Civil Liberties

Honoring Eminem


When Eminem was nominated for a handful of Grammys this year, including the coveted album of the year award, the foul-mouthed rapper and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the awards, came in for loads of grief.

Right-wing conservatives and members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found common cause in trashing both the academy—for allowing Eminem to be nominated in the first place—and the singer himself—for penning songs that depict all manner of violence to women and gays, among others. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Charles Murray, author of the Bell Curve, attacked Eminem for "his misogyny and homophobia," and claimed the white rapper exemplifies a "thug code." GLAAD went so far as to excoriate Elton John for agreeing to perform at the awards show with Eminem, whose "words and actions," according to GLAAD, "promote hate and violence against gays and lesbians."

If you've heard any of Eminem's songs, such outrage is understandable: The tracks on his nominated Marshall Mathers LP routinely—and graphically—depict murderous fantasies and other heinous acts. Though a multi-platinum seller, it's certainly not for the faint of heart.

But such outrage is also fundamentally misplaced.

It's not Eminem's critics who should be worried by his multiple Grammy nominations. It's his fans, especially those who enjoy the rapper's self-conscious shock value (as Eminem raps on one of his songs, "Half the shit I say, I just make it up to make you mad"). Regardless of whether he actually snags any statuettes this year, the Grammy nods themselves are the beginning of the domestication of Eminem, of his acceptance by and moderation within the mainstream.

This is a story at least as old as rock and roll—a form of music that since its inception has defined itself as rebellious and oppositional, as somehow beyond the reach of decent society. The history of rock is filled with self-styled rebels and outlaws who eventually become part of the very mainstream they once sought to displace.

Elvis Presley went from being a sexual pariah to a national treasure in less than a decade; the Beatles went from being drug-pushing hippies to Muzak mainstays in even less time. Elton John, who will sing a duet of sorts with Eminem at the Grammys, was once best known for aggressively stretching the boundaries of taste and decency with his outrageous costumes and open bisexuality. Now he's known as Sir Elton John and is an eminently presentable elder statesman of popular music.

So it is with Eminem. His embrace by the music establishment is the beginning of his end as a bad boy. He may not be playing Vegas, or releasing a Christmas album, or singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl anytime soon. But he will be. You can bet on it.