Does The Marshall Mathers LP--in which great white hip-hop hope Eminem fantasizes about killing his wife, raping his mother, forcing rival rappers to suck his dick and holding at knife-point faggots who keep "eggin' [him] on"--deserve Album-of-the-Year honors? This is the question before members of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), who have, since nominating Eminem for four Grammy awards, received unsolicited advice from a bizarre constellation of celebrities, journalists and activists ranging from Charles Murray to British pop singer (and Eminem collaborator) Dido.
Bob Herbert of the New York Times took the opportunity to deplore not just Eminem's lyrics but the entire genre of rap music for "infantile rhymes" and "gibberish." In a more nuanced report, Teen magazine asked, Eminem: angel or devil? and discovered that 74 percent of teenage girls surveyed would date him if they could. The Ontario attorney general even attempted to bar Eminem from entering the country for violating the "hate propaganda" section of the Canadian Criminal Code.
But the most vociferous and persistent criticism of Eminem has come from an odd combination of activists: gay rights groups like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and family-values right-wingers like James Dobson's Focus on the Family. They all argue that Eminem's album threatens not only the objects of his violent lyrical outbursts but also, in GLAAD's words, the "artist's fan base of easily influenced adolescents who emulate Eminem's dress, mannerisms, words and beliefs."
In the face of all this attention to Eminem's "hate speech," even the usually taciturn NARAS is doing some public soul-searching. The academy's president, Michael Greene, recently said, "There's no question about the repugnancy of many of his songs. They're nauseating in terms of how we as a culture like to view human progress. But it's a remarkable recording, and the dialogue that it's already started is a good one."
As I have been forced to sit through all this Eminem-inspired hand-wringing over the physical and psychological well-being of faggots like myself, I've wondered just how good that dialogue really is. For one thing, so much of what has been said and written about Eminem has been political grandstanding. For example, Lynne Cheney, not usually known as a feminist, singled out Eminem as a "violent misogynist" at a Senate committee hearing on violence and entertainment. Eminem's lyrics, she argued, pose a danger to children, "the intelligent fish swimming in a deep ocean," where the media are "waves that penetrate through the water and through our children...again and again from this direction and that." Pretty sick stuff. Maybe it comes from listening to Marshall Mathers, but maybe it's the real Lynne Cheney, of lesbian pulp-fiction fame, finally standing up.
GLAAD, for its part, argues that Eminem encourages anti-gay violence, and it has used the controversy over Eminem's lyrics to fuel a campaign for hate-crimes legislation. While GLAAD and Cheney have different motives, both spout arguments that collapse the distance between speech and action--a strategy CatharineMacKinnon pioneered in her war against pornography. Right-wingers like Cheney and antiporn feminists like MacKinnon have long maintained such an unholy alliance, but you would think gay activists would be more cautious about making such facile claims. After all, if a hip-hop album can be held responsible for anti-gay violence, what criminal activities might the gay-friendly children's book Daddy's Roommate inspire? Because the lines between critique and censorship, dissent and criminality, are so porous and unpredictable, attacking Eminem for promoting "antisocial" activity is a tricky game.
Thankfully, GLAAD stops short of advocating censorship; instead it asks the entertainment industry to exercise "responsibility." GLAAD launched its anti-Eminem crusade by protesting MTV's heavy promotion of Marshall Mathers, which included six Video Music Award nominations and a whole weekend of programming called "Em-TV." After meeting with GLAAD representatives in June, MTV's head of programming, Brian Graden, piously confessed, "I would be lying to you if I didn't say it was something we struggled with." Liberal guilt aside, MTV nonetheless crowned Eminem with Video of the Year honors and then, in an attempt to atone for its sins, ran almost a full day of programming devoted to hate crimes, starting with a mawkish after-school special on the murder of Matthew Shepard, called Anatomy of a Hate Crime, and concluding with a seventeen-hour, commercial-free scrolling catalogue of the kind of horrific and yet somehow humdrum homophobic, misogynous and racist incidents that usually don't make it into the local news.
