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 never quite do. If Mrs. Cheney listened closer to those offensive lyrics, she would hear the ghetto culture of America—the traditional nature of which her assumptions hold in trust—satirized and objected to and characterized as a coat of many colors.
This is from his first official release, The Slim Shady LP, an album of music that tosses assumptions about American poverty high into the air:
I’m tired of being white trash, broke and always poor
Tired of taking pop bottles back to the party store
I’m tired of not having a phone
Tired of not having a home to have one in if I did have it on
Tired of not driving a BM
Tired of not working at GM, tired of wanting to be him
Tired of not sleeping without a Tylenol PM
Tired of not performing in a packed coliseum
Tired of not being on tour
Tired of fucking the same blond whore after work
In the back of a Contour
I’m tired of taking knots with a stack of ones
Having a lack of funds and resorting back to guns
—“If I Had”
Another song, “My Name Is,” Eminem’s anthem for zonked youth, was the hit single from that album, a song energized by the notion that there was nothing under the sun that couldn’t be said:
Hi kids, do you like violence
Wanna see me stick nine inch nails through each one of my eyelids?
Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?
Try ‘cid and get fucked up worse than my life is?
My brain’s dead weight, I’m trying to get my head straight
But I can’t figure out which Spice Girl I wanna impregnate.
The music is immediate and vivid, the lines declarative and clear: “God sent me to piss the world off,” he sings; “My English teacher wanted to flunk me in Junior High. Thanks. The next semester I’ll be thirty-five.” Eminem seemed to arrive through the speakers fully formed: he had taken the verbal felicities of his rap heroes (Erik B and Rakim, KRS-One) and married them to a fund of modern American caricature. The music sounded friendly, but it was informed by a white rock sensibility too, much as the white rappers the Beastie Boys had tried to do a decade earlier. The difference with Eminem was that his sound seemed to synthesize everything: he married a perfect style to a perverse content, and the songs have a catchy, celebratory feeling about them, as well as a narrative force that seemed new. Here was a man with a ghetto sound, but it wasn’t the sound of the ghetto as previously understood: instead there were blasts of rock guitar mingling with funny voices and break-beats; sometimes a movie soundtrack of atmospheric, ambient pop sounds broken up with scratches and cartoon exclamations, the whole thing drawn together by the unstoppable flow of Eminem’s rapping and sealed in a bubble of unforgettable melody. The sound is potent and funny and it masticates outrage the same way kids chew gum:
So if I said I never did drugs
That would mean I lie AND get fucked more than the president does
Hillary Clinton tried to slap me and call me a pervert
I ripped her fuckin’ tonsils out and fed her sherbet
My nerves hurt, and lately I’m on edge
Grabbed Vanilla Ice and ripped out his blond dreads
Every girl I ever went out with has gone lez
Follow me and do exactly what the song says:
Smoke weed, take pills, drop outta school,
Kill people and drink
Then jump behind the wheel like it was still legal
I’m dumb enough to walk into a store and steal
So I’m dumb enough to ask for a date with Lauryn Hill
Some people only see that I’m white, ignoring skill
‘Cause I stand out like a green hat with a orange bill
But I don’t get pissed, y’all don’t even see through the mist
How the fuck can I be white, I don’t even exist.
These are the lyrics of a smart speaker in an evil mask. They may play with advocacy but their true force is descriptive: to hear the music is to listen to an American voice having fun while having its say. It seems to me there is little point in arguing about whether a style is appropriate or not appropriate. Eminem’s sound is here, and it is darkness audible.
Perhaps the white children of America have better ears than the Vice President’s wife; that’s no crime on her part. But Eminem did not invent pill-popping, hooky-playing, misogynistic, gun-toting, gay-bashing, dope-smoking, incarceration-friendly, potty-mouthing, gangland America, he merely makes music about it, songs that appear to connect with millions of people’s sense of truth.
Eminem is like a cartoon character, like Bart Simpson or Dick Tracy: not so much a self-invention as someone drawn into life by the power of the surrounding culture. He is a personality ripe for its own performance—white trailer-trash getting angry and making millions—and from the beginning he has been aware of the fact that his life and his career are not only his story, but are increasingly the story of a society and a language. As a creator of lyrics, Eminem is confessional, luridly so, and his life is dramatized by his own words to an extent that, on a good day, could make John Berryman’s work look impersonal. It is strange to imagine, but every fact about this Marshall Mathers alias Slim Shady alias Eminem, every complaint against him, appears just now like something deeply invested in the question of America itself. Who is he? What kind of American is described by his rage and attracted in such numbers to his voice?
In 8 Mile, the recent movie starring Eminem and Kim Basinger, there’s a particular scene set in a trailer home. The Eminem character, nicknamed B. Rabbit, has just returned from a day working in a local factory. His mother is watching a movie; we only see the movie for a few seconds, but it is Imitation of Life, Douglas Sirk’s drama about a black girl who tries to pass for white in late-Forties America. The moment is fleeting but the message is resonant in 8 Mile, which is basically a biopic of Mathers’s early days living in black neighborhoods in Detroit, and more resonant still in the whole career of Eminem, an all-American kid living out a drama of black brotherhood, a white Negro struggling to become himself in a culture riven with definitions. Like the character in 8 Mile, Eminem grew up at the center of poor, dysfunctional lives: single mother, absent father, living in a trailer besieged by debts, and meager opportunities. Anthony Bozza, in his tough manifesto for Eminem, takes a drive around Detroit with the young rapper, looking at “the places that formed and malformed him.” In 1999, when the first interview takes place, Eminem, who has already had considerable success, is still living in the trailer park, and—like so many of the people he’d soon be taken to represent—he is a young father to a young child, surrounded by threats and blame and chaos. Bozza catches his worries:
“My mother moved back to Kansas City, so I bought this trailer from her…. Hailie [his daughter] feels really comfortable here, so I took over the payments. I’m paying rent for no reason because I’m not here anymore. But when I am, I need a place to stay.”
Kim Scott [his wife, whom he later divorced] lifts their daughter from her nest and takes her into the second bedroom. Hailie’s bed is dwarfed by a mountain of toys, clothes, and boxes. Kim soothes her in hushed tones. It has been a long day…a driving tour… through the Detroit streets and neighborhoods where Marshall Mathers spent the better part of the past twenty-six years.
“Man, driving through town tonight brought back a lot of memories,” Marshall says, lowering his voice. “I’ve been through a lot of shit, man. If I sit and think back on it, it’s really fucked up. I mean, all my life has been fucked up.”
…He has only known flux for the past twenty years, moving from home to home, living in different cities, changing schools and working more than he didn’t, at one job or another, since he was fifteen. His anchors in this world are here in his mother’s double-wide: his daughter, Detroit, Kim, and the pen and pad on the counter. There are no mementos of Marshall’s childhood here; they exist in his mind, caught in the chaos he churns into words. Those mental pictures have sold 500,000 albums in just two weeks.