Eminem: White Trash Rapper Likes His Humor Black

Yeah, he rips Pamela Anderson’s breasts off, impregnates Spice Girls, tells his dad he wants to slit his throat and his mom that she smokes too much dope and didn’t give him enough milk. But my favorite revenge fantasy in Eminem’s “My Name Is” happens when this guy at a White Castle, where he may have once worked, asks for his autograph. Sure: “Dear Dave, Thanks for the support. Asshole.”

He’s standing behind the counter. Read the label on his shirt: “Hi! My name is …” He’s the grinning demon seed on the Coney Island T-shirts. He’s Alfred E. Newman and Howdy Doody. He’s Bob’s Big Boy and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters , wrecking buildings. He’s the Cable Guy but he raps like Bugs Bunny. He’s Eminem, formerly Marshall Mathers, sometimes also known as Slim Shady, and he’s ready to take your order. Good luck.

Quick start. “Hi! My name is”-four beats, one emphasis, a sample that compresses a full soul-funk band into a bleat someone’s pushing like a button. Twice more-“( What? ) My name is/ ( Who? ) My name is”-and release, with some wicka-wicka scratches leading to the answer: “Slim Shady.” Repeat. Add tales of evil swallowed and pain about to be inflicted, told in wisecracks by a smirker whose voice never left puberty, with a slogan: “God sent me to piss the world off.” Makes its own superstar: The Slim Shady LP (Aftermath/Interscope) sold 283,000 copies in its first week. Did I mention he’s white?

He doesn’t pretend otherwise, though until he became a celebrity he just figured he was invisible. In Eminem’s world, there are only two races: the famous, which is to say infamous, and dorks with sweaty, hairy palms, getting their noses broken on a urinal by the school bully while the principal joins in. The song that’s from is called “Brain Damage.” Eminem raps every part in the drama, and what happens next happens very fast. He clobbers the bully with a broomstick, stands over him with his foot on his chest, then goes home, where suddenly he can’t see and his left ear is bleeding. Enter Mom:

“My mother started screaming ‘What are you on, drugs?/ Look at you, you’re getting blood all over my rug!’/ She beat me over the head with the remote control/ Opened a hole and my whole brain fell out of my skull/ I picked it up and screamed, ‘Look bitch, what have you done?’/ ‘Oh my God, I’m sorry son.’/ ‘Shut up you cunt!’/ I said, ‘Fuck it!’ Took it and stuck it back up in my head/ Then I sewed it up and put a couple of screws in my neck.”

The New York Dolls once posed the question, “Do you think that you could make it with Frankenstein?” Teen dread is eternal. But the real echo here is “Institutionalized,” by Suicidal Tendencies, in which the singer’s mom keeps asking him if he’s high and he keeps insisting that all he wants is a Pepsi, until everything explodes. I remember hearing that song my first year of college, along with the Violent Femmes ditty that went, “Why can’t I get just one fuck?” Anticipating The Simpsons , those early 80’s anthems sold by the bushel as underground product because they turned punk’s throat-slitting into a pop joke, a tall tale.

Eminem, struggling to freestyle his way out of the hip-hop underground (an earlier album vanished instantly), eventually tapped the same bloody vein, the same gold mine. Slim Shady’s rapacious sense of humor is ultimately good-natured, even heartwarming, because it’s all in the family. Like “97′ Bonnie & Clyde,” in which Marshall Mathers raps perfect baby talk to his actual daughter about how he’s killed her mother, who’s stuffed in the car trunk and needs to take a real long bath. Or “My Fault,” an update on “Wake Up Little Susie” in which the woman he’s given too many mushrooms to starts confessing her life traumas and he tells her she’s talking to a plant. We’ve been telling these jokes forever. The monsters in question are ours. We’ll build bigger and sicker ones next time.

The Barenaked Ladies launched their career with “If I Had $1,000,000,” a sweet wish list; Eminem’s “If I Had” says a million bucks “wouldn’t be enough.” No, he wants “a big enough ass for the whole world to kiss.” A cool million’s not so cool anymore; it’s been 10 years since Jack Nicholson’s grinning Joker lost out to a corporately funded Batman. Eminem fights the good fight: He pulls Hillary Clinton’s tonsils out for talking about role models, then feeds her sherbet; he tears off moralizing Garth Brooks’ rhinestone shirt; he calls his producer, Dr. Dre, the gangster rap scientist lately seen suavely tangoing on video, on his Dee Barnes-slapping past. There’s ordinary, vulgar, rocking wickedness and then there’s modern-day, sanctimonious, designer suit megamillions megacelebrity. Who’s the devil again?

The side Slim Shady is on will lose this war; for that matter, Eminem will probably defect, needy mofo that he is. But, for now, it’s fun to root for him; for now, his album is the newest thing since Lauryn Hill’s new thing, since Radiohead’s new thing, since Hanson, since Beck. You can sneer: proud stodge Terrence Rafferty does in the March issue of GQ , dismissing any notion of Ezra Pound’s dictum “Make it new” in art as a choice between the special effects ante-upping of Armageddon and a long since depleted avant-garde.

But Eminem is new. Like the Beastie Boys, the only other white people over the course of two decades now to create a unique rap style, he relies on over-the-top humor and a million cultivated details. Unlike the Beastie Boys, he didn’t visit White Castle as a lark; five bucks an hour seemed pretty good. And he can rap on rap’s own terms, accelerating his flow to something like the staccato speeds the genre has taken to these past few years while keeping his tone light and conversational. That’s why Dr. Dre wasn’t embarrassed to work with him.

Well, that and all the money. When a pop phenomenon hits, and it’s actually good, original, it’s new by definition-the rush to be around it drives thoughts of the past away with a promotional whoosh . The end result may only be that an underground tonality enters the mainstream, the way Eminem introduces Suicidal Tendencies to Jay-Z. But that’s more than enough. Something stands up and insists Me, too . And all the archetypes rise up to kiss his ass. In the “My Name Is” video, where Pamela Anderson’s “tits” are censored down to “lips” and he just “ticks” the world off, Eminem plays Marilyn Manson in one scene and the President getting a blowjob in another, a white-trash head case and a blonde rapper in the light-bulb room at the end of Invisible Man . But at times he’s a talk-show host, too, a little like Johnny Carson, wearing another one of those all-American grins.