ME | ƎM
One Listener’s Confession, Part 2
What Makes Art Art
My book Eminem and Rap, Poetry, Race: Essays grew sideways out of an essay I wrote a few years ago trying to think through what it meant for me to be a fan of Eminem. On the occasion of the book’s publication I’m posting the original essay here. Below is part 2 of 3.
CONFESSION: I’m unsure of my decision to write about Eminem, in general — and of this part of the essay, in particular. But I can’t help it.
When I was discussing writing a study of Em’s lyrics for an academic press and the whole thing came to an end before it got going when we were unable to get rights to quote the songs, I was somewhat relieved — I realized — I didn’t want to write a monograph, I wanted to essay my fascination with Eminem.
Except, starting out, I immediately run into trouble: do I actually like Eminem enough to write that kind of essay? Certainly there are things about him I like, but that’s not quite the same thing. And it doesn’t compensate for the fact that there are all sorts of things about him I actively dislike.
For every “Lose Yourself,” there’s a “FACK.” For every time his wordplay has me holding down rewind even after I’ve unlocked the lyric, there’s a misogynistic or homophobic punch line. Every time I’ve told someone I like him and play a song I hear all the parts I hope they won’t, all the “faggot”s, all the self-pity/self-aggrandizement. There’s nothing like trying to get someone to like what you like to get you to start seeing/hearing its flaws — and nothing, when they don’t like it, to make you wonder if they’re hearing what you’re hearing. “Look,” I want to say, “if you don’t like it, it means you don’t get it.” There’s no in between. But when they say, “No, I get it. There’s just not that much to get,” I’m left with . . . there’s no accounting for taste? No, there’s too much hostility in that dismissal. I must rise to Eminem’s defense — not to convince the reader, but to convince myself that the objections are if not unfounded at least overcomeable. And so: a defense of Eminem as artist. And not artist by right of self-expression, artist by artistic mastery.
I’m not the only skinny white boy who watched the 2000 MTV Award Show with jealousy as hundreds of Eminem lookalikes flooded the streets outside Radio City Music Hall. That’s how deep the identification goes in many, and why despite its poppy repetition “The Real Slim Shady” remains compelling: the real invites the unreal to personify the real in contrast with the other unreal who are doing same in contrast with you. You (we) are the same in our unique participation in the real. I want to suggest, that’s not easy to pull off. But “The Real Slim Shady” isn’t his best song on identification — that would be “Stan.”
“Stan” takes identity play to the next level by placing Eminem in the shoes of a fan who happens to model his life after Eminem. So Marshall Mathers the artist writes Eminem the narrator/character into imagining himself into the perspective of the guy who has imagined himself into the Eminem persona Marshall Mathers the person created. (All perfectly set to a sentimental Dido hook.) Stan’s problem in the song is he can’t separate his real life from the fantasy life he’s created via Eminem’s music. As his obsession turns to infatuation turns to jealousy turns to real tragedy we witness the push-and-pull game Eminem plays with the (young white male) listener. There’s a lesson here about the necessity of listening with savvy and ironic distance, and about maintaining self-identity in the face of the temptation to transfer identity onto a desirable object.
But besides the listener’s projection that “Stan” attempts to distill, there’s the issue of the song’s homophobic projection. It’s unclear why the song contains the references to Stan’s romantic love for Eminem and Eminem’s disgust at that love. They’re superfluous to the essence of the song and invite hesitation where none is needed. (The fact that Elton John performed this song with Eminem does nothing to alleviate the concern. And neither does the fact that John maintains a public friendship with Eminem and agrees not to be offended by his music’s homophobic urges.) It’s narratively unclear whether the homophobia of “Stan” should be attributed to the song’s speaker or its author, and one wonders if such a distinction would even matter.
