If you’re anything like me, you’re middle-aged, you have a fabulous wife and kid, you see a shrink, you really should lose 15 pounds, you think Albert Brooks is funny and Billy Crystal is not, and you can’t believe that anyone can look at this nasty little prick Bush and see a “President,” and …
And sometime in the past couple of years, you had your Eminem moment. Maybe it was on the 2000 MTV Video Music Awards when he sang “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?” while leading a swarm of look-alikes into Radio City Music Hall. Maybe, as in my case, it was his performance of “Stan” with Elton John on the 2001 Grammys. Or maybe, as it occurred with more than a dozen of my friends, someone who’d just found him turned you on to what you’d been missing.
Whatever. Chances are that you’re a little uneasy about your Eminem enthusiasm and that you don’t share this guilty pleasure indiscriminately, lest someone who still dismisses him as an obscene lout will think you insane.
You’re not. For the rock ‘n’ roll generation, Eminem, né Marshall Mathers III, is the most compelling figure to have emerged from popular music since the holy trinity of Dylan, Lennon and Jagger. There should be no stigma attached to being an Adult Who Loves Eminem. Besides, as my sitcom-writing friend Danny Zuker said, “We’re actually the perfect fans for him, because we’re the least likely to shoot up a school after listening to him.”
As the man himself points out in his infectious new hit, “Without Me,” the airwaves felt empty without him. But the wait is over and the results are as thrilling as they are unsettling. The Eminem Show (Interscope) is Eminem’s third great album in 40 months-an astonishing output comparable to the peak creative bursts of the Beatles, the Stones and Dylan-and the only one you’ll need to get through the summer.
Statistically speaking, this album should have been a disappointment. Right now, Eminem’s the biggest star in music, his first movie, the Curtis Hanson–directed 8 Mile , about an Eminem-like white rapper, is slated to be released in November, and he’s got more money than all of his ancestors put together had in their whole lives. History tells us that all of these should be working like opiates on Eminem, dulling his rage and his wit and his connection to the griminess of real life.
But the great thing-for us, not for him-is that, despite all of his good fortune, Eminem is still pissed off. His greatest joy-besides his daughter Hailie Jade-is his ability, as he says on the new album, to get “under your skin like a splinter.”
Eminem, with his ego so big it needs two alters, has three singers in his band. In “Without Me,” nasal-voiced Slim Shady boasts about his return to save music from terminal blandness. “Now let’s go, give me the signal / I’ll be there with a whole list full of new insults,” he raps. And the song, with its retro-disco beat, slinky sax and hilariously self-aware lyrics, actually does come to the rescue, creating something you’re actually excited to hear on the radio.
Then there’s “White America,” the pounding punk/metal anthem that blasts open the album. Eminem takes the lead on this one, a thundering rant defending freedom of speech, and what more fun way to do that than to shout about burning the flag and pissing on the White House lawn, and, oh, “Fuck you, Ms. Cheney”?
It’s not Eminem’s fault that the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate culture he grew up with was such a moral sewer of cynicism, sensationalism and exploitation that he now has to ratchet up the outrageousness to Grand Guignol levels to get us to pay attention.
Referring to the F.C.C.’s recently aborted effort to fine a radio station for playing his music, Eminem gloats, “And now they’re sayin’ I’m in trouble with the government, I’m lovin’ it, I shoveled shit all my life / and now I’m dumping it!” Great rock stars have been pushing the envelope for 50 years now, but I can’t recall anyone with Eminem’s popularity getting more of a kick out of giving the world the finger.
“I love pissin’ you off,” he says on “Soldier,” “it gets me off, like my lawyers, when the fuckin’ judge lets me off.” And it amazes him how effortless it is. “Don’t you people see I’m just saying shit to fucking get a rise out of you?” he said a while back. “You’re letting me win!”
But “White America” is more than just a verbal Molotov cocktail. The song is also an astute self-assessment of who Eminem is in the culture, how he got there, who his fans are, and why he’s a threat: “See the problem is I speak to suburban kids who otherwise woulda 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 rooms 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.”
