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.