Monday, May 25, 2009

My alter ego did it: letting Eminem off the hook

I've never been much of an Eminem fan. But thanks to my younger sister's absolute worship of him throughout 1999, I've got a lot the Slim Shady LP pretty well memorized. His unforgettably pointed, nasal voice still goes straight to my bones. His voice, after all, is inseparable from his words: those dark, skillful raps were some of my first experiences with real misogyny in music. And that was before I would have named it as such.

The media blitz surrounding Eminem's return to the scene and his new album, Relapse, is as much about the artist as the art. It appears that Marshall Mathers (his given name) is rediscovering his creativity and talent, while recovering from some serious drug addictions.

But reviewers can't avoid mentioning -- and in many cases, rationalizing away -- the misogynistic violence that fills Eminem's songs. On National Public Radio, reviewer Robert Christgau points out Relapse's indebtedness to an obscure hip-hop genre called horror-core.

Horror-core songs are so outrageous, they're impossible to mistake for acts of advocacy. No one will think Eminem plans to lynch Lindsay Lohan with 66 inches of extension cord in "Same Song & Dance."

Whether these images of strangling Lindsay Lohan -- a young woman who has been the punch line of so many misogynistic jokes, it's a wonder she can leave the house -- are "acts of advocacy" is, for me, irrelevant. These descriptions of violence against women are the air we breathe. They make it easier to publicize -- and then dismiss -- the image of a pop diva's battered face. They change the entire context in which violence against women occurs.

The New York Time's piece on Eminem's return to the scene focuses on his "multiple-personality" schtick: at any point in the rap, the voice we're hearing could be Marshall Mathews, Eminem, or Slim Shady -- his particularly virulent alter ego. Slim Shady is the one who abducts, abuses and murders women, including Mathers' ex-wife Kim. And somehow, that ought to make these lyrics easier to swallow?

These folks seem eager to point out that Eminem's probably not really a bad guy: he's just playing a role. His songs are "exposing" male jealousy and rage. He's not advocating that anybody be abducted and strangled in a car. Lohan's name just happened to be the rhyme he needed.

I don't want to sound like Andrea Dworkin here, and I don't claim that violence has no place in art. But why is nobody talking about what happens to a society that can actually process this kind of violence ... and call it a joke?

1 comment:

Konrad said...

I don't know what the post-Slim Shady LP acceptance of Eminem's music says about our society, "pink scare", though I do know that a) the same vitriolic descriptions can be found in two-century old Roman poetry, annihilating the Marxian argument that contemporary misogyny relates to patriarchial industry, and that b) frustration towards the opposite sex is featured prominently in both the music of men and women. Remember the controversy surrounding that Dixie Chicks song, "Goodbye Earl", in which two women team up to murder an abusive spouse? Eminem's songs aren't that different: he views, say, Kim, as excessively manipulative, and thusly lashes out against her physically. Nonetheless, both conceits have subtext, and it'd be damnfool to dismiss them on the basis of prudishness alone.

Of course, the ways in which men and women express their rage towards the opposite sex in song will vary, as surely as genderized social protocol does (with women, more likely Madonna's "a man can tell a thousand lies", for example - and you can't blame that on artists). In this sense, it's unsurprising that Eminem - having emerged from Detroit hip-hop culture - makes allusions to physical abuse, but here's the clincher: the songs always represented a sort of delusory catharsis, noted deliberately by Eminem as being a replacement for actualized abuse. That he may have committed the crime of co-opting African-American expressivenes, whilst being a white person, is not necessarily a good reason to criticize him: indeed, when he rhymes that his detractors act like he's the "first rapper to grab a bitch and say faggot", you can bet he knows that being white makes him an attractive target for groups that seek to align art with their particular worldview via protest, including feminists.

It's ironic to note that the emotiveness of Eminem's music is largely borrowed from African-American culture, since said culture is - moreso than Caucasian - often something approaching a matriarchy, due to the pervasity of single-mother Black famillies (one notes that routine studies specify African-American women as less insecure than Caucasian ones). This seems to bait the question: are extreme expressions in music, whether anti-male or female, even a remotely precise indicator of the level of equality in the societies in which that music is created? Certainly Catullus' poetry, for example, is profusely misogynistic - as well as that of many Roman poets - and yet women played arguably a much larger role in Roman social and religious culture than they do in American; a fact that might suggestive political correctness is a bridge to nowhere.

The anger in rap music, it's no revelation to relate, is largely fueled by social injustice. Why, then, criticize Eminem for emulating the sentiments of an already-existent genre, and typically in a way that's vaguely moralistic, when there are myriad individuals in society that are actually impeding equality, and doing so in a way that's not a tenth as self-aware?