Monday, December 13, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 86 - Eminem

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

A lot of ink has been spilled talking about the controversies present in Eminem's music - enough that I really shouldn't waste time adding to the discourse on the subject. But, when talking about Eminem's music, discussion about the controversy is inescapable. The fact that Eminem himself delightfully revels in the critical uproar only serves to draw even more attention to this. 

Eminem's critics blame him for all sorts of crimes - misogyny, homophobia, glamorization of violence, and profanity, among others. But I wonder if Eminem hasn't been misinterpreted as the cause of all these things. His music might be better seen as an effect, the inevitable conclusion that stems from these things, not the catalyst of them. When Eminem is at his best, he's holding up a mirror to America, showing our country's reflection in all its shocking ugliness. It's brutal and offensive, but Eminem is right to claim that he's neither the first nor the last artist to do this sort of thing. Nor is the portrayal of this necessarily an endorsement. Rather than asking why Eminem makes this sort of music, perhaps we should be asking ourselves why, as a culture, so many people are drawn to it. 

On the other hand, I feel that Eminem's defenders often give him a free pass. The most notable Eminem apologists, such as Robert Christgau, seem to think that Eminem is some sort of postmodern genius juggling the identities of Slim Shady, Marshall Mathers and Eminem in some clever metanarrative. Eminem is certainly clever, but I don't necessarily thing he's smart in this literary sense - there are dangerous and disturbing elements in this music, and I don't think one can easily write it off as irony or tongue-in-cheek posturing. Behind this very angry music is a very angry man. 

Is it to be respected as serious art? I certainly think so. Eminem is a very talented rapper who happened to tap into a certain vein at just the right time.. Listening to a rapper sing about killing his wife is not a sin, no more than reading a novel or watching a movie about the same subject matter is. Eminem's detractors assume that the listeners of this music always personally associate with it, which I'm not sure is the case. 

But, on the other hand, I don't think it's right to force Eminem's critics to respect his output. At the end of the day, he's still rapping about killing his wife. Asking someone who takes offense to this to "get over it," or telling them that they just "don't understand this music," isn't really a good rebuttal. There are very good reasons to get upset or offended at Eminem's music. Too often, Eminem's apologists turn a blind eye to this, claiming that we shouldn't take offense. But Eminem clearly wants the listener to get offended; to look beyond it is beside the point.

So, just as I don't think we can stand up and claim that it shouldn't be respected as serious art, neither do I think we can tell his detractors that they should respect it as serious art. There's certainly legitimate reasons to take both sides on the issue. The questions that his music raises are part of what makes it so interesting; at the same time, after listening to Eminem portray the members of Insane Clown Posse giving fellatio for the seventh day in a row, I want to make sure that we're not giving him too much credit. Sometimes a track about a gay blowjob is just a track about a gay blowjob, after all, and not some triumph of ironic meta-identities.



MY LISTENING: I listened to The Marshall Mathers LP (2000) every day this week. I also listened to The Slim Shady LP (1999) and The Eminem Show (2002) twice each.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Eminem is one of the few artists I've covered for this project of whom I'd actually heard a whole album before this week. He was pretty inescapable in my high school around the turn of the last decade - I have very distinct memories listening to The Marshall Mathers LP on repeat while working on a history project (rumor had it back then that "Stan" was based on a true story), and being inundated with lame cracks on catchphrases like "Will the Real X please stand up?" and "Guess who's back? Back again?"

Also, Charge Shot!!! editor Craig Getting does a great rendition of "Lose Yourself." If you ever see him, ask him to do it.

WHAT I LIKED: The first thing that even Eminem's biggest critics will have to admit is that he's a very gifted rapper. It's fun just to sit back and listen to his flow and wordplay, packed with enjambments and ellisions to the point that the songs often feel overflowing. Even so, Eminem manages to make even his most slippery rhymes audible and clear, not only infusing the verses with his trademark nasally snark, but also using the music to comment on itself through sound effects and asides from fictitious listeners. "The Real Slim Shady" perhaps represents all of these aspects of Eminem's work the best - it's dense, but poppy at the same time.

But for a rapper who often goes for these densely-packed rhymes, Eminem's music has an undeniably catchy appeal to it, which explains its success. I was surprised how many songs I remembered distinctly, even though I had heard them ten years ago; he knows how to structure a song with hooks. Hits like "Without Me" or "The Way I Am" work in part because of their catchy choruses, and grandiose, almost goofy backing tracks. 

