosex, hermaph, or a trans-a-vest / pants or dress, hate fags? The answer’s yes."
Here is what it meant to be a man if you were a certain type of boy in the United States: if you were, as I suppose I was, a child of the '90s, an accidental legatee of America’s late-century traumas and shibboleths, moral panics and incidental neuroses; if you were, as I suppose I was, a son of the South, a student of flash floods and late afternoon cloud formations, whose happiness could be most intelligibly derived in the censored light of the sun, in the postdrome of a thunderstorm, in front of a rain puddle, wading an empty two-liter bottle with the Coca-Cola label scratched off, fishing for tadpoles; and if you were, as I suppose I was, a boy for whom melancholy could be said to “come easily”, a boy for whom softness and tenderness were not aspirational conditions but the general alignment, or what they now euphemize on MTV as a “creature of sensitivity”.
Here is what it meant to be a man if you were a certain type of boy in the United States and MTV had not yet incorporated into its Viacom production notes a habit of euphemizing you as a “creature of sensitivity”.
It meant: a debt to be paid, to be settled at a later date.
It was the last summer of the Clinton administration, and to a child whose understanding of the world had come almost entirely by way of comparison to a past pockmarked by absence -- the absence of TV, the absence of refrigeration, the absence of civil rights -- modernity seemed like it had more or less “worked out”: that humanity could stall here, and it would more or less stay the same. Any disappointment we might have about how the modern world turned out, well, we would just have to get used to.
My family and I had just moved from Alabama, where we had grown familiarly adjusted to the rhythms and contours of living in a small city, the gambol of church bells on Sunday morning. Houston had the unwieldiness of a casino floor at the Venetian at 11PM on New Year’s Eve, with the added qualification that nobody ever seemed happy to be there, wherever they were, at any given time. I watched them from the bus window (it was always a bus window) on Old Spanish Trail, coming out of the tattoo parlors, the secondhand furniture shops, the Fiesta Marts, the heat baking their skin into a uniform shade of umber. I waited for the day I would become an adult and trade places with them.
Accompanying me on those long afternoon bus rides would be a silver portable CD player, and a white CD emblazoned with a paragraph-long copyright notice, a pixelated image of a white man in a white t-shirt and a dark baseball cap, and the letter “E” printed in bold, large-point, Helvetica-family type; upside-down. With some effort I can also remember that these consumer goods had been purchased for me by my mother at Wal-Mart for the grand total of $50, or one-eighth of her weekly salary.
It occurs to me now how little of what we retain from childhood are the so-called “important things” are the appropriate highlights and annotations, is the so-called “point”: that the substance of nostalgia tends to have as its preeminent constituent mundane details, the way the sun bounces off the face of a clock in the living room as your father beats your mother in the bedroom, “trivialities”. For instance, a triviality: the man in the pixelated image on the front of the CD was holding in his hands what appeared to be a dark suitcase and a white plastic bag. Another triviality: “This is another public service announcement brought to you in part by Slim Shady”, was how the first track began. “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. And he’s going to kill you.”
The details are familiar. “Slim Shady” was born Marshall Bruce Mathers III to a 17-year-old single mother named Deborah Rae Nelson in 1972, would shuttle between working-class homes in Missouri and Michigan before spending the preponderance of his adolescence at 19946 Dresden Street, three blocks south of East 8 Mile Road, in a predominantly black neighborhood on the east side of Detroit. The details are familiar to us not only because “Marshall Mathers” is the name on the titles of two of his eight solo albums and “19946 Dresden Street” is the address of the house featured on the covers of both of those albums and “Deborah Rae Nelson,” as drug-addicted mother, is one of the leitmotifs that feature most prominently in his discography, with a starring role in one hit single (“Cleanin’ Out My Closet”) and direct shout-outs in at least two more (“My Name Is,” “Without Me”).
The details are familiar to us because in his music and in his album covers and in his public persona and in even the title of a 2002 semi-biographical film, and with a self-preoccupation that would strike us today as distinctly if not archetypically “millennial,” the details of Eminem’s life have been reconfigured into art: and his art, for the last two decades, has enjoyed a reverence and esteem within the famously conservative confines of our national culture that in many ways has been miraculous, even singular.