Critics who complain about Eminem’s relentless self-obsession are missing the point. Translating what it’s like to be him into the metaphors he can communicate to the world is exactly where the art comes in. The more personal he makes his work, the more universal it becomes. Because he’s so damned interesting to himself, he becomes interesting to us.
“Most people, you ask them what’s going on in their life and they say, ‘Oh, nothing much,’” said writer Steve Radlauer. “And they mean it. Eminem can’t believe how much is going on in his life, he’s reveling in the details, like a great political writer analyzing a great election, or Calvin Trillin writing about parking a car in Manhattan. It’s a great sociological work-in-progress.”
There is, in this new album, a subtle effort to reposition himself as more of a soldier in the culture wars, and less of a misogynistic, homophobic wack job. It’s not entirely successful. The graphic song about venereal disease, “Drips”-as if the world needed one of those-is so naked in its need to shock that it manages to offend only with its witlessness. And his seeming hatred for the entire female gender, save for his daughter, is hard to take.
Still, he’s trying. Eminem’s first album featured the song “97′ Bonnie & Clyde,” about taking his daughter along on an errand to dump her mother’s body in a lake. The second album had the prequel, “Kim,” as harrowing a blast of murderous rage-”Now bleed! Bitch, bleed!”-as pop music has produced. Its intensity made the Stones’ “Midnight Rambler” sound like a poseur’s nursery rhyme. Even Eminem, who sports a tattoo on his stomach that’s addressed to his ex-wife-”KIM R.I.P. (ROT IN PIECES)”-has said he doesn’t listen to it anymore.
On the new album, there’s no song about killing Kim, though there are a few references to coming close. Ah, progress.
There’s such a variety of musical genres and such a barrage of verbiage on The Eminem Show that it will take weeks to absorb it all. My current choice for funniest line is this depiction in “Superman” of a post-coital moment with a groupie: “First thing you say, ‘I’m not fazed, I hang around big stars all day / I don’t see what the big deal is anyway, you’re just plain old Marshall to me’ / Oooh yah girl run that game, ‘Hailie Jade, I love that name / Love that tattoo, what’s that say? “Rot In Pieces,” uh, that’s great.’”
“There’s so much ‘meta’ in Eminem,” said writer Fred Schruers. “He’s always examining the reception he’s getting.” “As he sings on “Without Me,” “Feel the tension soon as someone mentions me.”
The best song on the album is “Cleaning Out My Closet.” Marshall Mathers sings this one, and the track’s deceptively pretty melody and chorus-”I’m sorry, Mama, I never meant to hurt you”-provides the counterpoint to the artist’s ultimate fuck-you to the inadequate mother whose refusal to “admit you was wrong” keeps his rage white-hot.
“And Hailie’s getting so big now, you should see her, she’s beautiful / But you’ll never see her, she won’t even be at your funeral,” Mr. Mathers sings. “How dare you try to take what you didn’t help me to get / You selfish bitch, I hope you fuckin’ burn in hell for this shit. / Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me? / Well, guess what, I am dead. Dead to you as can be.”
On an up note, the same song recounts the June 2000 incident in which Eminem was arrested for pistol-whipping a guy he caught kissing his wife outside a Detroit nightclub. Occurring as it did mere days after his last CD, The Marshall Mathers LP set first-week sales records on its way to going octuple platinum, the episode appeared to be one of those self-destructive acts that an angry man might commit in the wake of phenomenal success, but on “Cleaning Out My Closet,” Marshall, who was sentenced to two years of probation as a result of the encounter, reveals a nascent ability to protect himself from himself: “What I did was stupid, no doubt it was dumb / but the smartest shit I did was take the bullets out of that gun. / Cuz I’da killed ‘em, shit I would have shot Kim an’ him both / This’s my life, I’d like to welcome y’all to The Eminem Show.”