It is frustratingly in line with the character’s worldview for the homophobia to come from Eminem. But it can also be convincingly ascribed to the provocateur in the artist. While it is not morally admirable to stir up homophobia without offering a critique of that homophobia (of some sort, even an implied one, wherein the violence of the attitude is made so plain the listener intuits the critique — I don’t necessarily want Eminem to be a moral visionary, I want him to see that bullying is beneath him) as he does, it is damn sophisticated, psychologically, insofar as the (young white male) listener is invited into identification with Stan before finding out Stan has homosexual feelings for Eminem. The straight listener has now been turned gay. This is fantastic and original turn because this isn’t gay as insult, this is gay as genuine (if confused) feeling. The complicated song has potentially complicated the listener’s own understanding of sexual identity. Except that the song misses the opportunity, and takes the unoriginal hyper-masculine response of “keep that gay away from me.”
But here I am thinking how great “Stan” is, and frustrated that it’s not just a little bit better. This flirtation with gayness in Eminem’s music goes on and on toward no conceivable end. What does he ultimately want? For us (young white male) listeners to think of him when we’re jacking off? Very well. Out of a sense of journalistic duty, I attempted just that. Would it make him uncomfortable to know this? Or is that what he wanted all along? Would he be relieved or disappointed to know that it didn’t really work for me? Relieved or disappointed to know that it did work when I replaced him in the fantasy with other rappers (some male: yes homo)?
While I share Stan’s feeling that certain of Eminem’s songs were written with me in mind (isn’t this definition of art that speaks to you: it speaks to you), the masturbation test tells me I pass (or fail) the crush test — I’m confused what the answer is supposed to be. Maybe, generously, that is the answer.
Content (/) Delivery
Regardless of how you feel about Eminem’s content (and I’m by no means granting a blanket dismissal, even if you take the homophobia literally), there’s no denying his skills. This is more or less borne out by the beefs he’s been involved in. He’s been called out for being white, or for being successful, for not being tough enough, but to my knowledge no one with any integrity has called him out on his rapping. Zadie Smith makes this point in her 2002 Vibe profile: “You may dislike the language, the philosophy (and it is philosophy) . . . But let’s settle on the bald facts: Eminem has secured his place in the rap pantheon.” We care about Eminem because he’s so good at what he does. And Smith is ready to tell us why Eminem is so good at what he does: He is “a word technician”; he has “the integrity of an artist”; he defends “the right to use words in the same way any novelist or filmmaker is free to do”; he tells his “personal truths”; “Eminem’s life and opinions are not his art. His art is his art.” That one’s so good, I want to quote it again: “Eminem’s life and opinions are not his art. His art is his art.” “Here’s a quick, useful definition of an artist: someone with an expressive talent most of us do not have.” Pointing back to the song “Square Dance,” she asks, “Hey you, the kid reading this article, wanting to be a rapper — can you do that?” Short answer: No.
If you haven’t listened to The Eminem Show recently, go back and play it through. If you do you’ll notice something interesting: from over an hour of Eminem’s rapping, Smith has chosen a relatively obscure verse from one of the few songs on the album that isn’t a real standout. And yet, the point remains: can you do that? Long answer: not even fucking close.
There aren’t many people’s whose opinions I value as much as Smith’s, but one is my college philosophy professor John Lysaker’s. We were talking once about rap and the conversation moved to Eminem, about whom Lysaker said, “he’s clearly a genius, but I can’t get past some of the content.” Whenever I hear this I think I can’t either. Except I do get past it, do excuse it by my participation in it. Do I do it by self-deception, a willingness to gloss over the parts that would make me uncomfortable? Maybe there is an internal contradiction in listening to Eminem’s music that I just refuse to reconcile (by not listening).
Or maybe, let’s try this: Eminem says a lot of things I would never say, things I don’t even like hearing. He also says a lot of stuff I wish I could say, stuff I think it’s important for everyone to hear. Why should I expect him, or even want him, to say only stuff I support? Why do we want our artists to be who we want our artists to be? Why shouldn’t they be who they want to be and leave us to reconcile the conflict? If everything Eminem said was in line with my political/social/artistic views, why would I even need to listen to him? He’d be a propagandist for my outlook not an artist. We need — I need — the push back of him asserting his artistic freedom, his consciousness in all its misogynistic and homophobic close-mindedness, all its gratuitousness and offensiveness. I need him to assert those views because it’s only against a sturdy interlocutor that I can struggle to figure out what I think. It’s not about Eminem saying something just because he has the right to free speech, it’s about his having the responsibility to discomfort his listeners and force them into new and uncomfortable ways of thinking. I’d rather have an artist who upsets me than one who consoles me as I already am. Right?
