Visible Man, Mim Udovitch, (2/2001)
The New York Times Magazine
Eminem offends people. Is it the music or the fact that he's white?
Eminem, the rapper whose Marshall Mathers LP is up for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards this week, is white. I would prefer not to mention that at all, let alone make it my subject, because it has little to do with the quality of his work, which is superb, as many critics have said. But it has everything to do with why he bothers people. On the simplest level, this is because, unlike many black rappers whose lyrics would outrage white America, if white America could understand them, Eminem's accent, enunciation, idiom and, to use the term of art, "flow" are clearly intelligible to pundits; to children, if they hear him; to everyone. On a less innocent level, it is because he comes from a world that is not supposed to exist, the world of the white underclass. On a very ugly level, it is because a white suburban kid identifying with Eminem is basically, as Eminem is regarded to have done, turning "black", thereby muddying the pools of cultural and racial and class separation (a process that has actually been underway in popular music, with greater and lesser degrees of visibility and impact, for at least 50 years).

In Eminem's case, since the people who fear this possibility are also the people who believe him to be genuinely psychopathically violent, rather than an artist who makes it very, very clear many, many times that he is working with personae ("I'm not a real person; I'm a ghost trapped in a beat"), this is a truly bizarre, funhouse-mirror kind of racism that reflects what many people still think "black" is, a belief regarding Eminem, they are freer to express because of his actual, non-quotation-marked race.

Really, if you know one single thing about Eminem, besides that he is white, it is that he is one of those artists people fear create an evil that will, if allowed free rein, destroy civilization and corrupt American youth. Despite his enormous popularity (The Marshall Mathers LP has sold eight million copies, and his previous album, The Slim Shady LP, four million), he is a figure of ill repute, someone whose work is, or at least has been called, worthless, exploitative and offensive. And it is offensive. It is very offensive. It is intentionally offensive, as many great works of art are, and have always been and -- since I like offensive art and basically would like to see popular music provoke the class warfare that the frightened gatekeepers of the 1960's promised when I was a child, damn it -- I personally hope will continue to be. That Eminem's records are not suitable for children (especially if you don't want them to grow up believing that, for example, the armed overthrow of the state, not Eminem's idea, should not necessarily be out of the question, an idea I got when I was 8 from a line in Revolution, by the Beatles, for mercy's sake) is, as a matter of fact, one of the primary points made by those who object to them. And they are not suitable for children. This is not seriously disputed by anyone, including the artist. ("Children should not partake in the listening of this album with laces in their shoes" states the "public-service announcement" at the beginning of The Slim Shady LP.) There are many great works of art that are not suitable for children, a fair number of which they are exposed to anyway. In fact, the last two Eminem records begin with P.S.A.'s that in one way or another tell you that what you are about to hear is designed to disturb you and that your reaction to it is on you and not on the artist, who has warned you.

It may indeed not be clear to children that most of what Eminem says on his records is not being said in literal sincerity by the human being who was born with the name Marshall Mathers, raps under the name Eminem and speaks mainly in the voice of the character Slim Shady. And it is true that the characters that speak on Eminem records are full of fantasies that are extreme, grotesque, frightening, misogynist, homophobic, sometimes funny and sometimes truly reprehensible.

But it is also true that there are, as he says, millions who are just like him, who cuss like him, don't give a [expletive] like him, dress like him, walk like him, talk like him, act like him and, based on his sales, feel like him. That is: they feel incredible anger. They may be, as he was before he became successful, children of welfare families, growing up to work for minimum wages while enormous wealth accrues to the few. They may have their own reasons. But that these millions exist, and that Eminem speaks for them, is probably what is both truly subversive and truly threatening about his success.

Eminem, as many great artists before him have done (Elvis Presley! A great big afterlife shout out you!), makes a racial threat -- in his case, the really, really furious, racially united underclass with the support of equally angry white suburban kids -- visible. He doesn't make it real, however. I love his records on their own terms. He deserves the Grammy. But as a matter of fact, the threat of class war in that particular form is something that is much more likely to be perceived by my generation than expressed by the 28-year-old Eminem's; his work is really about rebellion, not revolution. I see the possibility only because I wish for it. And the people who fear it, in all likelihood, see it only because they fear it.

In other words, what I think people really find the most offensive about Eminem is something that, unlike the intricate and sophisticated identity assaults that actually make up his records, he does not intend. And that is not on him, but on his audience, as is often the case with great art.

Rejoinder (K. G. Vest, 3/2001)
I'll deliver a run-on rant trying to break down Eminem or any of the other manufactured acts that dominate the music landscape. You know -- Backstreet Boyz, Brittany Spears, nSync, Christine Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez ... See, the ranting kicks in quick. Maybe bullets will allow me to be succinct:
  • He has no skills as a hip-hop artist despite what some respected MC's have been paid/told to say -- would have you believe
  • His joints (hip-hop for songs) either contain no message whatsoever or emphasize domestic violence, alcohol, weed, homophobia and a few things I don't want to describe
  • Real hip-hop is alive and well but is entirely underground, i.e. internet, bootleg cd's, mp3; and is the only branch of the music industry which ingratiated Napster users, providing free sample downloads while allowing customers to purchase individual joints. I should mention Prince adopted this strategy early on, too. And it's working despite major labels banging on Napster. Peer to peer is here to stay and there's nothing music executives or the artists themselves can do about it.
Of course, with the legions of predominantly young, female fans/purchasers dropping their allowance on cds, clothing and concert tickets for contrived acts like Eminem, the industry won't feel the pinch. I don't begrudge Eminem because he's getting over. I'm not impressed by Tom Cruise, NASCAR, Star Wars, Pro Wrestling, the XFL or Rosie O'Donnell either.

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