As he sings on “Superman,” Eminem isn’t interested in being a man of steel. Our best artists are never perfect people, and so we must deal with the duality-or in Eminem’s case, the plurality of personae. Yes, he’s a misogynist, and he has valid things to say. You know, like O.J. is guilty and there are corrupt cops.
The culture police would have us believe that Eminem is telling kids, “Take drugs, drive drunk, kill, rape, maim,” but actual listening reveals a far more moral, almost poignant, message: Parents, do your goddamn job.
As he says in “Who Knew”: “Don’t blame me when li’l Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watchin’ him-apparently you ain’t parents.”
Granted, he’s not doing anything to make our jobs easier, but he’d say that he raised himself, he helped raise his half-brother Nathan, he’s raising Hailie Jade. Our kids are not his concern.
So, how did we aging boomers find him? While my wife Liz and I pride ourselves on having kept up with music into middle age, the birth of our daughter Grace in 1998 reduced our listening hours drastically. We wallowed in parenthood, blissfully oblivious to Eminem’s march on pop culture. After three years of Teletubbies and Barney and Blue’s Clues , we were craving something with a bit more edge.
And then, there it was, on the Grammys, of all places, Eminem performing “Stan”: “Dear Slim, I wrote you but you still ain’t callin’ / I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom / I sent two letters back in autumn / You must not have got ‘em.”
The combination of the song itself-has there ever been, in any medium, a truer portrait of a deranged fan?-and the intensity of Eminem’s delivery was revelatory. I fell in love-note to Mr. Mathers: not that way, dawg-like I had only once before, on the Saturday afternoon in 1964 when I first saw the Rolling Stones, on WPIX’s Clay Cole Show .
I bought both of his CD’s the next day and drove around all afternoon immersed in the giddy experience of being completely entertained. The Marshall Mathers LP dazzled with its brilliant five-song exegesis on celebrity-”Kill You,” “Stan,” “Who Knew,” “The Way I Am” and “The Real Slim Shady”-that may be the greatest kickoff of any album ever. But its predecessor, The Slim Shady LP , was equally impressive in the way it showed how the numbing pain of poverty-”That’s rock bottom / When you feel like you’ve had it up to here / ‘Cause you mad enough to scream but you sad enough to tear,” Eminem sings on “Rock Bottom”- leads inevitably to a certain nihilism in “If I Had”: “If I had one wish / I would ask for a big enough ass for the whole world to kiss.”
By nightfall I was on the phone proselytizing about this great new thing I’d discovered two years late. My friend Mr. Zuker, a father of three, was relieved. “I’m so glad to hear this,” he said, “because I’ve been driving around listening to Eminem for months now, and I thought I was having my midlife crisis.”
Within days I’d tracked down a half dozen bootlegs compiling all of the guest raps, soundtrack contributions and independent label releases that made up the rest of his output. On an obscure track called “Any Man,” I found this rhyme: “I strike a still pose and hit you with some ill flows / That don’t even make sense, like dykes using dildos.”
The song ended: “Somethin’, somethin’, somethin’, somethin’ I get weeded / My daughter scribbled over that rhyme, I couldn’t read it.”
Given the precious little that most people bring to their celebrity status, Eminem’s talents are enormous. Start with the writing: the attention to detail, the musician’s ear for the rhythms of exactly how people talk, the way it can take you by surprise and make you laugh out loud, often at something horrific, as when the self-loathing star mocks the notion of being anyone’s role model: “I got genital warts and it burns when I pee / Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me?,” he sings on “Role Model” “I’ll tie a rope around my penis and jump from a tree / You probably wanna grow up to be just like me!!!”
Beyond the words are the beats. Being so closely identified with Dr. Dre, the Phil Spector of Hip-Hop, Eminem’s own natural musicality has been hugely underrated. On The Eminem Show , Dre produced three tracks. Eminem produced or co-produced 12, and the album sounds great.
