So if you managed to endure CBS’s three-plus hours of Grammy cov erage, if you survived the sparsely attended protests from GLAAD and NOW, host Jon Stewart’s lame commentary, the lip-synced performances, the flubbed Teleprompter recitations, the stale jokes, the stammering thank-yous to God and Mom, Toni Braxton’s sad attempt to one-up Jennifer Lopez’s outfit fro m last year (was Braxton wearing a dress or a cocktail napkin stapled to an oversize belt?), if you made it through all of this without fleeing to Fox’s own sex-soaked war of attrition– Temptation Island–you arrived, finally, at the much-anticipated, much-reviled duet by Eminem and Elton John. Oh, but wait, first you had to sit through National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences president/CEO Michael Greene’s tortured introductory speech, Newspeak worthy of George W.’s best inaugural propagandists, in which Greene both celebrated and repudiated Eminem’s controversial lyrics without once invoking the artist’s name.
Greene started his speech, titled “It Takes Tolerance to Teach Tolerance,” by claiming that music has always been the voice of rebellion, “sometimes reflecting a dark and disturbing underbelly obscured from the view of most people of privilege, a militarized zone which is chronicled by the CNN of the inner city–rap and hip-hop music.” The CNN of the inner city? If it wasn’t clear who Greene was addressing by way of this insulting analogy, he made it apparent soon enough. “White teenagers from the suburbs,” he argued, “live out their rebellion and delineate their rite of passage vicariously through this music.” Is that the most that hip-hop music can aspire to? Are the experiences of black urban youths to be aestheticized and commercialized just so that gum-smacking white teenagers (most of whom have never watched CNN, much less stepped foot into an inner city) can feel cool at the mall–overpriced N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) CD from Coconuts in one hand and overpriced cashmere sweater from J. Crew in the other? And just who are these victims of our “violence-drenched society” that Greene so deplores? Not the millions of minority youths killed, incarcerated or deported by the war on drugs; rather, the “latchkey kids” who don’t have enough parental guidance to help them understand “what’s real and what’s shock theater.”
Greene compared the controversy surrounding Eminem’s lyrics to the outcry raised by his parents’ generation over Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and he positioned the Academy as some sort of progressive, cultural mediator–an institution that sees through all the moralizing and reactionary cultural politics and rewards “the notable, noticeable and ofttimes controversial.” It’s a nice thought, but one belied by Grammy’s actual history. Where are all the Grammys for consciousness-raising albums by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Patti Smith, The Sex Pistols and Bruce Springsteen? Going to benign artists like Olivia Newton-John, Christopher Cross, Phil Collins and Christina Aguilera. Like Greene’s speech, Grammy’s ultimate judgment on Eminem deftly contained a potentially explosive and politically unmanageable situation. He won “Best Rap Album,” a category that the Academy considers so marginal that they didn’t add it until 1995. I suppose Eminem’s detractors should be happy. Seven million albums and months of public scrutiny aside, at least the establishment still considers him outside of the mainstream.
But on to the show. Eminem and Elton performed “Stan” By far the best track on The Marshall Mathers LP, “Stan” is a melodrama about a tightly wound fan who writes progressively more disturbing letters to “Dear Slim.” Stan so obsessively identifies with Eminem that he tattoos his name across his chest. He talks about Eminem so much that his girlfriend gets jealous, and he suggests, much to Eminem’s horror, that they should “be together.” This twisted epistolary narrative was punctuated at the Grammys by Elton crooning depressively, “But your picture on my wall. It reminds me, that it’s not so bad, it’s not so bad.”
On the whole, it was a wonderfully sick performance that effectively disabled all the attempts to paint Eminem as a simple homophobe and misogynist. There was plenty of both, Elton and Eminem’s hug notwithstanding, but none of it was simple. The song concludes with Eminem discovering that Stan, crazed by his hero’s unresponsiveness, has locked his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk of his car, drunk a fifth of vodka, and driven off a bridge. And thus, as in many a gothic tale, male homoerotic tension resolves itself by committing violence on the female body. “Damn,” Eminem rapped as the final word of Stan. It was an agonized, regretful, loaded expletive–one that faintly intimated, before the lights came up and the standing ovation began, that all of us (celebrity, artist, fan, critic) may be more screwed than we care to imagine.