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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited. 

For the week of November 20 - 26, 2002

Opinion Columns

Eminem—not as sweet as the candy, methinks

Commentary by JoELLEN COLLINS

"Yesterday’s ‘Revolution’ can always be tomorrow’s Nike commercial."

FRANK RICH, The New York Times Magazine

I am probably caught in a generation gap. Not only do I find offensive much of the foul and ungrammatical language that I hear in many movies, but also I am immune to the appeal of rap music. Oh sure, I’ve heard the arguments: words and music merely reflect their times, parents have always descried "evil" influences like rock and roll, I am too fuddy-duddy a language sergeant, and so on. However, I try to keep an open mind as I grow older to those things that attract a fresh generation. The pursed lips, rolled eyes and closed ears of the aged bar them from exploring new and vital art forms. My mother refused to listen to Frank Sinatra after he took up with Ava Gardner, denying herself his wonderful music.

I’ve given up judging the work by the conduct of the artist. I fear I would have little left to read or hear or view.

So, in this context I have decided to tackle the daunting task of looking at what makes Eminem such a hit. I understand that part of it is rebellion, the flipping of his finger at things many "enlightened" grownups hold sacred. When I first started teaching English, J.D. Salinger’s "Catcher in the Rye" was banned for fear teenagers would emulate Holden Caulfield’s anti-establishment behavior. Today, some adults are similarly wary of the hypnotic Eminem.

Certainly, his obscenities, misogyny, homophobia, and espousal of violence can offend anyone who listens carefully to his music. I, too, hope his voice is not a battle cry for the disenfranchised (or any) members of his youthful audience.

Before being broadly dismissive of this phenomenon, I listened to and then read printouts of some of his lyrics. There is no denying the rhythmical appeal of much of his work and also no denying that his lyrics, seen in print, specially, are despicable and highly inflammatory. Because loathsome language is so prevalent in today’s media, perhaps it is not as bad as it seems. It is a challenge to keep reminding oneself that his vicious diatribes against women, for example, may only be attention-getting devices, part of a public persona.

Unfortunately, Eminem’s own behavior with his ex-wife reinforces the conclusion that he may truly believe his own lyrics. Maturity and his apparent devotion to his daughter bode well for some change in attitude. Even his homophobia seems less dramatic after Elton John’s endorsement of his talent and their recent performance together. Nonetheless, I find his sexual references more gross than I could have imagined and his attitude in general pretty unhealthy.

So I went to see "8 Mile." The dreariness of the Detroit neighborhood of his childhood and the clearly autobiographical connections between his character and Eminem himself do add to some understanding of his rebellion. And, in spite of the graphic and unfortunately unprotected sex portrayed, I wasn’t as shocked as I expected to be. (The film is correctly R-rated.) But what surprised me most about the movie was two-fold. First, Eminem himself comes across as a character that, in spite of the language he uses and with which he is surrounded, seems to be a pretty decent guy. His acting talent is plainly evident.

The second revelation of "8 Mile" is that in his world of hip-hop, victories come about through verbal accomplishment, not through physical confrontation. The movie had violence, surely, but I was amazed at the portrayal of masses of yelling and angry fans that could still accept the white outsider and his victory over a black rapper. I kept expecting them to erupt with hatred for the trailer boy. Eminem’s Rocky-like character literally wins the battle with words. The only time we even see a gun is when the fighters are astonished that a character has been so stupid as to brandish one. Guns are verboten; talk is the ultimate weapon.

It is the young rapper’s mind which offers him hope of escape from the seedy and depressing life of factory work and dysfunctional families. Ironically, outside of the picture, the world of rap has become notoriously dangerous for many of its participants. But here I can at least applaud the triumph of this very sad character, savvy enough to remind his buddies that instant riches are futile pipe dreams at best and certainly not automatic panaceas.

Frank Rich, in The New York Times Magazine, points out that Mick Jagger, the "antichrist of Altamont," has been knighted, and that Ozzie Osbourne has transmogrified into a "lovable TV star." Rich continues, "Yesterday’s ‘Revolution’ can always be tomorrow’s Nike commercial." Who knows what Eminem, described on the magazine’s cover as an American idol, will become?

I’m still confused about Eminem. I’m sad that he is so admired in a time when we need positive heroes. Although I applaud his rise from a horrible childhood, admire his perseverance, acknowledge his talent, and understand his appeal to the rebel in many people, I still loathe his stances. I abhor his views of women as sexual objects, for example. Perhaps if I were younger I could criticize him more effectively without the limitations of generational attitudes. After all, how much can a girl who grew up on Gershwin, Cole Porter and the sweet songs of stars like Nat King Cole be expected to accept?



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