Is Eminem the new Elvis???
December 18 2002
Once the scourge of parents, gays and women, hip-hop star Eminem has edged into the mainstream. But can his street cred survive when those he's supposed to be menacing are joining the ranks of his fans? Frank Rich reports.
Flashback: it is the year 2000 and Public Cultural Enemy No1 is a rapper named Eminem (aka Marshall Mathers III), who has ascended from America's closest approximation of hell (aka his home town, Detroit). His abundant use of the words "bitch" and "******" has aroused the full spectrum of the PC police, Left and Right. The violence in his songs is echoed by headlines of his own arrest on gun charges in two consecutive public brawls. And since he is white, he can't be ghetto-ised: his music is saturating the suburbs at a faster clip than that of black hip-hop artists. The US Congress, inflamed by the Columbine High School massacre and looking for scapegoats, rounds up the usual suspects for hearings.
But now it is two years later, and on a muggy late summer evening, Eminem is performing before his fans in the Detroit suburbs, the last stop of his 2002 Anger Management Tour. A high point of the show is a song in which he exults in his role as universally despised spokesman for alienated Middle American youth. "White America!
I could be one of your kids!" goes its hectoring refrain, insistently gaining in malevolence as if a furious mob were gearing up for a rampage. At its climax he vows to urinate on the White House lawn and hurls expletives at Lynne Cheney and Tipper Gore. But the roaring throng of 16,000 at the Palace of Auburn Hills is not angry. There is barely a whiff of pot in the air, let alone violence. It's a happy crowd, mixed in race and sex, that might just as well have congregated at a mega-church or a mall. Even some boomers are on hand (me among them), as well as a few smiling pre-teen kids perched on their dads' shoulders. "It's kind of strange," Eminem would tell me when I asked if he was noticing any difference in his audience of late. "It used to range from 10 years old to 25. Now it seems to be from five years old to 55."
Could it be that in just two years the scourge of bourgeois values is entering the mainstream? That certainly seemed to be the case when his first film, 8 Mile, crushed the competition in its opening weekend in the United States last month and, bolstered by strong reviews and word-of-mouth, continues to attract large and diverse audiences. The movie, to be released in Australian cinemas next month, is loosely based on Eminem's life. Unlike, say, Prince's Purple Rain, which always put the musical needs of its star's fan base first, it was designed as a big-studio effort to tap into the national jugular, and was produced by Brian Grazer, of last year's glossily heart-tugging Oscar champ, A Beautiful Mind. Grazer is betting that his movie will confirm that Eminem, far from being a public peril, has now "crossed over to the larger demographic".
Eminem is hardly the first pop rebel to make that leap. When you are the No1 act in music, no matter how provocative your songs or how ugly your rap sheet, the culture industry has a vested interest not merely in protecting the franchise but also in expanding it.
Moral scolds can condemn each new rock phenomenon as loudly as they like - as they have been doing since the 1950s - but the music is just too contagious and the money too dizzying for anyone in authority to counter the power of a roaring market. Thus has Mick Jagger, the antichrist of Altamont, become both a knight and an Establishment corporate franchise, celebrated as a CEO on the cover of Fortune. Ozzy Osbourne is a lovable TV star. Yesterday's Revolution can always be tomorrow's Nike commercial.
If there's a particular template for Eminem's career at this early point, it's that of the young Elvis (a comparison Eminem hates). Both men took a musical form invented by African-Americans and gave it a popular white face. But Eminem has advantages Elvis did not. He writes his own idiosyncratic material rather than singing anyone else's songs. His mentor isn't a white Machiavelli-like Colonel Parker, but the legendary hip-hop producer Dr Dre, whose endorsement gave him instant credibility with black and white audiences alike and shielded him from accusations of cultural theft. ("I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley, to do black music so selfishly and use it to get myself wealthy" goes one of the many Eminem lyrics in which he pre-empts any such criticism.)
That Eminem is also showing Elvis-esque potential to bust out of the youth market is not entirely a surprise. Any listener with open ears and some affinity for the musical vocabulary of hip-hop can easily become hooked on his music. Violence is merely one of the many notes he sounds in a range that stretches from schoolyard slapstick to pathos, and the mayhem is so calculatedly over-the-top that it seems no more or less offensive than typical multiplex Grand Guignol.
