Eminem: The Voice of Anglo Angst
In the pantheon of disposable American heroes, Marshall Mathers is the man of the moment. Having turned a media double-play on the big screen and the airwaves with the high-grossing biopic 8 Mile and its ubiquitous soundtrack, M.M. (or Eminem) is poised to parlay his anointed fifteen minutes into an epic run of at least an hour or two.
Already canonized in the pages of The New York Times and virtually ordained by the glossies, Eminem has become the current hipness litmus. Frank Rich, in the midst of a pathos festival in the pages of the Times, praised Em's lyrical flow and originality. En route to proclaiming Eminem as fun for all ages, he offered this observation: "In a country in which broken homes, absentee parents, and latchkey kids are endemic to every social class, he can touch some of the hottest emotional buttons. He can be puerile too, but what else is new in pop music?"
No less an authority on hip hop than Andrew Sullivan observed on Salon.com that Eminem's music is some of the most challenging, inventive, and lyrically brilliant in recent times. His movie was an excellently written and directed product, Sullivan said, and there's no mystery why it did so well. With the minor concerns of his anti-gay and violently misogynistic lyrics airbrushed into obscurity courtesy of endorsements by critics (and Elton John -- dude, what gives?), Em's slouchy way and disaffected scowl are set to become our modern equivalent of Elvis's hip tic.
With a 252-word lead-in out of the way, conventional journalism about Eminem holds that this paragraph is where I'm supposed to start talking about his disturbing significance to our particular cultural moment and detail the important questions his ascent raises. Long pause. Truth told, the response from the hip hop cognoscenti and more than a few quarters of black America has been an audible yawn. The rapper's cultural cache has earned him placement on the covers of underground hip hop publications, but their treatment of him has had way fewer hosannas than the mainstream media that have branded him as the second coming of Elvis Marciano.
In the race to imbue Eminem with some enduring significance -- beyond the receipts he adds to the national cash register -- the fact that he is not all that significant to hip hop has gone almost completely unnoticed. He is not a stylistic innovator à la Busta Rhymes or Snoop Dogg or a master narrator like Slick Rick. His subject matter is daring, but benchmark acts like Public Enemy, Eric B and Rakim, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest were responsible for dilating hip hop's understanding of what could be rapped about. Mainstream American pop has been dipping into black culture for reinvigoration since the days of burnt cork; that a white rapper has made millions is nothing new.
Eminem's market dominance has occurred for the same reasons that Jayson "White Chocolate" Williams of the Sacramento Kings has the best selling jersey in the NBA, and I'm awaiting the day that music critics start praising Eminem for having "sound fundamentals" when it comes to rapping. Both Em and Williams are the beneficiaries of a type of cultural affirmative action for white men, which is to say that neither of them is unqualified, but both are object lessons in the benefits of diversity. (Toddlers too small now to grip a microphone or hold a basketball will in future days remember the first time they heard Eminem flow or saw one of Williams's pyrotechnic, no-look passes and realized that they, too, could succeed in a black-dominated world.)
Eminem is neither the first commercially successful white rapper -- the Beastie Boys lay claim to that distinction -- nor the first charged with the Elvising of hip hop (that would be Vanilla Ice). He fits into a pantheon of white artists that includes moderate successes like Third Base (a riff on the "Who's on First?" routine) and the Irish American trio House of Pain.
But the question remains: Who is on first? Eminem is in scoring position because he is, for what it matters, probably the most talented white rapper to yet emerge. But comparing Eminem to the lineage of white wordsmiths is approximately as patronizing as calling Miles Davis a fine Negro musician or referring to Denzel Washington as that black guy with the Oscar. Eminem is undoubtedly clever, but cleverness is as common to rappers as lying is to politicians. His cadence (or flow) is infectious, but, not in the same league as vocal masters like Rakim or Notorious B.I.G. Em has a lyrical gift, but leave him in the same room with the West Coast's Ras Kass or the Brooklyn freestyle master Supernatural and you'd have a repeat of the Larry Holmes-Gerry Cooney fight back in '82. Nor does Eminem himself have any illusions about his standing in the pantheon of rap, having stated in interviews that he doesn't consider himself to be in the top tier of rappers in terms of skill.
What Em is selling -- and what has resonated with his legions of fans, salivating critics, and assorted media apostles -- is a narrative of worthless childhood in the post-industrial wasteland of the former Motor City. With his brooding, swaggering persona, replete with prereq tattoos, oversized gear, and bleached out follicles, Eminem has been appointed the voice of Anglo angst à la Kurt Cobain. Call it Columbine chic.
In a country where class distinctions are consistently glossed over and the white poor are virtually invisible, save for the sardonic exploitation of Jerry Springer, Eminem's trailer park blues have way more significance to white suburban America than hip hop as a genre. Eminem's tales of alienation (i.e., his existential query, "How can I be white when I don't even exist?") descend from the visceral autobiographical narratives of rappers like Scarface, Notorious B.I.G., and Tupac Shakur. At its best, hip hop has been a vehicle for expressing--and transcending--the frailties and pain of life in the negative space of America. That reality may have been lost on many prior to the Eminem movement. Eminem may fit into that tradition of lyrical catharsis and boulevard jeremiads, but he certainly didn't create it. Plus, Em's matricidal ramblings are beyond the pale even for hip hop; gangsta rappers, like their celluloid counterparts, will consistently take hiatus from issuing colorful death threats to pay homage to dear old mom.
Epidermal novelty explains why mainstream critics, baby boomers, and other people who are not in hip hop's core demographic but who are purchasing Eminem records took a first listen and got hooked. To cut to the quick: White pain is now the flavor of the month, and if oppression (class, that is, not race, sexual orientation, or gender) leaves a guy with some rough misogynist and homophobic edges, what can you expect? He's POOR, for God's sake. Sympathy for the black poor (and the stories they tell) may have gone out with big hair and leg warmers, but a WHITE poor guy raises questions that are both unsettling and alluring to Market America (i.e., didn't FDR take care of that problem?). One can imagine Rich and Sullivan sipping Merlot in their respective dens while grooving to the 8 Mile soundtrack and asking "Yo, they, like, still got white people in Detroit?"
The digital mytho-history of the film 8 Mile plays up this class angle--with substantial echoes of Prince's cult classic Purple Rain. Trailer park denizen Jimmy Smith--a stand-in for our lyrical hero--inhabits a perpetually overcast world where opportunity missed a rent payment and lost its lease. Down but not completely out, B. Rabbit--Jimmy's performance alter ego--struggles nobly to be judged by the content of his lyrics, not the color of his skin. Jimmy has no racial reckoning of his own to do because racism is black people's problem in 8 Mile. Jimmy loves everybody. He even takes up for a gay guy at work. The climactic scene in which B. Rabbit outs his black male rival as a middle class brat with a thug complex reminded me of that scene in Rocky II where another of America's low income icons beats the ten-count to take the title from that rich flamboyant black guy. When you get right down to it, how bad can black people with money have it?
With his gift for crossover appeal (though he's crossing class, not race lines), it's fitting that Eminem hails from Detroit, the city where Berry Gordy first came up with his formula for selling black music to white America. The cocktail of white poverty and hip hop is a heady mix right about now, and both Eminem and his black producer Dr. Dre are laughing all the way to the bank. The boy made a name for himself by suggesting he was chocolate on the inside, but he made a fortune from an audience invested in seeing him as white to the bone. Marshall Mathers: Credit to his race.
William Jelani Cobb is an essayist and an assistant professor of history at Spelman College. His edited volume, "The Essential Harold Cruse: A Reader," was published by Palgrave Press in February 2002.