Perhaps understandably, Eminem's detractors still weren't satisfied, but given the fact that Eminem is one of the bestselling hip-hop artist of all time, what exactly did they expect from MTV and the Grammys but hypocrisy and faithless apology? And what do they really expect from Eminem--a recantation? Does anyone remember the homophobic statements that Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and Marky Mark made a decade ago? Point of fact: Marky Mark revamped his career by becoming that seminal gay icon, the Calvin Klein underwear model, and Bach, long blond locks still in place, recently starred in the Broadway musical Jekyll and Hyde. All of which just goes to show, if hunky (and profitable) enough, you can always bite the limp-wristed hand that feeds you.
Meanwhile, the dialogue among Eminem's fans has been equally confusing. Some, like gay diva Elton John (who's scheduled to perform a duet with Eminem at the Grammys) and hip-hop star Missy Elliot, praise Eminem's album as hard-hitting reportage from the white working-class front. They argue that his lyrics are not only excusable but laudable, because they reflect the artist's lived experiences. This is, as London Guardian columnist Joan Smith pointed out, a "specious defence." Should we excuse Eminem because he is, after all, sincere? Should we ignore his own genuinely violent acts--like pistol-whipping a man he allegedly caught kissing his wife? Others, like Spin magazine, have defended him as a brilliant provocateur. Far from being about realness, they argue, Marshall Mathers is parody, a horror show of self-loathing and other-loathing theater, a sick joke that Eminem's fans are in on. They point to how he peppers his rants with hyperbole, denials and reversals, calling into question not only the sincerity of his words but also their efficacy. For example, he raps about how he "hates fags" and then claims he's just kidding and that we should relax--he "likes gay men."
I don't know if Eminem really likes gay men, although I'd sure like to find out. What is clear from listening to Marshall Mathers is that he needs gay men. When asked by MTV's Kurt Loder about his use of the word "faggot," Eminem said, "The lowest degrading thing that you can say to a man when you're battling him is to call him a faggot and try to take away his manhood. Call him a sissy, call him a punk. 'Faggot' to me doesn't necessarily mean gay people. 'Faggot' to me just means taking away your manhood." Of course, using the word "faggot" has this effect only through its association with homosexuality and effeminacy, but there, really, you have it. Homosexuality is so crucial to Eminem's series of self-constructions (he mentions it in thirteen of eighteen tracks) that it's hard to imagine what he would rap about if he didn't have us faggots.
Eminem is, in his own words, "poor white trash." He comes from a broken home; he used to "get beat up, peed on, be on free lunch and change school every 3 months." So who does he diss in order to establish his cred as a white, male rapper? The only people lower on the adolescent totem pole than he is--faggots. This strategy of securing masculinity by obsessively disavowing homosexuality is hardly Eminem's invention, nor is it unique to male working-class culture or hip-hop music. Indeed, Eminem's lyrics may be more banal than exceptional in the way they invoke homophobic violence.
Marshall Mathers reworks the classic Western literary trope of homosexuality, which manifests itself as at once hysterical homophobia and barely submerged homoeroticism. It reflects the kind of locker-room antics that his white, male, suburban audience is well acquainted with. So too were Matthew Shepard's killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and the perpetrators of the hate crimes MTV listed (who were, not so incidentally, almost all white men), and, for that matter, the Supreme Court, which recently held in the Boy Scouts' case that homophobic speech is so essential to boyhood that it's constitutionally protected. Herein may lie the real brilliance of Eminem as an artist and as a businessman. In a political culture dominated by vacuous claims to a fictive social unity--tolerance, compassionate conservatism, reconciliation--he recognizes that pain and negativity, of the white male variety in particular, still sell.
So does Marshall Mathers deserve Album of the Year? Well, I probably wouldn't vote for it, but if it does win, that would be perfectly in keeping with Grammy's tradition of rewarding commercial success. And where might a really good dialogue on homophobia, violence and entertainment begin? It might look at why The Marshall Mathers LP proved to be so pleasurable for so many, not despite but rather because of its violent themes. It might start by seeing Eminem not as an exception but as the rule--one upheld not just by commercial entertainment values but by our courts, schools, family structures and arrangements of public space. As Eminem says, "Guess there's a Slim Shady in all of us. Fuck it, let's all stand up."