In his most ambitious songs, his voice as a writer reaches well beyond idle provocation anyway. He comes at you with a torrent of language that sucks up and spits out the detritus of pop culture (from comic books to Versace) while marrying it to the rage, hurt and, occasionally, love that are at the core of his favourite subject, his own life. Somehow, just when you think he is going to spin out of control, all the rhymes land on their (and the music's) feet, leaving the listener at the end of the precisely observed story he has to tell: the disturbing epistolary chronicle of a deranged fan, the domestic battlefields of both his childhood and his own divorce and, most recently (and sometimes petulantly), the price of fame. In a society in which broken homes, absentee parents and latchkey kids are endemic to every class, he can push some of the hottest emotional buttons. He can be puerile, too, but what else is new in pop music?
Yet we all know what happened when Elvis, the swivel-hipped menace to American youth, started to broaden his base to the entire country. The Ed Sullivan Show may be gone now, but could Eminem find himself yukking it up on Jay Leno's couch? Is there a Blue Hawaii in his future? Could he some day end up performing his insult riffs in Vegas, complete with platinum tux to match his famous dyed hair - the hip-hop Don Rickles?
Certainly some sort of transition is under way for Eminem, who turned 30 in October. Though in White America he brags about being "in trouble with the government", neither the song nor the video has aroused any new protests from Washington. "It's something that we've blatantly noticed," said Mathers, who is known by his associates as either Marshall or Em, when asked about this unexpected truce. We were meeting on the afternoon of the MTV Video Music Awards, in a Manhattan hotel under semi-siege by those underemployed fans who always manage to find out where their icons are holed up.
I was there as a sort of fan myself: I've been fascinated by him since I first heard his songs at the inception of his notoriety. Brian Grazer had told me that when they met, Mathers initially threw him off guard by sitting in glowering silence for minutes on end. The Mathers I met was neither sullen nor wired but straightforward, earnest almost to a fault (his lyrics are fizzier than his conversation), always in direct eye contact and glad to answer any question without hesitation (or any handlers in the room to steer him). He did not seem particularly driven to promote his movie and did not offer a single canned anecdote of the type stars tend to recycle in repeated interviews. Even his regulation hip-hop outfit - Phat Farm sweat pants, T-shirt, bandanna, baseball cap, the inevitable accessories of tattoos and heavy bracelets - looked more lived-in than showy.
I asked him to square the present Mathers with the shady Eminem who barely escaped jail (he got three years' probation) for his gun-toting misbehaviour of two years ago. "Fame hit me like a f...ing ton of bricks," he said. "I was just being pulled in every direction, doing everything under the sun, two shows a day, touring constantly, nonstop radio interviews, and I just got caught up in the drinking and the drugs and fighting and just wilding out and doing dumb things I shouldn't have been doing. But I came out of them and I conquered it. Something really bad could have happened to me. I could be in jail. I could have been shot. I could have been killed. And I'm proud of myself now for not only my accomplishments but for pulling through all that - my criminal cases, my divorce. If I was still on drugs and still living the life that I lived three years ago, I would be a f...ing failure." Mathers looks like someone on a gym regimen. His current drug of choice seems to be work, including producing songs by other hip-hop artists for his own new label, Shady Records.
When he occasionally gets into trouble now, it's of a traditional show-business strain - the star boorishness that is our era's version of Frank Sinatra's crude public scuffles. On camera at the MTV awards a few hours after I spoke with him, Mathers insulted the techno-rocker Moby, and picked a fight with, of all ridiculous targets, a puppet enacting a comic routine, Robert Smigel's Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. But if the congenitally wary Mathers is still quick to lash back at any person or toy he feels may be dissing him, the blows are all verbal, and most reports of his behaviour are glowing. Recently, People magazine celebrated him as an ideal joint-custody father to his daughter, Hailie, six, who is the one angelic female subject (and occasional vocal participant) in his canon, and as a model neighbour who attends community meetings, no less, in his gated community in the northern Detroit suburbs.
"My daughter is growing up, and I'm trying to set an example for her," Mathers said, warming to the only subject besides hip-hop that lightens him up. "She has a fairly normal life.
I love her so much. And she's a character, man. She's like me to the 10th power. She's got such a personality. She runs around the house and she makes up little sayings and little phrases."
8 Mile, which not only has a blue-chip producer in Grazer but an A-list director in Curtis Hanson (of LA Confidential and Wonder Boys), hardly presents Eminem as a family man, but it does burnish his image. The movie describes a week in the Detroit 1995 life of Jimmy Smith Jnr, a fictional character who, despite protestations from the star and everyone else associated with the film, is closer in biographical outline to Marshall Mathers III than not. Jimmy is a white-trash high school drop-out trapped in menial labour and living in desolate trailer-park circumstances around Eight Mile Road. "It's the borderline of what separates suburb from city," Mathers explains. "It's the colour line. I grew up on both sides of it and saw everything. I had the friends who had racist redneck fathers and stepfathers. I had black friends. It's just American culture."
