Thursday, February 17, 2011

2001: Em versus Em

When I reposted my General Theory of the Crap Cycle, concerning the rise and fall of rock messiahs (Elvis, Beatles, Pistols, Nirvana), I mused that the theory seemed to be falling apart, since there hadn't been a new messiah since Cobain. I've been ruminating about a few possible contenders, and after Sunday night's Grammy show, I wonder if the messiah wasn't Eminem, circa 2000. There's nothing in my theory that says I have to like the new messiah, after all. And if you look at his sales figures, he's one of the few saviors for the record industry over the past decade. His influence may not be as far-reaching as previous messiahs - though he may have contributed to the more introspective nature of rappers in this century. And no less a self-promoter than Kanye has said that there may never be a better rapper than Marshall Mathers.

I have warmed up to him in the decade since I wrote this. I do carry a few Eminem songs on my iPod, and I thoroughly enjoyed his anti-Bush video back in '08. But I generally don't carry that level of rage inside me, so I sometimes have trouble relating. Props to his creativity and mad flow (and for getting sober); frownie faces for his continued Em-phasis on violence. It's quintessesntially American, though - so maybe he was the fifth coming of Elvis, after all (or maybe not - I have a couple other contenders in mind).

Whilst perusing the Nyawk Times over breakfast at Cafe Poca Cosa this Friday last, the Missus and I discerned yet another wrinkle to the Eminem controversies. An op-ed columnist defended him, in part, on the grounds that he was portraying a number of different characters throughout the album. That is, on the same disc in which he declares his fondness for dismembering "faggots" with chainsaws, or whatever, he is also heard to say "Relax, guy, I like gays."

This last quotation was previously unknown to me. Meanwhile, gay icon Melissa Etheridge joins Elvis (C) and Elton in pronouncing herself unoffended by M&M's cartoon rage. He is also heard to say, in another song, that he's only talking such trash in an effort to "piss you off." Whether any of this represents some sort of effort, conscious or otherwise, for young Mr. Mathers to portray the various elements of his psyche at war with one another, or whether such sentiments are cynically inserted as inoculations against the outrage that greeted his previous work, one cannot say.

Meanwhile, gay icon Boy George muses that if Hitler or Pol Pot made a great dance record, perhaps people would buy that, too.

However mitigating Mathers' theoretical intent may be, it doesn't change the way in which homophobic youth have responded to his less savory musings, and found validation for their own hatreds as well as their rage. But I'm not altogether sure how comfortable I am with holding the artist (and I use the word advisedly) responsible for the way his work is interpreted.

Others have previously raised the question of a double standard as applied to rap artists, during the controversy over Ice-T's "Cop Killer." It was pointed out that Johnny Cash famously sung of shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die," and that Mick Jagger celebrated the murderous spree of the 'Midnight Rambler." Nobody concluded that Cash or Jagger were advocating such behavior; it was understood that they were portraying characters.

And yet not only were Mick and Johnny exploring the darker side of their own respective psyches, but that was part of what made those songs so powerful. We responded to the thrilling nihilism of Cash's remorseful gunman, the raw power of the Rambler, squirming but also delighting as he stuck a knife "right down your throat."

But still: were serial killers a large part of the Rolling Stones' audience? Did they take the song as some sort of societal approval for their homicidal impulses? Of course not. Even when Manson claimed to find orders to kill in a Beatles song, we knew no Beatle should be held responsible. In the 80s, metal artists were hit with lawsuits by distraught parents who claimed their children had been coerced into suicide by their evil lyrics. I was as appalled by those suits as I was by what I perceived as the unmitigated nihilism of the music.

Back to Johnny Cash, though: In fact, he did enjoy a great following among convicts, ex- or otherwise, and made a point of performing regularly for that audience. Did they respond to the remorse as well as the criminality, or were they finding validation for their own behavior? Well, I'm sure it varied depending on the listener, which is part of the point. Part of what makes Cash such a powerful artist is his lifelong struggle between his dark side and his better impulses, consciously invoked in his recent career retrospective Love/God/Murder.

But back to rap music: It started out, at least, as mostly a party music, a celebration. It evolved, in part, into an expression of the deep rage of the African-American, whether inchoate, as in gangsta rap, or informed, as in Public Enemy. Expressing, or experiencing, that rage through the music was cathartic - just as the blues, which also featured boasts of one's prowess and fantasies of besting one's enemies, was a catharthis for its audience's deep sadness.

Now I'm wondering, are people outraged by Eminem's violent fantasies who previously made excuses for similarly graphic expressions by black artists? Or, conversely, are people making excuses for Em who were previously appalled by the blasts of rage from the gangstas? To what extent do the endless cycles of co-optation and reinterpretation of black music by white artists, excuse the expression, color our attitudes towards Eminem?

But maybe the double standard becomes a single when you look at the behavior of the artist in question. Violence isn't just some sequestered part of Eminem's consciousness about which he can wax poetic; itís right there on the surface. Em just pleaded guilty to pistol-whipping a guy who may or may not have made a pass at his wife - the same wife who has attempted suicide. Presumably this behavior is not lost on at least some of Mathers' fans; is it in fact part of his appeal?

Thatís what many are alarmed by in current explorations of evil in popular music. I have trouble getting behind much of gangsta rap for that reason, even though I enjoy political rappers like Public Enemy and Mos Def, and I'm mindful of the fact that the two subgenres are not mutually exclusive. That is, Ice-T and Ice Cube have political points to make as well; so did Biggie and Tupac. But when you cross the line from singing about gunplay to engaging in it, that's when I look to send my CD dollars elsewhere.

But that brings up the eternal question of separating the art from the artist. That kind of pathology is not exclusive to rap musicians; revered jazz clarinetist Sidney Bechet was also accomplished at pistol-whipping. Nor is it unique to musicians (hello, Pablo Picasso, you asshole). But while Frank Sinatra may have palled around with Mob killers and Jerry Lee Lewis may have beaten his wife, neither of them celebrated those things in their music. Does that make them hypocrites, or us - when we enjoy their musical personas and avert our eyes from their real lives?

Still, there are plenty of white kids who embrace the rage of the gangstas as a mirror of their own. Whether that rage came from broken homes, or abuse, or simply the inchoate angst of adolescence, gangsta rap made them feel better. It also made them feel hip, just like whites who turned on to Louis Armstrong in the 20s. But there are also plenty of white kids, like my sweet innocent nephew, who respond only to white metal-rappers, to Korn and Bizkit, and no doubt, hidden away from his parents' disapproval, to Eminem. What, may I say, up with that?

Do these kids feel more comfortable getting their catharsis only from white artists. the way an earlier generation responded to all-white metal's hypermasculine fantasies, or all-white grunge's sense of victimization? What are those kids responding to in Eminem? And why has he been more embraced by blacks than any other white rappers? And why do so many intelligent people seem to get a kick out of him?

Since I haven't really listened yet, I don't really know. Everybody draws the line somewhere, and I prefer to keep Eminem on the other side of mine. There are Nazi bands who preach hatred, unadulterated by any mixed feelings. It's easy to condemn both the musicians and the audience, even if we still can't figure out what tormented part of their psyche brought them to that place. As we have a First Amendment, we don't deny these people the right to their expression. But then, we don't give them Grammy nominations, either.

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