Teens `stand up' on Eminem


February 18, 2001

BY JIM DEROGATIS pop music critic


Since its release last spring, "The Marshall Mathers LP" has been the subject of miles of column inches and countless hours of TV and radio chatter. The sophomore album by the Detroit rapper Eminem also has sold 7 million copies.

The debate increased in intensity last month when the album was nominated for four Grammy Awards, the music industry's most prestigious annual prize. The Grammys were established a half-century ago with the goal of honoring artistic excellence.

Eminem's defenders--including the majority of rock critics--praise his skills as a rapper (his tricky rhymes and loquacious "flow") and turn the back-and-forth about his lyrics into a debate about freedom of speech. The foul-mouthed rapper is portrayed as a First Amendment activist--a role he never asked for, and one that he isn't particularly adept at. And anyone who questions that becomes a de facto censor.

On the other side, Eminem's foes--including most conservative politicians--make the chronic mistake of hearing him as further proof of the decline and fall of Western civilization. Always quick to underestimate teenagers' intelligence, they assume that his legions of fans can't separate violent fantasies from real-life actions, and they will somehow be inspired to act out the hateful scenarios that Eminem's songs portray.

My own position as a critic is that "Eminem" and "artistic excellence" are three words that do not belong in the same sentence. I find his sing-song, nursery-rhyme delivery and ultracommercial musical backings to be supremely uninspired, while the murderous stories in his lyrics are the equivalent of "Scream III" (art-


Teens `stand up' on Eminem

less, lowest-common-denominator entertainment) as opposed to Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (a substantive work of art that happens to be about a schizophrenic murderer).

Meanwhile, the voices that have been missing in this argument belong to Eminem's target audience--the millions of fans (a huge number of them high school age) who buy his records, watch his videos on MTV, and request his singles on several different formats across the radio dial.

With the help of Anthony Tavano, a journalism instructor at Gordon Technical High School on the Northwest Side, I convened a panel of teenage music critics and asked them to share their opinions on the phenomenon of Eminem. The Gordon Tech students included Corey Fuentes, Phillip Parr, Mario Valdivieso and Jeff Barrios. Also present were several girls from their sister high school, St. Scholastica: Julie Ahlfeld, Avary Kent, Alexis Boylan and Jo Dwyer.

This eloquent round table confirmed several of my suspicions: Much of Eminem's appeal is that he scares the bejesus out of parents; teens appreciate him as an alternative to pop product like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears (even though he is championed by the same cultural machinery of radio and MTV), and they connect more with the visuals in his videos than with the sounds on his recordings.

On another issue, the panel surprised me. While they were jaded about the extreme violence in some of Eminem's songs--indeed, they shrugged it off--they had never really thought about how they'd feel if they were placed in the role of one of his victims, and some students became visibly upset when that topic was raised.

Here are the highlights of our conversation.

Q.I want to talk to you about a couple of songs on "The Marshall Mathers LP" and what they mean to you. I assume most of you heard it for the first time on the radio, via the single "The Real Slim Shady."

Phillip Parr (15, sophomore): When I first heard it, I wanted to memorize the words just as quickly as I could. I thought it was so funny, and then I saw the video, and it made me laugh over and over again, even after the hundreds of times I saw it on MTV and heard it on the radio.

Avary Kent (16, junior): I actually first heard it when it was really popular. I heard it with my friend and she was blaring out the lyrics and I was like, "What the heck?" But I started listening to it and it was really catchy; the lyrics were just really hypnotic. I didn't like it at first because I thought it was just kind of repetitious and boring and there wasn't anything special about it, but then I saw the video and I thought it was hilarious. I kind of started wondering why I thought it was so funny because it's a pretty degrading video--I mean, it makes fun of stuff, but it does it in a kind of distasteful way. But I never really disliked it any more after I saw the video.

Jo Dwyer (16, junior): Yeah, he's talking about degrading women and doing drugs or whatever, but he does it in a different way. If you listen to Puff Daddy or whoever, it's like, "I went out with my bitches" and stuff. But Eminem presents it in a different way. It's more of a political way that he looks at everything, and he's a lot more cynical. He's about more than just himself. I mean, he loves himself, he loves who he is, but at the same time he's criticizing America. There's so much wrong in America. I know in this song he talks about little kids and what they see and how they learn about sex so quickly and how parents are a big problem. It is kind of hypocritical of him, because here he is with this profane record and he has a little girl himself, but at the same time he's doing his own thing and it's not just about money and drugs.

Q.You sort of see him as attacking the hype in America, but he's heavily hyped himself. He raps, "Radio won't even play my jams," but he's all over MTV, and stations like Q101 and B96 play him 50 or more times a week. Is there really a difference between him and the Backstreet Boys or 'N Sync? He's sold to you by the same corporations.

