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[whitespace] Dido
Stan by Me: The real genius behind 'Stan' is uncredited Dido, whose song "Thank You' forms the bedrock of Eminem's hit.

Fooled Again

Eminem plays at shock effects with a corporate mindset

By Gina Arnold

'REBELLION" is a word I hate, at least when it's used in conjunction with the words "rock" or "rap." To my mind, the two don't go together at all: indeed, they're all but antithetical, and have been for the last 30 or 40 years. Successful rockers and especially rappers are players, not rebels--they work within the corporate system doling out carefully engineered slices of commercially viable "outrageousness," and few do it more obviously than this year's big sensation, rapper Eminem.

Seriously. I never see the guy on TV or read about him in the papers without detecting yet another instance of his total Company Manhood. He may well be wearing a gray-flannel suit and working for Intel, not Interscope. His much-hyped appearance at this year's Grammy Awards show last Wednesday was a case in point.

In his acceptance speech for "best rap album," Eminem hurriedly thanked every single white male executive at his record company, right down to his lowly publicist, and his face looked pinched and worried as he did so, for all the world like a guy testifying against his friends before HUAC.

He's a real good soldier for his company though. He does what he's told, even when he's told to sing his best song on TV accompanied by an extremely unhip gay man whose music and oeuvre have no relevance to Eminem's whatsoever. Eminem must have relished appearing with Elton John about as much as, say, George W. Bush would like appearing with Ralph Nader as his sidekick--but he did it anyway, because despite his image, Eminem's whole career has been one of enthrallment to the Man.

Eminem's appearance on the Grammys was a big favor for the awards. They needed him, both for credibility and to reach a younger audience. Also, he provided NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) President Mike Greene with a lovely opportunity to speechify for five minutes on prime-time TV.

Greene used the controversy surrounding Eminem's vicious lyrics to praise the music industry's supposed dedication to free speech, anticensorship issues and, you know, "rebelling" against unfair societal mores. He didn't provide any examples, and all the ones that came to my mind--like the time Warner Bros. dropped Ice T because of the song "Cop Killer," or the time Guns N' Roses released a record with a disgusting rape scene on its cover, were not ones that, if I were the music industry, I'd be super proud of.

THEN CAME EMMY, looking even more uptight than usual, to sing "Stan" with the help of Elton John. Forget the cheesy set and Em's (uncharacteristic) bad rapping and Elton's inability to sing the chorus on key--what was truly offensive about this little event wasn't its purely hype-oriented genesis, or the violent act that ends the song. ("Stan," supposedly inspired by Eminem's songs, puts his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car and drives off a bridge, while a sad Eminem looks on aghast.)

It's that every single note of the damn thing--everything except for Em's rap--was written by the British artist Dido (and came out on Dido's album No Angel last year), whose name was never mentioned on TV.

I mean, sampling is one thing--a tape loop or a riff is entirely acceptable in today's pop world. But "Stan" doesn't limit itself to a short snippet or a beat; it lifts the entire chorus (the part John was singing) of the song "Thank You" by Dido and then uses the rest of it as the underpinning for Eminem's contextually different lyrics.

True, most of Eminem's songs aren't as shamelessly derivative as this one, but neither are they as good. And that's what's maddening. What impressed people who watched the Grammys about "Stan"--what made it singable for John at all--didn't have anything to do with Eminem's art. Now, if Elton had been asked to sing along with "Kill You" or "Kim," that would have been a different thing entirely. At least it would have been more true to what Eminem's all about, and Elton would have had to think twice about taking part.

"Stan" is another matter. There's a duplicitousness about the song that is quite in keeping with a lot of things about Eminem's career. I don't actually think Eminem is a bad artist. His music--judged well within in its own sphere, that is, gangsta rap--is one thing, but his fame and notoriety are another, just a lot of smoke and mirrors, well-placed publicity, an arrest or two, the judicious use of "shocking" subjects and a public that is endlessly willing to buy the party line, which is that his music's gross subject matter is providing some kind of open debate or forum for social issues.

All it is really providing is some much-needed hype for an organization--the Grammys--that has been in disrepute for decades. In truth, the acts they nominate and reward are never particularly estimable. Generally, banality wins out over talent, and this year's episode was no exception, because when push came to shove, the 13,000 members of the academy elected Steely Dan's latest and lamest LP, Two Against Nature, the album of the year.

This is not really that surprising, since the academy consists mostly of sound engineers and technicians, many of whom are white men and most of whom are the same as age as Steely Dan. When you saw the acts' principals, two hobbled old men, accepting their award, you could see exactly how they got the vote: they are the artists who most resemble the members of the academy, physically and demographically, and everyone loves to vote for their own image.

Eminem's inclusion in the proceedings was an obvious gambit. By including him, NARAS wanted to make itself seem credible, hip, watchable and, yes, rebellious--a word Greene had the temerity to use to describe the Grammy in the "We're so relevant speech" that preceded Eminem's duet with John.

But the truth is, they aren't relevant, and they aren't rebellious, and neither is rock, and neither is rap. Not any of it, not ever. Artistic? Maybe. Enjoyable, yes. Experimental, on occasion--and shocking and avant-garde, and commercial and many other things. But it is not rebellious, and it never will be again.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

NAPSTER. Now, that's relevance for you--and even a rebellion, albeit a short-lived one. Alas, last week's so-called "White Flag" announcement, in which Nappy told the five major record labels they'd settle out of court for approximately one billion dollars of revenue to be doled out over five years, put paid to any idea that Napster is in the forefront of revolution.

It was not, however, really an unexpected move. Napster has been looking for a way to monetize itself, and to become "legitimate," ever since it incorporated in early 2000. It is sad, however, that the only way it can see to do that is to join forces with the enemy--and sadder still that the enemy, such as it is, is now refusing to do even that.

According to statements issued by three of the five major labels, Universal, Sony and AOL-Time Warner, "They [Napster] have still not answered the questions we have about a secure system which prevents unauthorized trading, or about how they intend to create a business model that respects the rights of record companies, artists and publishers."

Gee, hearing record labels talk about respecting artists' rights would be funny if it weren't so tragic. Go tell it to Robert Johnson. Or Bruce Springsteen. Or TLC, or the many other bands who've cut rotten deals with labels. Funny how self-righteous people get when the shoe is on the other foot. Be that as it may, the mess is just getting bigger, not smaller. It'll be interesting to see what happens next.

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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