Swift, Twain, Browning?Nah, It’s Eminem
“My little sister’sbirthday, she’ll remember me
For a gift I had ten of my boys take her virginity (“Mmm-mm-mmm!”)
And bitches know me as a horny-ass freak
Their mother wasn’t raped, I ate her pussy while she was ‘sleep
Pissy-drunk, throwin’ up in the urinal
That’s what I said at my dad’s funeral”
from the song “Amityville”
Back in the mid-Eighties when metal rockerBlackie Lawless was acting out his rape fantasies on stage witha circular saw as part of a codpiece (the prototype for Eminem’scurrent act featuring a chainsaw?), one of the arguments thatsome used in his defense was that no one actually listened tothe likes of Blackie Lawless, so Tipper Gore and her footsoldiersin the Prude Brigade really had nothing to worry about.
The same can’t be said for Eminem,since he sells millions of CDs and gets plenty of free airtimeon MTV and radio and-much to his fury-Napster. So a more elaborate–thoughnot necessarily more sophisticated defense has had to be deployed.It goes thus: Eminem is a creature of his environment. He is theauthentic voice of the poor, white working class. White trailertrash. He is what American capitalism has made him. His angstis real, his anger legit-though misdirected at women and gaysbecause of malign social forces. Like Elvis. Or Bill Clinton.One critic called him “our” Johnny Rotten. But wherethe Sex Pistols attacked the Queen, Eminem bashes queens. One’spolitical, the other’s not. And that’s all the difference in theworld.
But then on top of this a seconddefense is layered: namely, that Eminem is a master satirist;that his lyrics-which some demented writer in The London Guardiandeclared as being the equal of, and in some ways superior to RobertBrowning’s – are really an ironic expose of our own homophobia,mysogyny, class bias. He’s our Swift, Twain, Ishmael Reed.
Then realizing there might bea potential conflict between defense A and defense B, a thirdone is proffered: namely, that the genius of Eminem is to be foundin the “ambiguity” of his lyrics-which would, we guess,allow for him to be both “authentic” and “satirical”.It’s like there’s an unreliable narrator at work, say the narrativevoice in Henry James or Alain Robbe-Grillet.
But all of these are merely self-congratulatoryrationalizations of critics and they are undermined by what Eminemhimself has to say about what he’s doing-which is that the lyricsare a “gimmick”, that “they don’t mean what theysay”, and “aren’t worth a grain of salt”. In otherwords, it’s all a put on, not for some satirical purpose, butmerely because he and his label know that these kinds of exploitativelyrics appeal to pre-teens who share many of the same phobias/fantasies.
In other words, it’s not aboutmaking music, expressing the condition of the alienated workingclass in Detroit, but about making money. Eminem said this preciselyin his attack on Napster. He’s marketing hate to kids for money.It’s that simple and not that different in kind from tobacco advertising-whichcould be defended on artistic and 1st amendment grounds as well,and indeed has been by the tobacco industry’s hired guns.
Eminem’s lyrics are a kind ofpremeditated infantilism, but not a healthy regression towardthe polymorphous perverse, but a summons to the thanatic impulse,a call for division, repression, an invocation of the very forcesthat have divided the working class for decades. He serves theinterests of the State. The idea that Eminem might be “censored”is a ruse, and a tired one, and an insult to those who have trulybeen censored. Cross the powerful, question the System and yourisk censorship, lawsuits, SLAPP suits, beatings, harassment orworse. As long as Eminem remains a whore for the corporations,he will continue to accumulate wealth and be shielded from thecensors of the state. And he is a corporate mercenary, whetherit’s flacking for Nike or for the music industy’s trade association,the Recording Industry Association of America.
Unlike the censors at GLAADand other groups, we have no desire to amputate Eminem’s rightto self expression. Let him rap by all means. To our minds, hereat CounterPunch, he’s a hired gun from the poor part of town whopreys on the powerless, extorts money from the poor, and celebratesa thuggish brand of gangster capitalism. His defenders and apologistsin the critical world are just another arm of the very same industry.
The more instructive analogy with Eminemwould have been with Browning’s original idol, Percy Shelley-themost irascible English poet since Kit Marlowe. Shelley was anadulterer, an atheist, an abortionist, drove his first wife tosuicide, a victim of censorship who was driven from England, andin turmoil with his own homosexual longings. The all-round infantterrible of English poetry, who had the honor of being savagedby the crypto-fascist Matthew Arnold.
Forget Shelley’s ability withthe language and look only at the sensibility of the two. Bothhave blood lust. But Shelley longs to see the powerful pay, thedeposition of tyrants; he was an unrepentant Jacobin. Eminem isthe neighborhood bully, preying on the weak, the defenseless,the marginalized, singing the virtues of accumulation and consumption,never once taking on the powerful-a would-be tyrant, himself.
It’s one thing to defend Eminem againstcensorship-quite another to promote, as Chaucer would say, “thesentence” or message of his lyrics. Remember the lines byShelley, dashed off in a hour of rage following the Peterloo Massacre–theWTO protest of its day, where 40,000 protesters and laborers weretrampled by English police on horseback. Try to find any similarsentiments in Eminem. Here are two stanzas:
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
the wealth ye find, another keeps;
the robes ye weave, another wears;
the arms ye forge, another bears.
Sow seed-but let no tyrant reap;
Find wealth-let no imposter heap:
Weave robes-let not the idle wear;
Forge arms-in your defence to bear. CP