And beyond his talent are his balls. His stuff was political, if not politically correct, from the start, because his main subject was poverty and what’s more political than that? But the mini-Armageddons that officially ushered in the new millennium have blown us back to the late 60′s: The country is “at war,” whatever that means, and a kid-as well as that kid’s parents-would have to be stupid to assume that the administration couldn’t resume the draft, like, yesterday if they wanted to. Someone has to remind everyone that we still have freedom of speech here, that it’s the bedrock of everything else the country claims to be and stand for, and that questioning the government-or using profanity-is not unpatriotic.
And here that someone is, spitting contempt for those elders so undeserving of respect, declaring himself, as he does in “Square Dance,” not just willing but eager to “ambush this Bush administration, mush the Senate’s face in, push this generation / of kids to stand and fight for the right to say something you might not like.”
Who was this Marshall Mathers III? How was it that this guy who had probably listened to very little, if any, Dylan seemed to be channeling the same absurdist/protest muses?
An hour on the Web filled in the blanks: Born to 17-year-old mom in 1972. Instantly abandoned by Dad, Marshall Mathers II. Spent childhood ping-ponging between Kansas City and Detroit with mom and her mood swings. Always the new kid in school, always getting beaten up. After a particularly rough encounter, wound up comatose.
Best friend was mom’s teenage brother, Uncle Ronnie, whose not inconsiderable contribution to the world, before committing suicide, was turning Marshall on to rap.
Had extremely volatile relationship with girlfriend Kim-whom he eventually married and soon divorced-the mother of his beloved 6-year-old Hailie Jade. Was going nowhere in rap when, while taking a shit, thought up “Slim Shady,” the droog-like doppelgänger who could do all the venting and spewing he clearly needed to do. Got signed by Dre, video aired round the clock on MTV. Sold 4 million copies of first album. Got sued for $10 million by mom upset about being portrayed as a pillhead whose chief pastimes were Bingo and lawsuits. She settled for $25,000. Replaced the ridiculous and essentially harmless Marilyn Manson as music’s Public Enemy No. 1, uniting left GLAAD) and right (Lynne Cheney) in a crusade to shut him the fuck up.
I started pushing Eminem on friends. “Unbelievable!” e-mailed the poet Marilyn Johnson, married 16 years with three kids. “He is making art.”
“I thought he was a punk asshole and I never thought in a bazillion years I’d listen to his music,” said Los Angeles Times copy editor Matt Coltrin, “but now I can’t stop.” Even writer Jerry Lazar, whose favorite Beatle had always been Paul, was impressed, once he “stopped listening with parent ears” and could hear things besides “bitch” and “fuck.”
Resistance was futile. “I can’t afford to think he’s brilliant,” said the mother of two teenage girls. A week later her husband called to say, “Thanks so much for the Eminem. We listened to it all the way up to San Francisco.”
New York Times critic Janet Maslin, who likes Eminem more than either of her teenage sons do, met him on the Detroit set of 8 Mile last winter and described him as “serious, articulate and not at all overbearing” during their interview. “He was interested to talk about acting, because it was new for him. He didn’t mind that he had a lot to learn, but he was going to learn it his own way.”
Ms. Maslin said that her fandom “does not come without guilt. A lot of what he says makes me uncomfortable, but the bottom line is if it’s good, you have to acknowledge that, and it is. It’s very cathartic to listen to him, it’s like Quentin Tarantino’s best stuff, there’s an energy to it.”
My wife, whose first angry young man of music was Elvis Costello, thinks we midddle-aged fans are responding to his ability to speak the anger that we can’t express so freely because we have to do things like drive car pool, so we drop off the kids, roll down the windows, and blast Eminem on the way home.
Or maybe it’s that music makes its imprint on you at whatever age you first hear it and, throughout your life, evokes that age when you hear it again. If you were branded by the Stones’ “Satisfaction” when you were 15, you’re going to feel 15 again when you hear “White America,” and how many drugs can do that?
If you’ve read this far, I have to believe you’re already a fan, but if not-if you’ve let Lynne Cheney and GLAAD define Eminem for you-you have to make up your own mind. Go buy the CD. In fact, get all three, it’ll save you a trip back to the store tomorrow.
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