Would-be second lady and former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities Lynne Cheney is no coward—and no fool. During her Senate testimony about media violence in September, Cheney didn’t flinch while naming those she believes are polluting American culture with intolerable filth and vulgarity. And unlike Tipper Gore 15 years earlier, Cheney didn’t finger nowheresville bands like W.A.S.P. and the Mentors as examples of pop perfidy. She attacked one of the biggest-selling recording artists around, rapper Eminem, whose birth name is Marshall Mathers and whose self-consciously sinister alter ego is "Slim Shady." Since its release in June, Eminem’s latest offering, The Marshall Mathers LP, has sold over 7 million copies. His first CD, 1999’s The Slim Shady LP, has moved more than 3 million units.
"The time has come to get very specific, to ask individuals to be accountable," Cheney told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. "So here is a name: Marshall Mathers. In [the song] ‘Kill You,’…he…imagine[s] the joys of murdering any woman he might come across. ‘Wives, nuns, sluts,’ whoever ‘the bitches’ might be."
What Cheney and a host of other critics either won’t or can’t acknowledge is that Eminem is not merely a bestseller; he’s also one of the best pop artists of his time. He’s an unparalleled verbal wizard and a master of his chosen art form: the provocation. Perhaps more to the point, The Marshall Mathers LP is a sophisticated, though profane, meta-pop meditation on his relationship with his fans and his responsibilities toward society.
Eminem seems fairly obsessed with these matters and addresses them with greater wit and a deeper appreciation of the ambiguities of human life than Cheney managed. "How many retards listen to me and run up in the school shooting when they’re pissed at a teacher?" he muses in the song "Who Knew." "Her, him, is it you, is it them?/‘Wasn’t me, Slim Shady said to do it again!’/Damn! How much damage can you do with a pen?/…I just said it, I ain’t know if you’d do it or not." On the track "I’m Back," Eminem mocks the notion that listening to "bad" music somehow relieves wrongdoers of responsibility for what they do: "I take each individual degenerate’s head and reach into it/Just to see if he’s influenced by me/If he listens to music…he’s an innocent victim/And becomes a puppet on the string of my tennis shoes."
Not to whitewash: Eminem does indeed rap about raping his mother and killing his wife. (Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he is involved in a defamation lawsuit with the former and divorce proceedings with the latter.) He also portrays (and sometimes advocates) violence against gays, women, boy band N’Sync, and rival rap act the Insane Clown Posse. But how seriously is anyone expected to take a CD that starts off with a faux "Public Service Announcement," the last line of which, delivered in the finest bland "official" voice, is, "Slim Shady is fed up with your shit, and he’s going to kill you"?
More than his detractors recognize, Eminem is openly torn between conflicting desires to say whatever he wants, especially if he knows it will upset all the right people, and to do the right thing and live a normal life. The Marshall Mathers LP is rife with such ambivalence—while he mocks the idea that the media environment excuses or explains individual perfidy, he also recognizes his own persona’s sickness and sometimes blames his behavior on his mother’s negligent parenting. In "Criminal," he raps, "My mother did drugs—tar, liquor, cigarettes, and speed/The baby came out disfigured…It was a seed/Who would grow up just as crazy as she/Don’t dare make fun of that baby ’cause that baby was me/…How the fuck you supposed to grow up when you weren’t raised?"
Does exposure to this kind of entertainment hurt kids? Like Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, Cheney assumes it does. Oddly, if they’re looking for entertainment industry allies, they need look no further than Eminem himself. He goes farther than his critics in portraying himself as possibly responsible for real-world carnage. One of The Marshall Mathers LP’s best tracks is "Stan," a haunting number in which a disturbed young Eminem fan writes his hero an increasingly screwy series of letters. In the end, the song’s title character descends into a booze-and-pill-induced frenzy, ties up his pregnant girlfriend, stuffs her in the trunk of his car, and then drives himself and her into a river. Violence against women, nihilistic self-destruction, drunk driving—exactly what youngsters need to be protected against, right? But the point of "Stan"— spelled out in a final verse in which Eminem, too late, responds to the letters—is that this is a seriously dreadful act which makes even Eminem "sick." And Stan is a fictional character; no critic can point to any real Eminem fan so inspired by his hero to violence or destruction.
