Eminem makes Steve Earle look like Toby Keith
Why hasnt anyone noticed?
By Daniel Radosh
Eminem cant catch a break. No sooner does he crown himself king
of controversy than the culture warriors decide to give him a
pass. The rehabilitation of Eminem onetime bad boy of rap
is how hes now described is partly the result of the hit
film 8 Mile, a wholesome, old-fashioned movie in which the rapper plays
a less frightening (and less interesting) character than the ones on
his albums. But even before 8 Mile, the rabid right had dropped Eminem
as its whipping boy. One explanation: Since 9/11, theyve had bigger
fish to fry. Now Republicans and conservatives aren't concerned
about rap music, wrote John Podhoretz in The New York Post. They're
interested in national security, in terrorism prevention, the war against
al Qaida and the war with Iraq. Are kids learning dirty words from Eminem?
Big deal. Eminem won't kill them. Militant Islam will.
Sure, this raises the question of whether there werent other important
even deadly issues that Lynne Cheney et al might have
been tackling before 9/11, when conservatives (and some liberals) couldnt
spend enough energy hammering Eminem. But Podhoretzs claim isnt
entirely accurate. In at least one respect, the war on terror
has actually made the culture wars even more important to conservatives:
now their bugaboo is not sex or violence, but treason.
This is, of course, what got Steve Earle in such trouble not long ago.
The punditocracy flayed Earle alive for songs like John Walkers
Blues, while praising more avidly pro-America responses to 9/11
by Alan Jackson, Neil Young, and, especially, Toby Keith (the right
split on Springsteen). Yet in this whole flurry of columns and talk
show rants, there was barely a word about Eminem. No one seems to have
noticed that the artist who has dominated the charts for a year
easily outselling all the above-mentioned combined did so with
an album bristling with references to 9/11. And not about how much it
made him love his country.
He cant catch a break. The rapper who laments okay, brags
that critics put my lyrics up under this microscope, searchin'
with a fine tooth comb, might as well not even have recorded The
Eminem Show for all the guardians of patriotism and culture care. One
of the only places he even comes up in the debate is a Washington Times
editorial that compares him favorably to Earle. Eminem is a misogynist
malcontent, the Times said. But at least Eminem hasnt
stooped to the level of sympathizing with, much less glorifying, terrible
Taliban John Walker Lindh. Nope, hes stooped much, much
There's no tower too high/No plane that I can't learn how to fly/What
do I gotta do to get through to you, to show you there ain't nothin
I can't take this chainsaw to? Apparently Eminems gotta
do more than that, because for some reason, declaring himself hip hops
Mohammed Atta simply hasnt been enough to generate outrage. Part
of the problem is that unlike Earle and even Keith who
are at least expressing genuine emotions, most of Eminems September
11 allusions such as the one above, from My Dads
Gone Crazy, a mostly delightful duet with his 6-year-old daughter
come off as cynically calculated bids for controversy. The only
9/11-related criticism Ive seen of Eminem has been aimed the hit
Without Me. The song has nothing to do with terrorism, but
in a gratuitous effort to push buttons, the video features Em as Osama
Eminem dips into the lyricist-as-terrorist well twice on the album.
In Business, he rhymes Batman and Robin with Saddam and
Laden (the most openly insecure rap star ever, Em casts himself as Robin,
and, by extension, bin Laden) and boasts of having his own private
plane, his own pilot, set to blow college dorm room doors off the hinges.
(He then deftly negates this tasteless allusion with his hallmark technique
of segueing from offensiveness into nonsense, rhyming hinges
with or-inges, peach, pears, plums, syringes.) Later in
the song, Eminem reaches for a pre-September tragedy in an even more
desperate attempt to stir up trouble, with the line, how can shit
be so easy, how can one Chandra be so Levy? possibly the
worst lyric he has ever written.
Though Eminem may have the best flow of any rapper, boasting about it
isnt what hes known for, or what he does best, which may
be another reason the lyrics cited above havent resonated. What
sets Eminem apart from other rappers and what made his first
two albums masterpieces is his willingness to plumb the depths
of his own tortured psyche. Theres far too little of that on The
Eminem Show, and unfortunately some of what there is thuds loudly because
Eminem cant resist amplifying his own angst to levels that even
his most ardent defenders must find obscene. In My Dads
Gone Crazy, Em claims theres more pain inside of
my brain than the eyes of a little girl inside of a plane, aimed at
the World Trade. Well, no. Im sorry your favorite uncle
killed himself, Marshall, but its not the same. That this lyric
alone hasnt brought out the finger-wavers is a sure sign that
critics no longer scrutinize Eminem as carefully as he thinks.
They might have to soon. The song destined to be Eminems next
big hit, White America, is easily the most anti-patriotic
of the year. Ems politics are not as sophisticated as Earles
or Springsteens. But theyre more thoughtful than Toby Keiths,
and theyre not going to win him any friends at The Washington
Times. While White America, which had fans singing along
at the MTV Video Music Awards, makes no explicit references to terrorism,
its hard not to read it as a reaction to the star-spangled tripe
that has dominated American culture this past year.
For the most part, Eminem is a single-issue voter. He doesnt like
people who try to shut him up, especially when they have the weight
of the government behind them. White America is one of several
tracks on The Eminem Show that tackle censorship (though its mostly
about race and hip hop). In it, Em promises to lead the march
right up to the steps of Congress and piss on the lawns of the White
House, to burn the casket and replace it with a parental advisory sticker,
to spit liquor in the face of this democracy of hypocrisy
you with the freest of speech this divided states of embarrassment will
allow me to have. Juvenile? Sure. To the tune of 6 million sold
and counting. Meanwhile its the minor cult figure Steve Earle
whose CDs are being burned on air.
In Stimulate, from the 8 Mile soundtrack, Em continues to
rave about his failure to communicate with Congress. But
its another song that should ensure that his politics will only
become more relevant in the future. In Square Dance, Em
clues his young fans in on something everyone else seems to be glossing
over: When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney say theyre going to
invade Iraq, what they really mean is theyre going to send you
to invade Iraq.
The boogie monster of rap, yah the man's back
With a plan to ambush this Bush administration, mush the Senate's face
Push this generation of kids to stand and fight for the right to say
something you might not like
This white hot light that I'm under, no wonder I look so sunburned
Oh no I won't leave no stone unturned
Oh no I won't leave, won't go nowhere, do-si-do, oh, yo, ho, hello there
Oh yeah don't think I won't go there, go to Beirut and do a show there.
Yah you laugh till your muthafuckin' ass gets drafted
While you're at band camp thinkin' the crap can't happen
Till you fuck around, get an anthrax napkin
Inside a package wrapped in Saran Wrap wrapping
Open the plastic and then you stand back gasping, fuckin' assassins
hijackin' Amtracks crashin'
All this terror America demands action, next thing you know you've got
Uncle Sam's ass askin'
To join the army or what you'll do for their navy.
You just a baby, gettin' recruited at eighteen
You're on a plane now, eatin' their food and their baked beans.
I'm twenty-eight, they're gonna take you 'fore they take me
Crazy insane or insane crazy?
When I say Hussein, you say Shady
Marshall Mathers has challenged the war on terror as forcefully as any
celebrity out there. Whats a guy gotta do these days to be protested
and demonstrated against?