Frank Rich profiles Eminem in some great detail in this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine:
- Flashback: It is the year 2000, and Public Cultural Enemy No. 1 is a rapper named Eminem (aka Marshall Mathers III), who has ascended from America’s closest approximation of hell (aka his hometown, Detroit). His abundant use of the words ”bitch” and ”faggot” has aroused the full spectrum of P.C. police, left and right. The violence in his songs is echoed by headlines of his own arrest on gun charges in two consecutive public brawls. And since he is white, he can’t be ghettoized: his music is saturating the suburbs at a faster clip than that of black hip-hop artists. Congress, inflamed by Columbine and looking for scapegoats, rounds up the usual suspects for hearings.
But now it is two years later, and on a muggy late summer evening, Eminem is performing before his fans in the Detroit suburbs, the last stop of his 2002 Anger Management Tour. A high point of the show is a song in which he exults in his role as universally despised spokesman for alienated Middle American youth. ”White America! I could be one of your kids!” goes its hectoring refrain, insistently gaining in malevolence as if a furious mob were gearing up for a rampage. At its climax he vows to urinate on the White House lawn and hurls expletives at Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore. But the roaring throng of 16,000 at the Palace of Auburn Hills is not angry. There is barely a whiff of pot in the air, let alone violence. It’s a happy crowd, mixed in race and sex, that might just as well have congregated to cheer the Pistons, who also play at the Palace, or at a megachurch or a mall. Even some boomers are on hand (me among them), as well as a few smiling pre-PG-13 kids perched on their dads’ shoulders. ”It’s kind of strange,” Eminem would tell me when I asked if he was noticing any difference in his audience of late. ”It used to range from 10 years old to 25. Now it seems to be from 5 years old to 55.”
Could it be that in just two years the scourge of bourgeois values is now entering the American mainstream? We may find out next weekend, when the country is blanketed with Eminem’s debut as a movie star in ”8 Mile,” a film loosely based on his life. Unlike, say, Prince’s ”Purple Rain,” which always put the musical needs of its star’s fan base first, this is a big-studio effort to tap into the national jugular, and it’s produced by Brian Grazer, of last year’s glossily heart-tugging Oscar champ, ”A Beautiful Mind.” Grazer is betting that his movie will confirm that Eminem, far from being a public peril, has now ”crossed over to the larger demographic.”
Should Eminem make that leap, he will hardly be the first pop rebel to do so. When you are the No. 1 act in music, no matter how provocative your songs or how ugly your rap sheet, the culture industry has a vested interest not merely in protecting the franchise but also in expanding it. Moral scolds can condemn each new rock phenomenon as loudly as they like — as they have been doing since the 1950’s — but the music is just too contagious and the money too dizzying for anyone in authority to counter the power of a roaring market. Thus has Mick Jagger, the antichrist of Altamont, become both a knight and an establishment corporate franchise, celebrated as a C.E.O. on the cover of Fortune. Ozzy Osbourne is a lovable TV star. Yesterday’s ”Revolution” can always be tomorrow’s Nike commercial.
If there’s a particular template for Eminem’s career at this early point, it’s that of the young Elvis (a comparison that Eminem hates). Both men took a musical form invented by African-Americans and gave it a popular white face. But Eminem has advantages Elvis did not. He writes his own idiosyncratic material rather than singing anyone else’s songs. His mentor isn’t a white Machiavelli like Colonel Parker, but the legendary hip-hop producer Dr. Dre, whose endorsement gave him instant credibility with black and white audiences alike and shielded him from accusations of cultural theft. (”I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do black music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy” goes one of the many Eminem lyrics in which he pre-empts any such criticism.)
That Eminem is also showing Elvis-esque potential to bust out of the youth market is not entirely a surprise. Any listener with open ears and some affinity for the musical vocabulary of hip-hop can easily become hooked on his music. Violence is merely one of the many notes he sounds in a range that stretches from schoolyard slapstick to pathos, and the mayhem is so calculatedly over the top that it seems no more or less offensive than typical multiplex Grand Guignol. In his most ambitious songs, his voice as a writer reaches well beyond idle provocation anyway. He comes at you with a torrent of language that sucks up and spits out the detritus of pop culture (from comic books to Versace) while marrying it to the rage, hurt and, occasionally, love that are at the core of his favorite subject, his own life. Somehow, just when you think he is going to spin out of control, all the rhymes land on their (and the music’s) feet, leaving the listener at the end of the precisely observed story he has to tell: the disturbing epistolary chronicle of a deranged fan, the domestic battlefields of both his childhood and his own divorce and, most recently (and sometimes petulantly), the price of fame. In a country in which broken homes, absentee parents and latchkey kids are endemic to every social class, he can touch some of the hottest emotional buttons. He can be puerile too, but what else is new in pop music?….
That’s only the first page of six. I’m not sure I have that much time for Eminem, but it’s certainly complete and well-written.