His 2000 album -- or what I now understand to be his third, but which I cannot help but think of as his sophomore effort -- The Marshall Mathers LP, is one of only four albums since 2000 to sell over 30 million copies (the other three are: Adele’s 21, a compilation album by the Beatles, and Eminem’s own follow-up to The Marshall Mathers LP, 2002’s The Eminem Show). He is, at the time of this writing, the best-selling male artist of the fledgling century.
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I was first introduced to Eminem at the age of ten by -- although the term strikes me now as fundamentally dubious as any other impression I might have formed about the world at the age of ten -- my first “friend” in Houston: a half-British, half-Japanese boy named, improbably, Clifford. Cliff challenged me, had a way with words that would take me a few more years to recognize as a way with words which had the consequence of coarsening certain defenses while seducing certain others into softening. “What do you think of Eminem?” I recall Cliff asking me one afternoon toward the end of science class, as our teacher busied herself with grading and we were left to our own amusement. I told him I did not know who that was.
“Don’t you listen to hip hop?” would be his next question, and I told him I did not. “So what do you listen to then?” he tried again, and I told him that I listened to a bit of everything. (I somehow had the foresight not to tell him that the most I knew about music was from the oldies station that our sixth-grade teacher sometimes had on in the morning before the bell rang for homeroom.) “Colson,” Cliff said, “let me offer you some friendly advice. When someone wants to know what kind of music you like, never tell them everything. Saying everything just makes it sound like you don’t know shit about anything. Now check this out,” he added, retrieving from inside his blue JanSport backpack a CD case. I looked at the CD cover, at the sepia-toned portrait of an artist as a young man sitting with his head lowered on the stoop of a clapboard house. “Now this shit,” Cliff whispered, looking into my eyes. “Now this shit is dope.”
Although I didn't realize it at the time, Cliff’s voice carried enough of a British inflection to render faintly ridiculous his near-constant boasts about being “gangster,” about living in “the ghetto,” about sleeping with a “Colt Mustang” underneath his pillow and spending his Sundays at the “shooting range” with his father (although this last detail strikes me in retrospect as probably true). In fact, Clifford did not live in the ghetto but in a two-story townhouse about a mile or two from where I lived, in a lower-middle-class, predominantly Spanish-speaking suburb whose class and racial composition more or less mirrored that of my own apartment complex; I remember distinctly that his mother drove a Subaru. I mention this not to suggest that there is anything indecorous -- or indeed, anomalous -- about a sixth-grader engaged in the exercise of creating a persona; on the contrary, persona-building is and will remain, I think, the public exercise of our time.
But what bewildered me then, and what strikes me as relevant now, is how little Cliff’s Ready to Die persona earned him in the way of social advancement; is how inelegantly Cliff’s tastes in clothes and TV and music aligned with the prevailing social character of our middle school, the majority of whom lived in suburbs which were not predominantly Spanish-speaking, whose fathers took them to Little League on Sundays and whose mothers drove them to school in Land Rovers, not Subarus. It didn't occur to me then that “being gangster” or that “living in the ghetto” or that “sleeping with a Colt Mustang” underneath one’s pillow could have as its starting point a presumption of insolvency in any contest in which “wealth” or “whiteness” or “conversancy with upper-middle-class rituals” would be the determining factors; could have as its ambition something more vital and elemental than social success as a sixth-grader at T.H. Rogers Middle School.
I have here one annotation I seem to have retained from childhood: that ten is the age by which most of us, if we are cynical enough, will have “come awake,” will have begun to look outside of ourselves and at each other in earnest to figure out what would be celebrated in this life, and what would not. We will understand with some clarity, for instance, by the age of ten, who the pretty girls are in our classrooms, and why that matters. We will understand with some clarity, for instance, by the age of ten, what sort of boy will be picked first, and last, for kickball, and why that matters. “Stop being such a little pussy, Colson,” was a sentence I would hear in my head, in Cliff’s voice, whether he was with me or not.