I like Michael Franti and Spearhead. How could you not? I listen to their music sometimes. But here’s the thing: how much effort does it take to like them? What’s Spearhead going to do to discomfort its comfortable audience? Who’s going to disagree that “everyone deserves music?” But I mean it when I say I like them. And unlike Eminem, I can listen to them at work. That’s not insignificant.
The danger for someone like Eminem, who can say anything is that he can end up meaning nothing of what he says. The strong ironist always risks the slip into nihilism, and at times Eminem has fallen into it. Relapse, for one example, was motivated by the question, What’s the craziest thing you can say on the mic? And while there’s plenty of crazy on that album it all plays in a vacuum of meaning. It stands for nothing and so no matter how crazy it gets it can’t escape being boring. Michael Franti, to contrast with the other end of the spectrum, risks being boring via his responsible and pedantic tendency. But I don’t need to keep picking on Franti & Spearhead, who as far as I can tell have stalwart morals. Instead, let me point at the poets and novelists and filmmakers and visual artists who compose purely aesthetic works and consider moral=moralistic=ideology does not=art. Why do we demand so much less from our MFA graduates than we do from our ninth grade dropouts?
But for everything Eminem does say, there’s one thing he can’t say: nigger. In fact, the only way he can get away with saying it is by not saying it but making the listener think it, as in “Criminal” when he rhymes “liquor” and “quicker” but not the word “ .” When an old tape surfaced on which a teenage Eminem says the n-word about a girlfriend who’d broken up with him, he apologized profusely and sincerely in interviews and on record. It’s testament to the fact that no one ever believed Eminem was racist that this didn’t become a bigger deal than it did.
But the analogy playing in every listener’s ears: why is it OK for him to use derogatory language about other minorities but not blacks? Well, since it’s not OK, the question really is, why does he get away with it? Partly because he is a rapper and rap is generally a homophobic, sexist form. He’s just playing to convention. Another factor is that the fact that he could never get away with saying “nigger” means he knows the consequences and therefore the meaning of that word. Because there are no significant consequences to saying “bitch” or “faggot,” he legitimately might not understand what those words can mean. You know what, “bitch” is a bad example here. The meaning of that word is too divorced from a specific slur on women to be even close to the level of “nigger.” But “faggot” is probably an appropriate analogy. And if Eminem doesn’t know the meaning of that word, that’s a major failure on his part to empathize. Here I do not come to his defense, and though I listen to songs that say “faggot” I’m not comfortable with doing so and I elide that word when I’m doing karaoke and change the CD whenever I have a gay friend in my car. I feel sheepish about being afraid to offend, but the fear of offending outweighs, and I put on Spearhead.
The significance of Eminem’s skin color cannot be overstated. And as with many Eminem-related topics Eminem himself has given the best analysis of the subject. The difficulties in succeeding as a white rapper when Eminem first made a name for himself are so apparent they almost don’t need to be mentioned. And in “White America” he almost doesn’t mention them as he narrates the moment when his skin color suddenly started working in his favor. (Dr. Dre’s endorsement gave him the black credibility he needed. With that credibility, his skin became an obsession, a curiosity, a joke, a myth; it became many things, all of which brought plenty of attention.) There was even a question that occasionally popped into listeners’ minds whether Eminem got the attention he got only because he was white. Eventually, people remembered/realized that Eminem was accepted in the rap world despite being white because he was very good at putting interesting words in interesting orders in interesting rhythms. As he raps in “Without Me,” the point is not that listeners want white rappers. The point is that listeners want more of him.
