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[whitespace] Eminem Just Clowning: For rap sensation Eminem, over-the-top violence and sexism are a ticket to the top of the charts.


What's the Matter With Mathers?

Is Eminem's 'Marshall Mathers LP' a harbinger of societal collapse or just the next shock in the pan?

By Gina Arnold

SICK OF GANGSTA RAPPERS with gold teeth and baggy clothes talking about how street they are? Have no fear. The world's most popular rap star has nothing in common with that now clichéd image. Instead, he sports the short, stocky build and blunt features usually associated with the mean little men who work in gun shops. If you saw him in a bar, and he happened to be liquored up, you'd probably give the guy a wide berth.

His name is Eminem--Marshall Mathers, in real life. Eminem (who appears as part of the Up in Smoke concert June 19 at the San Jose Arena) is the latest and not so greatest in a century-long parade of artists whose chosen purpose is to shock the bourgeoisie. Manet, Picasso, Duchamp; Presley, Dylan, Johnny Rotten--all have purposefully challenged the perceptions of society in order to protest the stultifying and often stupid norms imposed by our ridiculous class society.

As a poor white kid from outside Detroit who has borrowed a black idiom to voice his anger at the world, Mathers might easily range himself alongside these 20th-century rebels. But is Eminem, whose entire art consists of relating violent, homophobic and cruel behavior toward women and children, a real innovator, or is he just a cheap exploiter of society's penchant to reward acts that push people's buttons?

On the one hand, Eminem's hate-filled spume is clearly a comment on the ridiculous nature of sex and violence in pop. Time and again, he makes assertions that show he knows the absurdity of the world he inhabits. On the other hand, it's just not comfortable to know that a record on which a guy writes quite convincingly about raping his mom and killing his wife ("bleed, bitch, bleed" is the chorus of the latter) is so popular.

MEANWHILE, BROUHAHA aside, Eminem's just-released second album, The Marshall Mathers LP (Aftermath Entertainment/Interscope), is real summer smash, a catchy chart-topper that has captured the imagination of youth everywhere. Moreover, and what seems to be more important in these days of flash-in-the-pan stardom, it has also generated some controversy among critics who either embrace or object to his fast-talking rhymes about raping and killing women (including his mother, wife and little sister).

"My little sister's birthday, she'll remember me/For a gift, I had 10 of my boys take her virginity" goes one of the cleaner lines on the album (from the song "Amityville)." "I don't give a fuck if this chick was my own mother" is another quote, from a song called "I'm Back." "I still fuck her with no rubber and come inside her and have a son and a new brother."

The record sold 1.7 million copies in its first week. Is Eminem for real? Well: no. It's all a joke, of course, an OTT (Over the Top) exercise in shock rock, more extreme, but along the lines laid out previously by artists like Ice T, Alice Cooper and Kiss.

The Eminem shtick is just that, shtick, one long fuck you done in a high-pitched whine of a dumb creep. He is 27 playing 13, voicing the male adolescent's impulse to yelp "Bitch, I'm gonna kill you" (from a song about his mother, Debbie) to everyone who thwarts his wants and needs.

He doesn't even approve of his own antics. On one song, "Stan," he writes about a fan who loves him so much he takes everything he does seriously: "That's my girlfriend screaming in the trunk of my car, but I didn't slit her throat, I just tied her up," says Stan, and Slim replies, "But can't you see I'm just clowning?"

More specifically, Eminem's songs play out the juvenile psycho mind-set that, presumably, motivated Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris and other school-yard shooters, and that is (also presumably) haunting the psyches of our youth--and he is doing it purely for laughs.

Is it funny? Sure, if you're 13. To me, Marshall Mathers, though technically accomplished (the guy can really rap, and producer Dr. Dre has made the music more accessible than any previous rap LP to date), is too "talky" to be a pleasure to listen to.

The narratives are all mean, ranting and plotless, as well as interspersed with way too much talking. His voice is high and nasal, unlike most black rappers. But this is not a record aimed at me, it is a record aimed at adolescents. Its overriding message to kids is not so much rape, maim and kill anyone who gets in your way, as it is the far more appealing one of "Say whatever you want, however outrageous, and no one can stop you."

IT'S EASY TO SEE how funny and appealing that attitude could be to a shy, introverted boy who feels put down by those around him. Less funny, however, is Eminem's constant reiteration, on both this album and on last year's equally popular Slim Shady, of just how "outrageous" he is.

Both albums feature constant intercut snippets of shocked voices and outraged critics saying things like "You can't say that on radio ... records ... MTV ..." Eminem wants his teenage fans to perceive him as a rebel, when in fact, his career has been one long calculated risk, engineered, approved and shepherded through the music-biz hoops by those around him at Interscope Records. (You'll note that the single "The Real Slim Shady" is not offensive enough to, say, get it banned from MTV or radio. That would be a little too edgy!)

No record company has ever told Em "No." That is a myth, designed to make him seem more edgy and dangerous to youngsters who like to believe that their heroes are rad. Unfortunately, Eminem himself seems to have figured out he has something to prove on that front, and so, like black rappers Biggie, Tupac and Puffy before him, he has recently got himself arrested for acting out the Bad Boy role he set up for himself artistically. (He assaulted someone in a nightclub last weekend.)

Alas, this kind of incident is apparently de rigueur for rock and rap stars, circa now. Without it, we might think he's some kind of construct or comedian, playing out a role--which of course he is. Or was. But because there is nothing new under the sun in rock these days, he is also, of course, a year 2000 update on the Beastie Boys, who, in 1986, shocked the world with their sexist raps about teenage lawlessness and drugs when they sang, "You've got to fight for your right to party."

EMINEM HIMSELF claims the Beastie Boys as his big influence in life, and musically speaking, with their example kept firmly in mind, there is certainly little that he does that can be called innovative. Ironically, the Beastie Boys are currently one of the only politically conscious bands around, having spearheaded the Concert to Free Tibet and, most unfashionably, having spoken out at the MTV Awards against the rapes at Woodstock 99.

It seems unlikely that Eminem, who is, after all, a real Midwestern redneck at heart and not a smart young NYU-dormie (which is the image that the early Beastie Boys were covering up), will do the same.

Eminem has, of course, upped the level of nasty sex and violence a hundred fold since the innocent days when the Beasties were criticized for singing "Cookie Puss." But as Mathers himself told the L.A. Times recently, his ideas come from--and are no more violent than--the movies. He is perfectly right there. Which is more graphically violent, a song like "Amityville" or movies like The Silence of the Lambs or Seven, in which women are raped, menaced and dismembered for all to see?

That being the sick case, as a reflection of our culture, an artist like Eminem is inevitable and, I think (or rather, I hope), relatively harmless. At the very least, he certainly proves the adage that if you want to make it big in rock & roll today, there are two surefire ways to go: if you're a girl, take your top off, and if you're a boy, sing about messing up women. The formula has never, ever, failed to please a vast swath of America.

If you happen to be a young woman, a feminist or parent concerned about the effects of such lyrics on this generation of kids, Eminem may not be a nice thing to contemplate, but he is perfectly in keeping with everything that has been going on in pop culture these days, so get bloody used to him.


Up in Smoke featuring Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube and Warren G takes place Monday (June 19) at 7pm at the San Jose Arena, 525 W. Santa Clara St, San Jose; 7pm; $35-$45. (408.998.TIXS)

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From the June 15-21, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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