Like Mathers, Jimmy was abandoned at birth by his father. To his chagrin, he still lives with his mother (played by Kim Basinger), an irresponsible alcoholic who vaguely resembles the real-life mother depicted in Eminem songs and videos (and who sued him twice for defamation, netting only $US1600). Though Jimmy has a love interest (Brittany Murphy), the real love of his life is a much younger kid sister who in age and adorability could be a stand-in for the real-life Hailie. Jimmy's only other burning passion is his music. Like his black pals, he dreams of somehow recording a demo, getting a deal, hooking up with a star producer like Dr Dre and going platinum. By the movie's end, you sense he's on his way - a white underdog likely to make good.
Grazer concedes that one reason he fictionalised his protagonist was the harsh criticism he received for taking liberties with the biography of John Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind. Of course, fiction provides other benefits as well. If A Beautiful Mind was criticised for eliminating some homosexual incidents in John Nash's life, 8 Mile goes out of its way to neutralise Eminem's reputation, deserved or not, for homophobia.
At this point, not all that much more repair work may be needed. Gay organisations have lowered their voices since the 2001 Grammys, at which Elton John came out of the closet as an Eminem fan and performed a duet with him on camera. Nonetheless, it's a telling digression in 8 Mile when its hero rushes to the rescue of a fellow metal-plant worker who has been mocked for being gay. Jimmy's intervention takes the form of a hilarious rap pointedly denigrating the bigoted bully, rather than the ridiculed gay man, as a "******". The sequence is shrewdly designed to buttress Mathers' argument that when "******" appears in his songs it is either: (a) spoken in the voice of Eminem's nasty fictional hip-hop alter ego, Slim Shady, who does not literally represent the views of his creator; or (b) being used, as it is by many kids, as an all-purpose insult "not meant to be literal". Mathers says now that he has never been a homophobe: "It's really none of my business. I don't give a f... what your sexual preferences are. As long as you're cool with me, I'm cool with you."
But the most fascinating image enhancement in 8 Mile is the ease with which it fits a character as rough and ostensibly subversive as Eminem into a smooth and reassuring show-business fable as old as The Jazz Singer. The movie's plot hinges on Jimmy's ability to overcome his paralysing shyness and compete in freestyle rapping battles - open-mike contests in which rival aspiring hip-hop artists try to top one another with artfully rhymed invective, the winner determined by audience cheers. As Jimmy at first prepares for and ultimately triumphs in his battles, he could be John Travolta's Tony Manero trying to escape outer-borough drudgery by dancing his way to the top in the disco-era Saturday Night Fever or Diana Ross escaping the ghetto in Mahogany or Sissy Spacek's Loretta Lynn emerging from poverty in Coal Miner's Daughter or even Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice rising from her ethnic urban ghetto to show-biz triumph in Funny Girl.
This is not unintentional. When talking about cinematic archetypes for 8 Mile, Paul Rosenberg, the burly, low-key 31-year-old lawyer who manages Mathers, says that the movie hopes to tap "the same sort of cultural phenomenon as Saturday Night Fever".
Curtis Hanson, who at 57 is on the outer edge of the new Eminem demographic, prepared his crew for 8 Mile by screening, among other films, Hoop Dreams, the 1994 documentary about two teenage athletes from inner-city Chicago aspiring to break into basketball superstardom. He says he hopes that the Eminem/Jimmy story could be inspirational in a similar way. "Churches, schools, family are supposed to give structure to kids," he says, "but now they're all part of a dysfunctional culture. No one's helping kids figure out where they're going - not just in the inner cities but in the suburbs. Hip-hop comes out of that. It is a voice for people who don't have another voice."
Unlike Elvis, who usually parachuted into mechanical Hollywood vehicles built around his songs, Mathers and Rosenberg helped develop 8 Mile. The movie banks on the star's persona and background rather than on his greatest hits, and while he is in every scene, he never does a full-dress number like those in his videos. The star and what he calls his "team" were aware of the possible pitfalls. "It could have ended up like 'Woe is me, poor little Marshall went through so much,'" Mathers says.