But that just scratches the skin surface. Because the thing is, there are many good rappers, Eminem is one of them, and yet it is Eminem who before Kanye West was the most divisive rapper, and more than none of this is due to his whiteness. If you look around online you can find rap fans posting racist comments in support and criticism of him. If you look at who sells the most the records, who gets played on non-hip-hop radio stations, who charmed those suburban housewives in 2002 – 2003, in all cases it was the white guy. I suspect that if you conduct your own informal demographic study you’ll find what I’ve found: non-white rap fans I know spend a way smaller proportion of their rap-listening time on Eminem than do white rap fans. And right about here is where I have to confront my growing concern that my interest in Eminem reveals something racial about me. But what it reveals I’m not totally sure. I have listened to Eminem more than I’ve listened to any other rapper (Tupac is second). I don’t think it’s because he’s white, but isn’t that at least part of the interest: how does someone who looks just like me do something so foreign from what I do? Does that mean I could do what he does? Could I? Barack Obama and Tiger Woods busting into white men’s clubs were supposed to do psychological wonders for black youth. Does Eminem’s whiteness give me the courage to not feel excluded from worlds I might want to enter? White males aren’t supposed to feel like this with respect to much in the country (just rap and the NBA, really — and if I could be who I wanted to be I’d be either a rapper, an NBA player, or both), but I’m not White Male. To me, I’m just me, and the lesson of self-belief is easily generalizable.
Everything in that last paragraph is true, but none of it quite convinces me of anything. I’m still drawn to this White Guy more than I’m drawn to other rappers, and I’m still troubled by the fact that some of that is because he’s white. Maybe I should just get over it and say you like who you like, but I don’t want to get over it. As long as my favorite rapper looks eerily like me, and distinctly unlike the default conception of what a rapper should look like, I feel duty bound to keep interrogating my preference. No matter how much I like Tupac, there are times listening to him makes me uncomfortable, guilty, threatened, and confused — and almost always this is due to my skin color. I can’t escape the feeling that his music is not meant for me. That he could do all these things is part of what made him a great artist, but I can’t always endorse his songs — not because I disagree with them but because I’m not allowed to. With Eminem, I’m allowed to think whatever I want. Nothing is excluded. Because we look the same, I’m free to listen to the music as music. It’s both a relief and the source of a profound guilt. In a way I’d feel better about myself if my favorite rapper weren’t white and didn’t look like me. And I’d feel better about myself if I knew that my taste in rap wasn’t so threatening to me.
And I’m just a rap listener. How much harder it must be for a rap sayer. The rapper and spoken word artist Guante, who I know I from personal communication is not a fan of Eminem, has a poem, “Confessions of a White Rapper,” that examines his own complicity in the invasion of the white rapper and gives an artistically and culturally driven defense of the white rapper’s place in rap that could be based off Eminem’s life. Eminem has made it in rap for the same reason Guante is making it: he is damn good at what he does and he knows his place. As a listener, I want the same.
And my place, when I get down to the business end of listening is in awe of the artistry. All complications aside, I love Eminem’s artistry. There are enough white rappers nowadays that Eminem’s lost that novelty; his survival stems from his artistry; he’s the best white rapper around (or at least the best with a corporate platform).
At his core Eminem is a writer who knows well the power of words. His entire career is dependent upon his unique ability to arrange words in meaningful orders. Let’s not forget that if Eminem has an essence this is it. This is borne out most plainly in the fact that his songs are good. This is not accidental. As 8 Mile, “Rabbit Run,” and common sense suggest, songs are written not discovered and the writing is a culmination of years spent honing the craft and getting acquainted with trial and error. But this whole essay is basically an engagement with Eminem’s ability to write well. I want to look just briefly at his some of his writing on writing.
“Words Are Weapons,” the title of a D12 track on Funkmaster Flex’s Mixtape Volume 4 can be read as a thesis statement. Insofar as Eminem’s raps find their genesis in the battle scene, they are the weapons that allow him to defeat (kill) his opponent in combat. But outside the context of competition, the power of the words remains: they are what allow Eminem to accomplish his goals, assert his perspective, and establish his identity. Even when he’s not technically battling, Eminem is (or at least was before his stratospheric success) fighting for his life. If that fight is metaphorical, it’s only so in a weak sense. To him, we get the impression (and this is either the sign of his commitment or the sign of his ability as a writer — or both), it was literally a case of survival: if he didn’t make it as a rapper he would have been forced to rebirth himself as what — a fast food worker, a janitor, a homeless person, a criminal?
