Jewish World Review Nov. 13, 2002 / 7 Kislev, 5763
You could sense it happening a few years ago. The music industry, seeing its profits fall because of downloading and bland talent, was in search of a new phenomenon to merge the ever-popular hip hop with white pop-into a kind of hip pop. Hip hop king Dr. Dre saw Eminem rapping in Detroit and zeroed in. The kid was good-angry, white, hungry, and very street. The lines, the delivery, the fury made the perfect package. Eminem, Inc. was only a matter of time. Eminem has sold 30 million records worldwide. He has his own label. The clothing line is just a matter of time.
The media and music critics out there (who are mostly white) began hailing Eminem a performance genius almost immediately-offensive lyrics not withstanding. A few weeks ago in the New York Times Magazine, cultural connoisseur Frank Rich hailed Eminem as a combination of Elvis, James Dean, and Machiavelli, where "violence is merely one of the many notes he sounds in a range that stretches from schoolyard slapstick to pathos."
By now most know that the achievements of Eminem, 30, (real name Marshall Mathers), are formidable: multi-platinum CDs in a "music" genre dominated by blacks, and now a smash "loosely biographical" movie "8 Mile," which opened with a staggering $55 million weekend box office. He's exceedingly clever, and genuinely delights in upsetting those who think his music demeans, and glorifies suicide, homicide and patricide. The music video for the hit song "Cleaning Out My Closet" shows Eminem burying his mother after presumably killing her, then weeping against the shovel in the rain. Touching. The really violent lyrics, he says, are usually spoken by his musical "alter ego."
And let's not forget-following the fine rap tradition, tough guy Eminem was convicted of pulling a gun on a guy involved with his ex-wife. (He was sentenced to probation.) Sure, Eminem's story is, in a large respect, quintessentially American. He came from nothing to become something big, by a sheer force of will and raw talent. But that some are comparing him to Elvis ("they both pushed the envelope, both threatening to authority figures" ) is says more about the lackluster state of music today than it does about his musical longevity. After Eminem is gone, will people be making pilgrimages to Eminem's mansion outside of Detroit? Will they be lighting candles and rapping the words to Real Slim Shady? Eminem postage stamps?
Now that we have established that he's angry, very angry, Eminem's rap is already stale. What's to be angry about? That the wheels on his Mercedes 600 SEL aren't shiny enough? That the hair stylist didn't put enough contrast in his highlights? Yes, we know he wants to be a "good role model" for his little girl. Yes, we know that even Sir Elton sang a duet with him. Yes, we know he is "evolving." The upshot: he's a clever brat whose rap is fast and witty. And now, he's compelling acting in a film with a predictable script where he essentially plays himself.
The idea that Eminem is an Elvis-like rebel is ludicrous. In the 1950s there really was a pressure for cultural conformity that Elvis bucked with his music and his gyrating hips. Today the entire culture is built upon celebrating diversity and strangeness a la Eminem. In that way Eminem's popularity is totally predictable.
Elvis was a rebel as a transforming force in American music. He paved the way for the British invasion. But where does Eminem take us? Is it enough today to be marketed and packaged as a rebel genius to actually be one? Eminem likes to brag that: "I just say whatever I want to whoever I want whenever I want wherever I want however I want." Deep, man. Really deep.
The entire culture was Eminem-ized long before he emerged on the scene.
We've pushed the envelope so much we can't find it anymore. Eminem's a
talented, gutter-mouthed, rhyming story-teller. But a rebel? Not even
close. The real cultural rebels today, those who are really challenging
the status quo, are the parents trying against all odds to filter out the
influences of the angry geniuses like Eminem.
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11/05/02: In defense of low turnout