Avary Kent: He's dissing and going after all this stuff that I don't even understand why it's so popular--all these boy bands that are basically clones of each other. He's going after Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and all these girls who are basically clones of each other, and he's doing it in a funny way so that they won't get mad, and if they do, it just makes them look even worse. It's for all these people like us who are tired of those songs and who want to laugh along with them. The Backstreet Boys were pretty cool in the beginning, except that there are now seven bands that are all made up of five white guys that sing the exact same songs. Eminem is original, so that even if there are people who act like him later on, he's still the first, and for the moment, he's the only one.

Corey Fuentes (17, senior): I feel a lot different from that because of this whole underground thing where he used to dis this other rapper from Detroit named Cage. If you listen to his old, original thing, it was all about partying, like picking up girls and going to raves. Then you listen to Cage's old stuff, like in 1989, and it's stuff that Eminem is doing now. Eminem bit his style, and that's why I think it's kind of ironic that he talks about being the real Slim Shady. I first heard Eminem in 1996, before [his producer] Dr. Dre touched anything, and it sounded way better. The beats weren't all commercial and everything.

Jo Dwyer: My cousin had the EP years ago, and he played the song "Just the Two of Us"--now it's called "Bonnie and Clyde," and it's about dumping his dead girlfriend in the river--and I liked it, but at the same time, I knew it was cruel and demeaning and everything. The fact that he can get away with it, and he knows that he's going to have critics all over saying, "This man is bad; listen to what he's rapping about." . . . I don't think you can really judge him or his talent on that. Part of his whole shtick is [ticking] people off, and I think he wrote stuff like that more to [tick] people off than to make people like him.

Avary Kent: It's more to get people angry than to get them to start beating their girlfriends. He's kind of poking at it, and poking at the people who want to take this so seriously. I mean, we're teenagers! We're not saying, "He said that, I'm gonna go out and try to find some guy to beat me up!"

Q.Well, I think you can make great art about a murderer, like the film "Psycho," but I don't think that Eminem's murderous fantasies are on that level. He's been nominated for a Grammy for album of the year. Would you put "The Marshall Mathers LP" in a time capsule as the best album of 2000?

Phillip Parr: No, I wouldn't, but you would put it in there to say this is something that people loved to listen to. It says something if you sell 7 million records. It's like what people say today about old-school music like Led Zeppelin.

Avary Kent: I'd put it in the time capsule because it says something about our culture at this moment--that there is all this stuff going on and this guy can just totally be the opposite of it . . . well, be it, but at the same time also be the opposite of it. And it's being criticized by all these people who grew up with bands like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, which are undeniably great. But I think they're kind of spoiled by that kind of music and they're not really open to what we listen to.

Jo Dwyer:I'd put him in the time capsule not because he's the most talented rapper, but I don't think that's the point of Eminem. I think music should be about talent, but this is more of a political thing. "The Marshall Mathers LP" is about the media, the culture, our time, the politics--everything that's going on right now. He's a huge star and he's kind of using that to show people like us that he's just reflecting things that are going on. Beating your girlfriend--that's what's going on in the world right now. Little 5-year-olds knowing how sex works--that's what's going on in the world right now. People going out and killing gays . . . I think he's kind of saying, "Hey, wake up!" He's just reflecting the bad that's going on in our world and putting it into music so that younger people can catch on, and they aren't really catching on. Yeah, he may be making millions, but the Beatles were rich, and nobody said, "They're just in it for the money."

Alexis Boylan (17, junior): I disagree with that, and I disagree with the whole fact that he should be put in a time capsule. Sixties music, I think, is the best music ever written; it has a heart, it has a soul, it had everything. Now, the song "Lola" by the Kinks, that was written about a transvestite. It was written tastefully, it was written poetically, and it was written without swearing or these obnoxious, disgusting lyrics, and it was heartfelt because you could feel how this other guy felt when he found out that Lola was a man. It addressed the issues of the times, but it did it tastefully, and it became a huge hit. But Eminem is addressing gays by saying that he's going to kill them. I haven't bought the record. I'll listen to him on the radio, but I don't want to give my money to someone who's going to say, "I'm gonna kill." Not that he means it, but it's not art.

Q.If you listen to Eminem's lyrics, they really become tedious: Anybody he dislikes is a "fag" and he's always saying he's going to kill them. I mean, come on, can't he come up with a better insult?

Jo Dwyer: But that's the attitude of kids these days! It's not from Eminem. We go to an all-girls school and we hear "fag" all the time.