Eminem’s willing and perfectly able to put the emPHASis on the wrong syllABLE when wordplay demands, and wordplay is where big chunks of his talent have been increasingly demonstrated in his recovery years. The double meanings, the forward and backwards rapping and spelling, the puns you don’t get on first, second, or even third listen, are often times heck of clever. But to use wordplay in service of larger artistic vision is the real game, and Eminem wins again. Recovery and Bad Meets Evil’s Hell: The Sequel give us an Eminem starting to move away from the tropes that he built his early career on (dark personal stories, zany comic book fantasies, psychological provocation) and replacing them with closer attention to the foundations of language (words and sounds), a restriction of narrative in the direction of autobiography, a relatively mature perspective, and a relatively positive and conventional ethos. While Hell is a bit of a throwback rap-for-rap’s-sake album in light of Recovery, it maintains the speaker as viable human being, contra Relapse’s shock-nihilism, and, hence, pointlessness.
But no sense getting so serious when rapping can be so much fun. It’s got to be a blast to rhyme words that writing and conventional thinking say don’t rhyme. And to do it again and again. Shit. It’s probably because I wish I could make those sounds sound so damn good that I’m writing this.
As un-hard as it might be to rap about dentistry, it takes courage to risk that softness. And the way Eminem hangs an entire verse on the word filling in “Not Afraid” is almost enough for me to almost agree with him when in the same song he says we shouldn’t have to hear his performance to recognize rap for rap. Almost, in most cases, especially earlier in his career, but not in all cases. Eminem’s writing is always written for Eminem to perform. And so we shouldn’t be surprised when it doesn’t hold up on the page. And very often it doesn’t. If you made the mistake of Googling and reading the “Square Dance” lyrics Smith praised rather than listening to them you’ll know what I mean. Eminem’s pliable cadences and stresses allow him a range of sounds that written language does not. That’s half his genius. Read Eminem’s lyrics online and you’ll say things to yourself like “That’s interesting”; “I like that rhyme”; or “That’s a clever enjambment, there.” What you won’t do is put your head in your hands and be too overwhelmed to know whether you should bob your head or shake it. The hip-hop scholar Alexs Pate wrote an interesting book on hip hop as poetry, but argue as he might for the poetic virtue of raps, he’s still writing a book about sounds — raps are sounds, meant to be sounds — and the quotes he quotes never quite live up to the paragraphs he writes himself. He gives us Eminem’s “White America” in those pages, and tells us what he thinks the song might mean. The meaning he discerns is sound, but to say that “the quality of the meaning is high,” as he does, is a kind of praise that sucks the life out of the song. There’s nothing less hip hop than reading rap lyrics and reading about what those lyrics mean. Eminem lets me bob my damn head because that’s what he wrote his songs for.
So now I’m just for beats and voice? No, no, no. Em’s “voice” is his meaning, which should be engaged with immediacy, where it will either work or not work. And it does work (for me, usually), but it works because of the way it’s written and delivered. He has hit a rich rhetorical niche, from which he can deliver his own unique version of realness. Now let me turn this over briefly to David Foster Wallace, who in Signifying Rappers gives the following analysis of voice and realness with respect to the rapper Schooly D:
His chief criteria for dissing other hip-hop artists are not only those artists’ ‘illness’ of composition but their raps themselves — ‘rap’ here meaning the scansion and recital of what’s composed, the defness needed to force black-audience acceptance of the MC’s dual roles of and for, the je ne sais required to lead-as-part-of; . . . in other words, and these are straight out of what defines good poets since like around Homer, to be a real rap artist is to have a Voice; for nothing does the genre have more scorn than for the ‘tired’ or ‘lame,’ the quiescent or mute.
Eminem might need a somewhat reluctant defender, but he should never need a translator. He’s already done the translation from experience and perspective to songs that fucking bang or fucking don’t. And they do. Usually. For me.
