When the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences nominated Eminem (real name Marshall Mathers) for a Grammy for best album of the year, it shocked the world almost as much as the rapper has. Even First Amendment partisans who would never advocate censorship are openly appalled by the controversial singer's rants against women, gays and rival pop acts. The album in question, the Marshall Mathers LP, certainly portrays some vile thoughts and deeds. But as we approach Wednesday's Grammy event, Eminem's detractors condemn him by presenting disconnected snippets of lyrics that make his art seem nothing more than ignorant advocacy of hateful mayhem.
They either don't notice or simply ignore that Eminem's songs deal with serious issues, including an artist's responsibility to his audience, an individual's responsibility for his own actions and how a neglected, rootless upbringing contributes to adult dysfunction.
In fact, Eminem goes farther than any of his critics in portraying his music as responsible for real-world mayhem.
The hit single Stan, for instance, tells of an impressionable Eminem fan who descends into a booze-and-pill-induced murder-suicide. His story is told through a series of letters to his idol. When Eminem enters the narrative toward the end of the song, responding to Stan's letters, he explains that listeners shouldn't take to heart when he raps about harming others or himself, and that violent, destructive actions like Stan's "make him sick."
Those who think Eminem is merely a moral monster spouting filth must contend with this touching and artful portrait of a mixed-up, hopeless American kid looking to a pop star for succor and friendship -- and Eminem's clearly moral response. It's a devastating and carefully drawn piece of contemporary art.
Eminem's detractors similarly ignore that the rapper routinely portrays characters in his songs, particularly a dark, crazed, alter ego called "Slim Shady."
In any other art form but pop music, critics wouldn't be so quick to assume that everything said is advocated by the author. Eminem raps that "half the s--- I say, I just make it up to make you mad."
Only the most culturally conservative would be automatically outraged by a novel, film or play that portrayed an angry, violent, confused character from a broken home or even a killer. (Movies about urbane cannibals like Hannibal Lector win awards without much fuss.)
Despite his shocking way of expressing himself, Eminem might be more on the side of those who attack him than they think. He seems firmly to believe in parental responsibility for kids' behavior. He raps about the Columbine tragedy in The Way I Am: "When a dude's getting bullied and shoots up his school … they blame it on Marilyn [Manson] … where were the parents at?"
Eminem complains in Who Knew about seeing "three little kids.. with their 17-year-old uncle" cheering an R-rated, violent Arnold Schwarzeneggar movie. He advocates personal culpability for heinous acts, mocking the idea that he should be blamed for evil deeds committed by others merely because they heard him talk about them.
He is amazed in I'm Back that someone who commits a crime could be considered "an innocent victim … puppet on the string of my tennis shoe." He blames the sickness of his own thoughts and imagination on a rootless, fatherless upbringing with a drug-abusing mother and violent peers: "Read up/About how I used to get beat up/Peed on, be on free lunch and change schools every three months."
By speaking in the voice of a generation of angry, confused kids, Eminem shows them respect and understanding. For the rest of us, he provides an artful look into a dark world from which we might prefer to turn away.
Eminem is a gifted writer who portrays the nuances and ambiguities of the human soul at war with itself, its upbringing and its culture. America is home to lots of angry young men like the one Marshall Mathers portrays or perhaps is in real life. (He has had several brushes with the law.) Should people who think like him, who have seen what he's seen, and felt what he's felt not be allowed to make art from their conflicts and problems? Is it the duty of all decent people to reject such art automatically?
The academy is standing up for the artistic value of its own field in daring to recognize work as difficult, conflicted and potentially offensive as Eminem's. In doing so, the academy is simply claiming prerogatives that are barely questioned in other art forms.
In the final analysis, the debate over Eminem's Grammy nomination comes down to a key political question: Is it OK to think these things? And then: Is it OK to think it's OK to think these things? Trying to quell or deny the legitimacy of the voice of a generation of angry, confused kids struggling with their consciences and their anger is neither wise nor fair.
The last music from Detroit, Eminem's hometown, to capture America's imagination was Motown, whose slogan was "the sound of young America." Eminem is the sound of a different young America, and it is better to listen to it carefully than to shut it up.
This article appeared in the February 18, 2001, issue of the Detroit News.