As the Grammys approach we find ourselves, once again, in the midst of one of those timeless debates that pit freedom of speech against political correctness. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past nine months, the subject of the debate is Eminem.
For the uninitiated, Eminem is the most controversial musician of the new millennium. He is also the first scapegoat of the post-Y2K era. And he is among the favorites going into this year's Grammy Awards ceremony. So if you're a music fan, where you stand on Eminem may well define who you are politically for the next year.
Eminem's Built-In Criticism
The noise raised over Eminem has been so loud that I'm reluctant to add another voice to the debate. But as I watch America's self-appointed guardians of good taste and political correctness clamor to condemn him, it has become apparent to me that very few of them seem to have listened to his brilliant album, The Marshall Mathers LP.
Had they bothered to sit down with the album, I might be penning the same tired anti-censorship arguments that fans of edgy art have made for decades. I would explain the difference between author and character. I would then explain the importance of a "marketplace of ideas." I would fall back on every possible defense of the most heinous speech, because I believe that such speech serves a purpose.
But what I am faced with now is far beyond the traditional arguments against extreme speech. While the old criticisms of Marilyn Manson, Ice-T, Madonna, Twisted Sister, and even Elvis amused — and at times — bored me, this latest crop of music critics frightens me. Because every point they make was made better in the very work they criticize.
Critics of Eminem will point to his most "offensive" and "vile" lyrics. I don't dare to defend those lyrics on their own. But what I know is this: Every argument that has been made against Eminem was made and countered on his latest album. He took on the arguments of his latest and most vocal critics before most of them even knew his name. He worried about what he told your children long before you knew your children were listening to him.
The Marshall Mathers LP is a work of brilliance because it shows an edgy artist examining his own conscience, trying to decide whether he's gone too far. So when critics take the extreme statements within that work, and hold them up out of context, they demonstrate nothing more than their ignorance.
Eminem for Dummies
To understand the irony here, you need a little background on the man known as Eminem. The rapper's real name is Marshall Mathers III. His alter ego, through whom he often writes, is known as Slim Shady. The first album released under the name Eminem was called The Slim Shady LP, and it contained all of the offensive, sociopathic things that you've been told to expect from Eminem. The rapper assumed his Slim Shady persona, and rapped about horrendous things, like encouraging a boy to take advantage of a presumably drunken, underage girl at a party, and telling a man to murder his cheating wife.
Now if the debate were simply over that album, we'd be stuck discussing whether the person who says these horrible things is actually the artist Eminem, or a literary character he created. I'd ask why someone like Anthony Hopkins can portray a horrible character like Hannibal Lecter and win critical praise, while Eminem is immediately assumed to endorse everything his character says.
And that argument would be complicated by the fact that Eminem admits that Slim Shady is his alter ego, an expression of the most horrible thoughts that run through his head. Basically, we'd have the same old censorship song and dance.
But what makes the current debate more frightening is that it is not a debate over The Slim Shady LP. It is a debate over Eminem's most recent album, The Marshall Mathers LP. And as the title suggests, this album portrays the other side of the Eminem coin.
This disc resurrects the Slim Shady character, but also introduces us to Marshall Mathers, a man trying to come to grips with the effect Slim Shady's music has had on the world. Eminem drifts back and forth between Slim and Marshall on the record, writing songs from both perspectives.
The first is the anti-social psychopath we met on his first album. The other is the deeply troubled guy who created him. As a rule, the most artistic parts of the album are the Marshall songs. But Slim serves a very important purpose here. Many of his songs are aimed at giving you some perspective on how that persona emerged, and what role he serves in society.
The most widely criticized track on the album is arguably the first song, "Kill You." That's the one where Slim raps about raping and murdering any woman he comes across, including his mother. What the critics fail to point out is that the track opens with a description of the mental abuse Eminem/Slim's mother allegedly subjected him to as a child. He also explains the therapeutic purpose his music serves, asking:
Know why I say these thing? Because ladies screams keep creeping in Shady's dreams And the way things seem I shouldn't have to pay these shrinks 80 G's a week to say the same things [twice]
Eminem's feud with his real mother is well-publicized. She's filed a $10 million lawsuit against him for accusing her in his songs of having abused drugs when he was young. So while "Kill You" may not be a song you give your mom this Mother's Day, it is certainly more than a senseless attack on women. Rather, it's an explanation of the fact that Slim Shady's misogyny is a way for Eminem to work out his conflicts with his mother.
Recently, Eminem's mom has said she may drop her legal action, and that she wants to reconcile with him. So far, he hasn't shown any interest in patching things up. But should he ever work through his conflicts with mom, it would be interesting to see whether his attitude toward women would change.
Of course, most of Eminem's critics aren't concerned with where the violence originates. They're more concerned with the effect it has on listeners. But had they bothered to listen to the album's second song, or several others on the disc, they'd realize that Marshall Mathers is just as concerned with that. On "Stan," he paints a picture of an obsessed fan who murders his pregnant girlfriend in imitation of something Slim did in a song. It's an eerie self-examination that demonstrates Eminem has given more thought to the potential for fans to misinterpret his songs than he's given credit for.
Other tracks on the album marvel at the hypocrisy of blaming a musician for moral decay in the midst of a violent and sexually explicit society ("Who Knew"), try to explain how the pressure of fame and the scapegoating that comes with it affect an artist ("The Way I Am"), and examine why kids are drawn to a character as disturbed as Slim ("The Real Slim Shady").
Overall, the album is a treatise on controversial art, and the impact it has on society and the artist who creates it. Yes, he lets the most offensive and disturbing parts of his subconscious out and puts them on display. But it's done in the context of self-examination. To take those excerpts out of context and condemn them is the equivalent of watching the rape scene in A Clockwork Orange and claiming that Anthony Burgess, Stanley Kubrick or Malcolm McDowell endorse violence against women. It's a shallow, narrow-minded interpretation of a great work of art.
Yes, The Marshall Mathers LP is a difficult work. Slim often brings us places that we don't want to go. One track, "Kim," is the most disturbing first-person portrayal of domestic violence that I've ever heard. One friend of mine, after hearing it for the first time, said that while he was definitely going to buy the album, he would never listen to that song again. But to suggest that it glorifies domestic violence is absurd. That's like suggesting that Jodie Foster's gang-rape scene in The Accused gives men the impression that women are asking for it.
Furthermore, gay-rights groups seem to be suffering from an extreme martyr complex when they claim that Eminem is a homophobe. Yes, Slim occasionally says horrible things about gays. But Slim is a psychopath who says horrible things about women, his mother, rival rappers, and anyone else he can think to insult or threaten. At one point he jokes about having killed Dr. Dre, who is Eminem's close friend and mentor. When a character says horrible things about everyone, including gays, it's tough to make a real case that he's homophobic. Rather he stands as an equal-opportunity offender.
If there's any justice in the world, The Marshall Mathers LP will win the Grammy for Best Album this year. None of its competitors is as raw, as challenging, as honest, or as important. But whether it wins or not, I have no doubt that Eminem's critics will continue to misrepresent his work. And the rapper, who has refused to participate in the public debate over his art, will probably continue to stay out of it. He has no reason to speak out in his own defense. The album does that for him. And the critics who have refused to listen to the complete work really don't deserve a response.