Phillip Parr: People insult me all the time, but I always shrug it off because I know that they don't really understand me personally. That's why I think critics rat on Eminem, because they don't understand him personally. . . . I think he's just channeling all this anger into his music.

Q.Let's talk about the song "Kim," which is a brutal depiction of him slitting his wife's throat. Do you think that "Kim" is art?

Jo Dwyer: "Kim" is not art. It's a statement, it's his feeling, it's his mind, and it just happens to have music. I wouldn't call that art.

Avary Kent: But it is art, because the definition of art is anything that stirs emotion, whether it's "This painting is so beautiful" or rage, because you just are completely against anything this guy says. He's trying to make people mad, and he's succeeding.

Mario Valdivieso (15, sophomore): I don't think that's art. Anybody can scream "Bitch" a bunch of times.

Corey Fuentes: He's a smart businessman, just like Master P--I hate his music, but he's a genius. He makes so much money! People caught on to Eminem's music real quick; it's catchy, Dr. Dre's got a lot of credibility behind him, and it sells. He doesn't have to try as hard anymore to impress people, because he knows, "I'm Eminem, I can be accepted, my name is out there, I'm on this cover and this cover."

Phillip Parr: The words, even though it's talking about death and killing your wife, you kind of get to see that he's trying to be comical. It's like dark, gritty comedy--there's different forms of comedy. It's a fantasy; if it was real, he'd be in jail right now. That one part where he says, "Bitch, I'll scream with you," I found that really funny, but I'm not that person who will go around saying, "Since I think it's really funny, I'll take you out in the woods and beat you up and start screaming with you."

Jo Dwyer: We don't know Eminem's side of the story. We don't know what Kim was like at home. I think some of his songs are comedy, but not this one. It sounds like it's coming from his mind, this is what he thinks about, but that doesn't mean that he would kill his wife. He's mad. He's had such a hard life, and he has so much anger in him. When you have so much anger in you, anything can come out of you.

Alexis Boylan: I think that was extremely distasteful. I did not think that was art, I don't like listening to that, and I kept thinking of other things that I don't want to think about, that scare me. Personally, I have a slight fear of large boys who can really hurt me, and that song scared me. The thing about it is that it's not music; it's something you give to a psychiatrist.

Q.What does it say to you that 7 million people are listening to this song and enjoying it?

Avary Kent: That's our society right now. I'd rather live in the 11th century, when everybody listened to classical music, but I don't. In our society, women are objects. We are worthless, even though supposedly it's better than before.

Jo Dwyer:He's just repeating what's on the streets. "Bitch, I'll kill you"--you hear that all the time. The only difference between him and real life is that he's sold 7 million records, and that's because people like to hear catchy songs and they're into this kind of music right now. He's just a compound of everything you can gather from around this world. There are guys who will kill their wives, and there are people demeaning women like that. There are people doing all this stuff that he's singing about, so it looks like, "Eminem thinks this; this is all Eminem." But it's not. It could be your next-door neighbor.

Phillip Parr: I've been called gay in this school, I've been called a nigger in this school, I've been called a faggot in this school, but I don't see any activists coming around. If people say I'm a faggot, I know that they just don't know me.

Q.Has Eminem reached the outside of the envelope? Where can he go after rapping about slitting his wife's throat?

Corey Fuentes: I think he's played.

Phillip Parr: I think he's gone as far as you can take it, and he's reached his peak too early. He shot up the mountain too fast, and unless he can find a way to go down really gradually, he's gonna tumble down. Look at Vanilla Ice: He flew up the mountain but tumbled just as fast. M.C. Hammer, New Kids on the Block--all prime examples.

Q.Everybody talks about the song "Stan," which is about the crazed fan who imitates Eminem. Let's say somebody does listen to his music and they act out the violence they heard in the song. Are you willing to absolve Eminem of any responsibility?

Jo Dwyer: It's partly Eminem's responsibility, but it's not his fault that some guy took it to be this way. When you have kids, the parents should control what they're listening to. There are 6-year-olds listening to Eminem's CD, and I personally wouldn't let my kid listen to this. But at the same time, you have a 30-year-old man who's taking what Eminem says seriously when he really at his age should know that none of it should be taken seriously and repeated. . . .

If adults listened to kids more than just criticized them . . . I mean, I'm sure we all swear, and the way we talk, the way we demean people, the way we are with each other, if parents and adults would listen to it, they would start to understand Eminem. I'm not saying all of us want to kill our girlfriends or boyfriends, but he comes from us. He's talking about us, and that's part of the appeal to kids. The majority of adults don't like Eminem because of what he's saying. The majority of kids like what Eminem is saying--I don't like the fact that he's talking about killing his wife, but we get angry, and we say we're going to kill somebody, too.