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Eminem makes Steve Earle look like Toby Keith
Why hasn’t anyone noticed?

By Daniel Radosh

Eminem can’t catch a break. No sooner does he crown himself “king of controversy” than the culture warriors decide to give him a pass. The rehabilitation of Eminem — “onetime bad boy of rap” is how he’s now described — is partly the result of the hit film 8 Mile, a wholesome, old-fashioned movie in which the rapper plays a less frightening (and less interesting) character than the ones on his albums. But even before 8 Mile, the rabid right had dropped Eminem as its whipping boy. One explanation: Since 9/11, they’ve had bigger fish to fry. “Now Republicans and conservatives aren't concerned about rap music,” wrote John Podhoretz in The New York Post. “They're interested in national security, in terrorism prevention, the war against al Qaida and the war with Iraq. Are kids learning dirty words from Eminem? Big deal. Eminem won't kill them. Militant Islam will.”

Sure, this raises the question of whether there weren’t other important — even deadly — issues that Lynne Cheney et al might have been tackling before 9/11, when conservatives (and some liberals) couldn’t spend enough energy hammering Eminem. But Podhoretz’s claim isn’t entirely accurate. In at least one respect, the “war on terror” has actually made the culture wars even more important to conservatives: now their bugaboo is not sex or violence, but treason.

This is, of course, what got Steve Earle in such trouble not long ago. The punditocracy flayed Earle alive for songs like “John Walker’s Blues,” while praising more avidly pro-America responses to 9/11 by Alan Jackson, Neil Young, and, especially, Toby Keith (the right split on Springsteen). Yet in this whole flurry of columns and talk show rants, there was barely a word about Eminem. No one seems to have noticed that the artist who has dominated the charts for a year — easily outselling all the above-mentioned combined — did so with an album bristling with references to 9/11. And not about how much it made him love his country.

He can’t catch a break. The rapper who laments — okay, brags — that critics “put my lyrics up under this microscope, searchin' with a fine tooth comb,” might as well not even have recorded The Eminem Show for all the guardians of patriotism and culture care. One of the only places he even comes up in the debate is a Washington Times editorial that compares him favorably to Earle. “Eminem is a misogynist… malcontent,” the Times said. “But at least Eminem hasn’t stooped to the level of sympathizing with, much less glorifying, terrible Taliban John Walker Lindh.” Nope, he’s stooped much, much lower.

“There's no tower too high/No plane that I can't learn how to fly/What do I gotta do to get through to you, to show you there ain't nothin I can't take this chainsaw to?” Apparently Eminem’s gotta do more than that, because for some reason, declaring himself hip hop’s Mohammed Atta simply hasn’t been enough to generate outrage. Part of the problem is that unlike Earle — and even Keith — who are at least expressing genuine emotions, most of Eminem’s September 11 allusions — such as the one above, from “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” a mostly delightful duet with his 6-year-old daughter — come off as cynically calculated bids for controversy. The only 9/11-related criticism I’ve seen of Eminem has been aimed the hit “Without Me.” The song has nothing to do with terrorism, but in a gratuitous effort to push buttons, the video features Em as Osama bin Laden.

Eminem dips into the lyricist-as-terrorist well twice on the album. In “Business,” he rhymes Batman and Robin with Saddam and Laden (the most openly insecure rap star ever, Em casts himself as Robin, and, by extension, bin Laden) and boasts of having “his own private plane, his own pilot, set to blow college dorm room doors off the hinges.” (He then deftly negates this tasteless allusion with his hallmark technique of segueing from offensiveness into nonsense, rhyming “hinges” with “or-inges, peach, pears, plums, syringes.”) Later in the song, Eminem reaches for a pre-September tragedy in an even more desperate attempt to stir up trouble, with the line, “how can shit be so easy, how can one Chandra be so Levy?” — possibly the worst lyric he has ever written.

Though Eminem may have the best flow of any rapper, boasting about it isn’t what he’s known for, or what he does best, which may be another reason the lyrics cited above haven’t resonated. What sets Eminem apart from other rappers — and what made his first two albums masterpieces — is his willingness to plumb the depths of his own tortured psyche. There’s far too little of that on The Eminem Show, and unfortunately some of what there is thuds loudly because Eminem can’t resist amplifying his own angst to levels that even his most ardent defenders must find obscene. In “My Dad’s Gone Crazy,” Em claims there’s “ more pain inside of my brain than the eyes of a little girl inside of a plane, aimed at the World Trade.” Well, no. I’m sorry your favorite uncle killed himself, Marshall, but it’s not the same. That this lyric alone hasn’t brought out the finger-wavers is a sure sign that critics no longer scrutinize Eminem as carefully as he thinks.

They might have to soon. The song destined to be Eminem’s next big hit, “White America,” is easily the most anti-patriotic of the year. Em’s politics are not as sophisticated as Earle’s or Springsteen’s. But they’re more thoughtful than Toby Keith’s, and they’re not going to win him any friends at The Washington Times. While “White America,” which had fans singing along at the MTV Video Music Awards, makes no explicit references to terrorism, it’s hard not to read it as a reaction to the star-spangled tripe that has dominated American culture this past year.

For the most part, Eminem is a single-issue voter. He doesn’t like people who try to shut him up, especially when they have the weight of the government behind them. “White America” is one of several tracks on The Eminem Show that tackle censorship (though it’s mostly about race and hip hop). In it, Em promises “to lead the march right up to the steps of Congress and piss on the lawns of the White House, to burn the casket and replace it with a parental advisory sticker, to spit liquor in the face of this democracy of hypocrisy… Fuck you with the freest of speech this divided states of embarrassment will allow me to have.” Juvenile? Sure. To the tune of 6 million sold and counting. Meanwhile it’s the minor cult figure Steve Earle whose CDs are being burned on air.

In “Stimulate,” from the 8 Mile soundtrack, Em continues to rave about his “failure to communicate with Congress.” But it’s another song that should ensure that his politics will only become more relevant in the future. In “Square Dance,” Em clues his young fans in on something everyone else seems to be glossing over: When George W. Bush and Dick Cheney say they’re going to invade Iraq, what they really mean is they’re going to send you to invade Iraq.

The boogie monster of rap, yah the man's back
With a plan to ambush this Bush administration, mush the Senate's face in
Push this generation of kids to stand and fight for the right to say something you might not like
This white hot light that I'm under, no wonder I look so sunburned
Oh no I won't leave no stone unturned
Oh no I won't leave, won't go nowhere, do-si-do, oh, yo, ho, hello there
Oh yeah don't think I won't go there, go to Beirut and do a show there.
Yah you laugh till your muthafuckin' ass gets drafted
While you're at band camp thinkin' the crap can't happen
Till you fuck around, get an anthrax napkin
Inside a package wrapped in Saran Wrap wrapping
Open the plastic and then you stand back gasping, fuckin' assassins hijackin' Amtracks crashin'
All this terror America demands action, next thing you know you've got Uncle Sam's ass askin'
To join the army or what you'll do for their navy.
You just a baby, gettin' recruited at eighteen
You're on a plane now, eatin' their food and their baked beans.
I'm twenty-eight, they're gonna take you 'fore they take me
Crazy insane or insane crazy?
When I say Hussein, you say Shady

Marshall Mathers has challenged the war on terror as forcefully as any celebrity out there. What’s a guy gotta do these days to be “protested and demonstrated against”?

From Radical Society, Vol. 29, issue 3 (Spring, 2003)