"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 October 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Public Service Announcement 2000


Wide is the way to destruction, as the poet says; and poets, more than most, are apt to find it. In the 20th century, poets from Pound to Sapphire made a bed in sorrow's bosom. It should come as no surprise that Marshall Bruce Mathers III, "arguably the most compelling figure in all of pop music," according to Newsweek, should be marked for destruction. But in this case, it's neither melancholy nor drug abuse, nor even his own malfeasance that threatens Eminem. It's his absorption into mainstream culture. It's not what Eminem is doing to America that's alarming. It's what America is doing to Eminem.

Not that he deserves better. Eminem is a bad person. He's cruel and dumb, and he makes a jerk of himself on TV. He sodomized a blowup doll that represented his wife onstage. Hate speech is his native tongue. He's a wigger's wigger, a Bombay toff right down to the rubber souls of his Lugz. He makes you listen to an appalling fantasy of his homosexual alter-ego being fellated by the Insane Clown Posse. There's no doubt that the American Id is speaking through him with the volume at 11; not only bad himself, he's the cause of badness in other people.

But none of that really matters, because his talent is so great prodigious, volcanic, confounding even to his critics. No one can say, as Salon business writer Eric Boehlert has often tried to, that he's just a punk out for a ride on the shock train. The by-the-numbers ravings of a G.G. Allin or an Andrew Dice Clay can easily be dismissed as the last refuge of a mediocrity. But Eminem, on the other hand, emerged out of the meritocratic crucible of hardcore bat tle rapping where you have to freestyle your way to the top. Eminem's freestyling skills are genuinely scary: on one MP3 making its rounds on the internet, the troubled troubadour spits rhymes to random prompts like "animal crackers" and "Preparation H." On another unreleased freestyle, you can actually hear him accelerate into his ability like a kid testing how fast dad's car can go:

no more said, case closed, end of discussion
we blowin' up like spontaneous human combustion!
leavin' you in the aftermath of holocaust and traumas
we blowin' up the house,
killing your parents
and coming back to get your foster mamas!
And I'm as good at keepin' a promise
as Nostradamus!

Used for good, these powers are intensely creative. "Stan," Eminem's character study of an obsessed fan, moved Entertainment Weekly critic Will Hermes to write that "[it] may be the most moving song about star worship ever recorded." No one has yet singled out "Drug Ballad" for special appreciation and exegesis, but can a man who writes verses like this one be all bad?

That's the sound of a bottle
when it's hollow
when you swallow
it all, wallow
and drown in your sorrow
And tomorrow
you're probably gonna wanna do it again
What's a little spinal fluid between you and a friend? (screw it)

But the spectacular quality of a few songs only underlines why most of the Marshall Mathers LP, as other critics have complained, is so bad. Eminem's lyrical skill never deserts him, but you get tired of hearing the guy shout over and over again about his career. It's as if Eminem were skipping the middleman, and just scripting his own Behind the Music now. And of course, his fame as the enfant terrible of contemporary decadence has only made things worse. The only thing that could have hurt Eminem more as an artist than Framptonesque success is his also being taken seriously in the wrong way by the wrong people. The combination of TRL glory and PMRC infamy has corrupted him. And yet, as with all spectacular talents, Eminem's wick is not being extinguished without one last hard, gemlike flare. As his genius is enveloped by the viscous goo that is American mass culture, Eminem like fellow literary lion Dave Eggers has internalized enough of it to create an intense, agonistic struggle.

Like the prisoner who, in an urban legend of Dylanology circles, sat in his cell for years obsessing over the meaning of "One More Cup of Coffee," a listener with much time on his hands could easily become fixated on The Marshall Mathers LP. Having once plumbed its shallow depths, he might come back again and again to it as an anomaly, a wormhole in the media-entertainment continuum. How can a depraved harlequin like Eminem, who has defiled his own album by going on and on about himself, and apostrophizing the Insane Clown Posse, and complaining about his millions of imitators when he doesn't have any, do it? The album's opening couplets demonstrate his signature double-helix of psychosis and celebrity, self-reflexiveness and inspiration.

Shut up, Slut! You're causing too much chaos!
Just bend over and take it like a slut...ok Ma?
"Oh, now he's raping his own mother, abusing her
Worse, snortin' coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?"
You're goddamn right, bitch, and now it's too late!
I'm triple-platinum and tragedies happened in two states!

That isn't a stream of consciousness, it's a whitewater but whose interior monologue is it, anyway? Is it Eminem, the celebrated MC? Marshall Mathers, the titular inner man for whom the album is named? Slim Shady, his Whitmanesque semidivine persona? Or none of the above just the sprung rhythms of a furtive, brilliant talent struggling to get out? In fact, what makes him immune to the world around him is that there is no him there; Eminem is just a vessel his talent is walking around in. He really has no private life to speak of at this point. He seems to be something more akin to the Matrix, an isolated, self-sustaining program obliterating the distinction between inner self and the outer world. Eminem may be a hardened media whore, but seeing as he was thrust into it, you can't really call him a sellout. Rappers are supposed to lust openly after success. And if keeping it real means blurring the line between inside and outside, so what?

Meanwhile, his talent keeps pushing through to the next level. Maybe he is the media state incarnate. But Marshall Mathers, and the Marshall Mathers LP, are redeemed again and again by flashes of celestial vulgarity, blazing behind the clouds.

'Cause if I ever stuck it to any singer in showbiz
It'd be Jennifer Lopez
and Puffy you know this
Sorry Puff, but I don't give a fuck,
if this chick was my own mother,
I'd still fuck her with no rubber,
and cum inside her
And have a son AND a new brother
At the same time,
and just say that it ain't mine.

Like the man himself, this lyric starts out with squalid and pedestrian sentiments, and lifts them up by sheer force of impertinence. We may not be a great country anymore. We may be rank with squalor and self-indulgence, and hopelessly decayed from our noble origins; we may even have produced in Eminem the first great artist who is also an unperson, a Waste Land on two legs, shoring up our ruins in dense lines of doggerel. But that man is still powered from within by an unstaunchable spring, a font of aggressive vitality as cruel and life-affirming as the wide nation that gave him birth. Eminem's future, and the future of the republic that created him for good or ill, remain as boundless as the darkened horizon.


courtesy of The Boob


pictures Terry Colon

The Boob