Eminem is lyrically at his most interesting not when trying to stir up controversy, but when he harnesses this controversy and takes the opportunity to turn it back as a mirror to the American public. From Slim Shady to Marshall Mathers to Eminem, each successive album zooms out a little more. Songs like "Who Knew" helped turn The Marshall Mathers LP away from the self-obsessed class-clown antics of The Slim Shady LP. But The Eminem Show might be my favorite of the albums I listened to this week. It doesn't have as many standout hits as the first two albums, but neither does it succumb to embarrassingly offensive skits or angry songs either. In songs like "White America," Eminem fulfills his self-described role as the court jester of the American public, pointing out truths we don't want to hear. And in "Cleanin' Out My Closet," and the multiple songs about his daughter, Eminem targets himself. It's a nice change from the incessant self-victimization of The Marshall Mathers LP.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: In the song "Marshall Mathers," there's an awkward pause in Eminem's otherwise unstoppable flow, where he rants "It doesn't matter.....FAGGOT!" It sounds like Eminem forgot his lines and merely fell back to homophobic name-calling. It turns out there is an explanation for the awkward line (threats of legal action caused him to remove a name), but it is indicative of a larger trend in Eminem's music - he resorts to name-calling and celebrity bashing whenever he runs out of ideas. 

"My Name Is" might have made Eminem into a star, but it's the least interesting of his hits, and the "can you believe I'm saying this?" antics get old really quickly. I understand that he's trying to shock sensibilities and throw a wrench into the conventions of American society. But there's a difference between painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa and scribbling all over it; too often, Eminem is the scribbler, going overboard in his iconoclasm when subtlety would be a better weapon. His snipes at celebrities only seem more petty as Eminem becomes a bigger star. In "I'm Back," he starts to criticize boy bands, as if no one in history has ever had the audacity to point out that teenage pop stars aren't necessarily very talented. 

"Kim" is only one of several songs where Eminem wraps about killing his on-again, off-again wife, but it's probably the most infamous, and it certainly sounds the most angry. It's also the lowest point on The Marshall Mathers LP; whether or not Eminem endorses such violence, the portrayal of an unhinged man murdering his wife is emotionally juvenile and not much fun to listen to. "'97 Bonnie and Clyde" isn't a great track either, but at least here Eminem seems to be winking at the listener a little more; "Kim" is just unpleasant. 

The skits are terrible, but that nearly goes without saying - another reason I might like The Eminem Show the best is that recurring homosexual punchline Ken Kaniff is kept to a cameo appearance in the coda.

EXTRA CREDIT: I also watched Eminem's movie 8 Mile (2002), which I found pretty enjoyable. Here, deciding that his triangulated Eminem-Shady-Mathers identity wasn't enough, Eminem portrays a sort-of-not-really biographical version of himself as Rabbit, a white rapper in Detroit. The movie lacks Eminem's trademark humor (which is not a bad thing), but its portrayal of urban poverty is interesting, and showcases a deeper, more thoughtful side of Eminem that only comes out in a few of his songs. All the female characters are either cheating whores or hopeless alcoholics, unfortunately, but the movie goes a long way in shifting Eminem's identity from the bullying class clown to triumphant underdog

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: Do I need any more Eminem? I feel that the three albums I listen to represent three different facets of the performer, and any further output would be repetitive and unnecessary. Eminem continues to sell plenty of albums, from Encore (2004), Relapse (2009) and Recovery (2010), but he doesn't seem to really inspire any cultural discourse the way that he used to. There's nothing sadder than a washed-up old rapper hoping to be controversial. Let me know if I'm missing anything, but somehow I doubt it. 


I struggled with this one. It's not necessarily representative of the majority of Eminem's output - it's less dense, less angry, more subtle. "Lose Yourself" might be a better song to pick. But part of me wishes Eminem had been subtle a little more often, so I went with this. 


An energetic manifesto, in which Eminem harnesses his anger and manages to channel it into a pretty good track. Corny? Yeah. But lots of fun, especially with the "We Will Rock You" beat in the background. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Mannheim Steamroller. 'Tis the season, after all.