Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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What Eminem Means--and Doesn't

Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP begins with a statement of principles read by an announcer, the climactic sentence of which has gone strangely unremarked. Pardon me for sacrificing scansion and flava to the asterisk god as I quote it in full: "Slim Shady is fed up with your s***, and he's going to f****** kill you."

Without question this is a mortal threat directed at anyone who hears it. Bye-bye to all seven million Americans who have purchased the Grammy-nominated CD. Luckily for the future of profundity, few of the solons clamoring for Eminem's expulsion from the temple of civilized discourse are in danger, because they don't listen to Eminem--they just read about him. Still, moral arbiters agree that it's a bad thing to kill anyone, even teenaged hip hop fans. So why do you think I'm being silly? Because Hitler himself found killing that many people a logistical nightmare? Because Slim Shady is a fictional creation who can't kill anyone? Of course not--the reason's much simpler. It's because you don't think Eminem means it. So now let's figure out whether you think he means anything else.

Granted, that is to demand from the Eminem controversy a clarity it rarely achieves. Obtuse and uninformed though his critics may be, they're aware that his songs aren't pure acts of advocacy. With Marshall Mathers's fraught relationship with his real-life wife adding clear-and-present piquancy to the hand-wringing, there's generally reference to the rapper's violent "fantasies," his homophobic "epithets." The feeling seems to be, however, that Eminem's audience of unformed minds isn't up to such fine distinctions, and that his juvenile/sociopathic/exploitative/yucky self isn't either. Surely that's why "Janie Runaway" has gone unremarked in the current Grammy brouhaha.

You'll find "Janie Runaway" on another nominee, Steely Dan's Two Against Nature. It's sung in the voice of an aging pedophile trying to set up a threesome with his jailbait houseguest and a friend of hers. This being Steely Dan, the tone is complex, but that just means the pedophile isn't presented as a beast. I ask you, are aging males attracted to underage females less likely to kid themselves about their own morality than young men enraged at their female sexual partners? Will "Janie Runaway" help? As a critic who's the father of a 15-year-old daughter, I'd say there's more chance it will titillate. And as critic and father I nevertheless insist that "Janie Runaway" is a brilliant song.

But Steely Dan are in their fifties--now evolved, by the strange alchemy of respectability, from Rock Band Named After Dildo into Serious Artists. Eminem is a 27-year-old white practitioner of a genre that 20 years on was recently accused by anti-Eminem New York Times columnist Bob Herbert--a good left-liberal African American, so he should know--as having "thoroughly broken faith with the surpassingly great, centuries-long tradition of black music in America." Which is why I doubt hearing the music would tip the balance for many Eminem bashers. If you hate hip hop, then of course you hate Eminem. You probably aren't too fond of Lauryn Hill, either.

Yet how else is Eminem to be judged? This is the first major white practitioner of a sophisticated, foul-mouthed, "ill" aesthetic designed to give middle-aged blacks like Herbert conniptions--although, confusingly, his defenders rarely nail his precise achievement. Despite "Stan," about a crazed fan, or "My Fault," about a woman who OD's on Slim Shady's 'shrooms, he's not so much a "storyteller" as a rhymer; although no name rapper has done so much with enjambment and polysyllabic line endings, many are more poetic in other ways. Both his sound and his delivery privilege treble over bass, a pop strategy that leaves hip hop's core project of complex new beats and textures to deeper musicians. In short, he's a gifted technician, not a titanic one. But he's the funniest rapper ever. No rapper has ever made clearer, especially to young whites who view black rappers as romantic outlaws, that hip hop is a verbal construct, not to be taken literally. And no rapper has ever done so much with the fine distinctions that are supposedly over his audience's heads. It's not, as is too often said, that his artistry justifies his offensive content. His offensive content is the essence of his artistry.

Schooled in the over-the-top insults of the dozens, blaxploitation flicks, and slasher movies, the everyday brutalities of police harassment and the drug economy, and the early legal battles of 2 Live Crew and Ice-T, hip hoppers love reality games. They regularly boast about "keeping it real," and regularly defend their tales of mayhem as fictions. Don't think Eminem is the first rapper to play with multiple personas, either. Still, Marshall Mathers the man, Eminem the artist, and Slim Shady the alter ego are an exceptionally well-defined trio deployed with exceptional intricacy, an intricacy hip hop fans are trained to comprehend. Rather than attributing his antisocial impulses to Slim and letting that be that, Eminem insists--gleefully, guiltily, perversely, thematically--that these subjective realities overlap.

It's fair to charge that Eminem and his music are homophobic, not simply on the basis of the vile but arguably contentless ritual epithet "faggot," but because various bawdy details corroborate it. But even his homophobia is examined by hip hop standards; "There's no reason that a man and another man can't elope," he concludes--from the examples of bestiality and cannibalism. And his "misogyny" is much more so. It's stupid or deceitful to argue that "Kim," in which you hear him slitting his wife's throat, is an incitement to murder. The wrong listener can misconstrue anything. But the unbearably raw pain of Slim's/Eminem's/Marshall's drunken rage, misery, and insanity render "Kim" a far more socially responsible work than "Janie Runaway." The teenagers know what the moral arbiters don't understand.

Two tracks later comes the finale, "Criminal," where Eminem supposedly threatens to murder "a fag or a lez." Only he doesn't. Explicitly and unmistakably, there for any person with a 90 IQ to understand, the song is about words' power to cause pain. It too comes with a statement of principle, uttered by Eminem himself. It's about how "stupid" it is to think he'd kill anyone "in real life." It concludes: "Well s***, if you believe that, then I'll kill you."

Think he means it? I f****** hope not.

Los Angeles Times, 2001