Eminem presents such a grotesquely self-hating and negative image of himself that it’s almost too obvious a joke when he mocks the idea that anyone would want to emulate him. As he puts it in "Role Model," "I slept with 10 women who got HIV/Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me?/I got genital warts and it burns when I pee/Don’t you wanna grow up to be just like me?" And yet a song like "Stan" recognizes that some fans might want to—especially kids from the same kind of rootless, poor, emotionally starved background Mathers claims he rose from. (He raps in "Who Knew": "Read up/About how I used to get beat up/Peed on, be on free lunch/And change schools every three months.")
There isn’t any easy didactic message in Eminem’s music to tidily support a political position about the influence of media violence. As Cheney might recognize when discussing a novel or play, such nuanced ambiguity about important questions is a touchstone of serious art. Certainly, there’s far more to Eminem’s output than a series of disconnected scenes of mayhem and cruelty, lacking all context and conscience. (Cheney also ignores how attractive the rapper’s snaky, minimalist beats and hooks sound, apart from any issues of message. Eminem’s enemies are tone deaf to his musical skills, though they’re worth considering when pondering his appeal.)
That said, there’s no question that Eminem is marketed to children, though not in the literal terms the Federal Trade Commission and Congress fret over. Eminem’s Slim Shady character is custom-made to appeal to teens, because it captures perfectly the feelings of outrage and powerlessness that often accompany —indeed, perhaps define—adolescence. Eminem is profane, rebellious, determined to be himself, to speak what he takes to be the truth about his emotions and what he sees around him. He’s all the more determined to do so if it pisses off authority figures. And in a world largely dominated by modern liberal cant, the best way to outrage adults is to come across as anti-gay, anti-woman, and pro-violence. As Eminem says in "Criminal," "Half the shit I say, I just make it up to make you mad." Such an attitude speaks directly to adolescent anomie and rebellion. While it is surely annoying to adults, it isn’t evil.
It’s also why lots of kids listen to his music—from troubled types resembling "Stan" (who says Eminem’s records "help…when I’m depressed") to the dutiful youngsters I saw recently when participating in the Los Angeles Coastal Cleanup, a day-long event during which volunteers picked trash out of a local waterway, Ballona Creek. Cheney and her Democratic counterparts might not believe it, but those boys and girls did their good deeds with Slim Shady tunes blasting from their boom box.
In attacking Eminem during the Senate hearing, Cheney’s central metaphor, proudly copped from Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan, portrayed "children as intelligent fish swimming in a deep ocean." Music, movies, and video games, explained Cheney, are like "waves…[that] go through [our children] again and again, from this direction and that.… Cleaning up the water, the ocean our children are swimming in, is…the most important environmental issue of our time." This is a terrible metaphor, implying against all evidence that human beings, even young ones, are in mindless thrall to what they see and hear. (Youngsters, no matter how many Looney Tunes they watch, are not apt to hand their dads dynamite cigars.)
Tell those kids cleaning up Ballona Creek that the music they enjoy is "the most important environmental issue of our time." The world of popular culture concerns characters and situations that are often harsh and unpleasant. In this respect, of course, it’s just like the highbrow culture that never seems to exercise the Cheneys of the world. Eminem’s work is artistically and morally serious, even as it’s outrageous, reckless, and often funny as hell (for those who can still laugh at punctured pomposity and the shock of taboo shattering). Cheney doesn’t notice this, because the political critics of popular culture, as usual, quite literally do not know what they are talking about. Which, all questions of censorship and constitutionality aside, is reason enough to ignore them. Or, if you are more aggressive in your objections to solemn, ignorant attempts to manage other people’s choices or raise other people’s children, you could join Eminem and "put one of those fingers on each hand up."