When Eminem’s music doesn’t “bang” for me it’s sometimes because he crosses a moral line I’m not comfortable crossing with him. I’ve given the example of his use of “faggot,” which I decry for its lack of redemptive function. The depictions of violence are more difficult. When I started listening to The Marshall Mathers LP I found myself skipping over “Kim” for more emotionally or personally accessible songs like “The Way I Am” and “Drug Ballad,” respectively. But eventually in the era of cheap gas we used to find time to hear every track on an album, and eventually I started listening to “Kim,” and more eventually I started to like it. This is one case where despite being young I had the self-awareness to question my taste. (If you don’t know, “Kim” reenacts the murder of a woman who shares the name of Eminem’s then-wife.)
What I came up with to tell myself at the time is that an artist’s job is to make you feel something, and the hair standing up on my neck was proof that “Kim” made feel something more intensely than I’d ever felt it in my “real life.” I said it wasn’t the murder but the depiction of that murder that I admired. What I did not ask myself was whether that thing I was feeling was worth feeling.
The defense I’d give of “Kim” now is a bit different. Rather than it just being cathartic for the artist or evocative for the listener, a song like “Kim” works because it provokes the listener’s complicity (insofar as he can identify with the sentiment, if not the act). Vicariously, I can explore an aspect of my psyche that I might otherwise repress. This is sketchy fucking territory ( — and that’s part of what makes it such a brilliant and horrifying song). It’s not the reenactment of murder that’s valuable; it’s the channeling and directing of anger for certain listeners that is. Whether or not the song is cathartic for Eminem, it is cathartic for the right audience. And that is art. If “Kim” — or for that matter, if “’97 Bonnie & Clyde” — were a horror film instead of a rap song critics would be battling each other to see who could find the most over-the-top superlative.
But isn’t there a voyeuristic element as well? A curiosity to project oneself into a truly evil act to see what it would feel like? One of the Rorschach-scary things in Eminem’s music is seeing just what in it excites you. It’s a kind of moral mirror (especially for white males?). And I mean this as a compliment. It’s not that Eminem’s music allows us to do what we really want to do but are restricted from doing. Rather, it gives us imaginative space to explore aspects of ourselves that we don’t (and needless to say shouldn’t) explore in action. Now, if there were any evidence that Eminem’s music actually provoked murder or domestic violence in his listeners, that would radically change the stakes of this discussion. And even if it were to do so, I’d defend the music as a powerful look into the male psyche. The real issue is that by singing his songs in the first-person (as rap basically requires), Eminem gives an implied consent to the acts described. This is the prime example for me of when we need to be sophisticated listeners capable of matching Eminem’s ironic detachment from the spoken content. I could make the point the way Smith made it in 2002 by saying that of all the domestic assault committed in America, how much of it was committed by Eminem? Answer: none. That’s fundamental to how we listen to the songs, but what if we don’t know that Eminem does not assault women? What if we don’t know whether “Kim” is fiction or documentary? Does that matter to interpretation? That’s what’s morally challenging about these songs: if we don’t know if it is fiction or documentary we are absolutely lost about how to interpret. But the crucial fact remains that we do know it is fiction (after all, Eminem brilliantly plays the Kim role), and the emotional realness of the story serves to make the art more effectual. Does Eminem condone domestic abuse, the literal readers among us wonder. It’s not a relevant question. We cannot pass the buck back to the artist. It’s our responsibility how we interpret our art. The realness of the murder fantasies just raises the stakes of our ability to listen critically. The blending of reality and fantasy through the use of real-life names, the use of the first-person perspective, this is what makes Eminem emotionally, psychologically, and artistically challenging — and what makes him, yes, one of the great artists of our era.
It’s interesting, though, that there are other songs in which we hear the more mature narrator present what seem to be Eminem’s own views on violence. “Like Toy Soldiers” is the best example of this. In it, he speaks on the needlessly destructive role of violence in hip hop. This is Eminem as hip-hop elder, not Eminem as enraged domestic partner, and in the difference between the two roles we see what the levelheaded artist thinks. Aside from the fact that this song displays some of the best technical rapping of his career, the song is unequivocally defensible and good. The song’s agenda is to squash needless beef before it leads to irreversible violence. The fact that the actor who played the murdered rapper in the song’s music video, Eminem’s real-life best friend, Proof, was murdered in the real world less than two years later is a tragic bit of extra-musical irony, and proof that sometimes we need to hear what art has to say . . . oh, fuck it, there’s nothing to say. There’s art and there’s real life, and two great verses can’t stop real bullets.