"Marshall's biggest fear - mine as well - was that it would look phoney," Brian Grazer says. "I make these bigger mainstream movies, and if all of a sudden I decide to make a street movie and make it corny, I look like a clown." Hanson insisted that 8 Mile be shot in the festering precincts of Detroit - in lieu of blander, cheaper Canada - and he also put Mathers through six weeks of rehearsals, in essence an acting class, before starting to shoot. (A more typical rehearsal period, Grazer says, is two days to two weeks.)
The star did not pretend to enjoy the experience, which he likened to boot camp: "It was anywhere between 13 and 16 hours a day, six days a week. It literally gave me enough time to go to sleep, get up and come back and do the movie." But however ambivalent he may be about the medium, he obsessed over the quality of the result as much as he does over his music. At one stage I asked, Are you happy with 8 Mile? "I'm getting happier every time I see a new cut of it," he allowed.
He clearly had bothered Hanson about every detail. "I'm like, yo, watch my facial expression here, it's not the greatest in the world," he said in describing his post-production interplay with the director. "And he found other takes. I always thought the story was good, but I want everything to be perfect. Every time I felt like I wasn't believable I took notes, and I brought them to Curtis." Now that it's over, he is in no mood even to watch movies: "It's because I'm looking for continuity and looking for mistakes. The guy's shirt's a little wrinkled, and you cut back and it's the same scene and his shirt's not wrinkled. You drive yourself crazy with it."
Mathers delivered an intense screen presence - far more effective than that of his touring show, where his loose-limbed performance style and diminutive stature require a busy supporting cast and scads of visual effects to fill the stage. But Mathers isn't looking for a movie career and mainly hopes the film will explain his missionary zeal for hip-hop to the uninitiated. Music was the refuge, he feels, from a childhood defined by domestic chaos and ostracism by his peers.
For the older audience who thinks rap is merely vulgar noise, 8 Mile makes a credible case as well for hip-hop as a positive social good. After all, the rap battles that form the crux of the film, reminiscent of boxing matches and given full Raging Bull treatment by Hanson, make the legitimate point that it is a rapper's imagination that counts most in hip-hop success. When Jimmy squares off with his rival in a battle, its substance has more in common with a no-holds-barred debating competition than an urban brawl; it is screen violence in which language substitutes for fists. "At the end of the day hip-hop is about brainpower," says Mathers. "It's brain versus brain. It's about who can outsmart who."
Regardless of 8 Mile's success, it is certain that the culture wars about hip-hop in general and Eminem in particular are nearly kaput. For one thing, hip-hop has become so big that it is now by definition the cultural norm, not the rebellious exception to it. "People are accepting Eminem because he's a superstar," Grazer says. "They don't even question things from his past - or have forgotten them." Notes Jimmy Iovine, of Interscope Records, Eminem's label: "At first hip-hop freaked out Hollywood because it wasn't rock'n'roll." Some executives agreed with the politicians' condemnations. But no one argues any longer with its success. Music this popular has the power to move all kinds of markets. Product placement in hip-hop songs can be a bonanza, as witness Pass the Courvoisier Part II, by Busta Rhymes, which increased the brandy's sale by 4.5 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Sean John Combs, aka Puff Daddy and P. Diddy, emerged from acquittal in his trial over a 1999 Manhattan nightclub shooting incident to become a men's fashion arbiter.
Mathers prides himself on sticking to his own artistic impulses, no matter how the scene changes around him. Asked why his audience is broadening, he cites his own growth. "In my heart I wanted to solidify myself as an artist and show that as I grow as a person and make mistakes and learn from them, I'm going to grow artistically," he says. And maybe that's what's attracting this older audience. "I'm always going to be me no matter what," he adds. "There's always going to be a part of me that's going to be as raw as when I first came out. But as I grow as a person and as I get older, I've got to mature."
In my conversation with Mathers, he didn't seem remotely caught up in whether he remained Public Enemy No1 or in his own commercial fate - or in that of 8 Mile. He disdained the idea of ever leaving Detroit to get "a $10 million home in New York or Hollywood and just be extravagant". He says he watches his money and is always thinking about his daughter's financial future. His own future? "Eventually I want to branch off into being a producer and be able to one day sit back like Dre and kind of be behind the scenes and not always have to be the front man."
For now, though, he seems more in demand as a star than ever. As 8 Mile was awaiting its premiere, every establishment TV show from Today to 60 Minutes was approaching Marshall Mathers.
Lynne Cheney and congressional scolds notwithstanding, even the US Government has joined the Eminem bandwagon: this summer it started broadcasting his songs in the Middle East as part of its propaganda campaign to enhance America's image to young radio listeners in the Arab world.