In government, honored spouses used to busy themselves opening garden fetes and visiting homes for the needy, but nowadays, especially in America, they are apt to assume immodest and thankless tasks, such as cleansing the entire culture of obscenity. Before their husbands took office, the last two vice-presidential wives, Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney, made personal crusades of washing the music industry’s mouth out with soap. Every kid is familiar with the Parental Advisory Sticker, sometimes known as the “Tipper Sticker,” which warns parents of explicit lyrics contained in music products. Tipper Gore’s cofounding in 1985 of the Parents’ Music Resource Center, the lobby responsible for the sticker, caught the imagination of the American right in their general disgust with what Christians often call “verbal pornography.” A few years on from that, Lynne Cheney took Tipper’s homespun outrage and turned it into a form of censorship metaphysics: at a time when hate is something to be experienced and opposed at the glo-bal level, she found herself disgusted by rock lyrics which sell hatred to listeners.
The Vice President’s wife has experience in such matters, though not simply of the obvious kind. She is a former head of the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the author of a book, Telling the Truth (1995), which expressed what might tenderly be called a dislike of certain influential thinkers and movements—Michel Fou- cault, for instance, and feminism—which set themselves against “reason and reality.” Mrs. Cheney would seem, like so many of us, to yearn for a world free of excessive brutality, hatred, and unreason, and she made the cartoon antics of those in the music industry the prime target of her expletive-seeking missiles.
“So here’s a name,” said Mrs. Cheney, testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee on the subject of marketing “violent entertainment” to children, in September 2000:
Marshall Mathers. It is truly astonishing to me that a man whose work is so filled with hate would be so honored by his peers…. This isn’t the first time, but Eminem is certainly, I think, the most extreme example of rock lyrics used to demean women, advocate violence against women and violence against gay people.
Lynne Cheney has been true to her bipartisan energies, at one and the same time mistrusting the meaning of free speech while striking a blow for liberal causes, but she is not entirely right about the details. Eminem is not more extreme than the rap artists from whom he learned his trade—he is merely extremely white. “The problem is I speak to suburban kids,” the singer has said. “They connected with me too because I look like them.”
Eminem is someone who can sell seven million albums and dominate the mainstream of American youth culture, that’s to say white middle America, therefore discussions of this young man from Detroit come with alarm bells tied onto them in a way that discussions of black rappers from the Bronx …