But who’s trying to stop the bullets? Clearly, I read “Like Toy Soldiers” as being rapped in Eminem’s real voice, the one held by the disembodied author of the text. I’m saying, in effect, that this master of irony has dropped his personae (as he has occasionally done before) for the sake of giving us the earnest truth. If you’re suspicious of this, so am I. I think Eminem wants us to read the song this way (but now I’m appealing to the same metaphysically untouchable author and just putting one more degree of separation between us), but isn’t this song as composed, therefore as contrived, as any? The remote author gives us the tough, street-wise, and caring speaker who knows enough to tell the listener and other rappers how to act (not killing each other). Let’s say Eminem was set on giving us a song with the message Don’t kill other rappers. He could have written any speaker he liked to get this point across. He chose who he chose because he thought it would make for an effective persona for bringing about his goals for the song.
Earnestness is itself a persona, a mask an artist (and a subject more generally) wears in public. And rappers’ repeated claims of “keeping it real” are rhetorically compelling but essentially meaningless in terms of self-identity. What is the essential self distinct from the presentation of that self (or those selves)? That question’s hard enough for the average person to answer; it’s made only more difficult in a complexly layered medium like rap music, which involves composing songs that are spoken in a close first-person. As long as the speaker is in objective proximity to the autobiographical facts of the author, self-presentation is almost infinitely malleable. Eminem can be a white trash comedian, a jealous lover, street-smart ally to black America, a scholar of rap history, a playful poet, a psychologically damaged young man, a doting father, a resentful victim of trauma, a homophobic embodiment of male insecurity, a wildly imaginative fantasy writer, a polished consumer product, and who knows what else. Effectively communicating any one of these personae on record would be enough to make a minor career of. Eminem’s Shakespearean genius is his ability to convincingly embody so many of them and move among them with such felicity.
But what was Shakespeare’s philosophy of life? And what is Eminem’s? Because the poet speaks in many voices, because the ironist cannot ultimately be pinned down, there’s always a threat of nihilism lurking about. Eminem is frightening because we don’t know who Eminem really is. Is he Eminem? Is he Slim Shady? Is he Marshall Mathers? The Great White American Hope? The Fire Marshall? Your parents’ worst nightmare? Some of them? When, and in what combinations? All of them? None of them?
If you go back and listen to Eminem’s first album, Infinite, you’ll notice two things: 1) he wants to be Nas; and 2) he’s indistinguishable from every other good underground rapper who will never “make it.” He has a good flow, creative rhymes, etc. . . . this thought isn’t worth finishing. Infinite has no voice. Take a look at something Geoff Dyer wrote about voice in music: “we listen to hear a distinctive voice, if we can, and if the voice is not already somewhat differentiated from its precursors and fellows, then we tend to stop listening, no matter what the voice is attempting to say.” Eminem is so good at the saying that we are (I am) willing to occasionally ignore the said.
But I know how to hear the lyrics so that most of them don’t offend me. And even when they don’t appeal to me, they generally impress me. But sometimes . . . it’s just sometimes they actually inspire me. This will say at least as much about me as it will say about Eminem, but think about his most autobiographical persona, the one where he drags himself up from shit and turns himself through hard work and self-belief into someone valuable and important. It’s an archetypally American myth and it’s a damn seductive one. The intersection of autobiography and artifice is rich territory for any artist with a troubled past, and Eminem flourishes there: “The Way I Am,” “Sing for the Moment,” Lose Yourself,” “When I’m Gone,” and so many others — these songs are so overflowing in self-becoming spirit, the needy listener finds a fount that will nourish him and won’t run dry.
It’s “Lose Yourself” I usually perform when I do karaoke. It’s really the perfect karaoke song for me because the song’s arc mirrors the leap I’m taking in performing. Every time I do it I hope to ride the momentum of my performance onto bigger and better things in life. I go method all the way, trying to get inside the ambitious underachiever (conveniently this isn’t too great a stretch for me) role so that I’m not copying Eminem rapping but rapping the words as my own. I attempt to become Eminem so that I might become myself.