The ‘Good Man’ Marshall and the ‘Scoundrel’ ShadyAugust 25, 2010 at 3:29 pm | Posted in Celebrity, Music, Art, Etcetera | 1 Comment
“Half the shit I say – I just make it up to make you mad
So kiss my white naked ass!”
- Eminem, ‘Criminal‘
By the late 1960s, The Beatles’ creativity had reached such absurd proportions that they were even inventing meta humour. On The White Album’s ‘Glass Onion’, a pleasant but inessential psychedelic ramble, John Lennon treats his listeners to a couple of minutes of gibberish, full of in-jokes & references to old songs.
Insofar as it had a point, the song was a sneaky rejoinder to all those who overanalysed The Beatles’ music; trawling their records for messages and meaning which was always far more elaborate than the band intended. For Lennon, sometimes a song could simply be about nothing.
His mistake was typical of artists who become frustrated when their thoughts or feelings are misheard or mangled in the minds of their audience. As Roland Barthes noted, just as notions of authorship allowed artists to control how their work was received and consumed, so the idea of authorial intent gave the illusion that they could set the terms by which their work was understood.
When we entered times of mass consumption, intent became irrelevant. Like literature or film, the meaning (or meaninglessness) of songs is seldom self-evident, and the interpretations we attach to them are very often different from those the artist intends.
Meaning is not created for us, but by us, and though we can all be influenced or coerced into sharing the meanings of others, there are always times when our unguided minds will form understandings which are unusual or unique.
A quick search of songmeanings.net will demonstrate what I mean. Its users attach thousands of different meanings, memories and interpretations to their favourite songs; all of them right, all of them wrong.
‘There She Goes’ is either a love song or an ode to heroin; ‘Born in the USA’ is working class turmoil or Reaganite nationalism; ‘The Boy With The Thorn In His Side’ is either social commentary or a sardonic swipe at Morrissey’s critics. By ignoring the urge to know the intent behind each song, listeners are liberated to create meanings for ourselves. There’s nothing Lennon or anyone else could do about it.
There’s arguably no one in the history of recorded sound that has manipulated this freedom more than Marshall Mathers. Since the release in 1999 of the Slim Shady LP, the artist sold as Eminem has delighted in shocking, appalling and confounding his audience, making himself an extraordinarily rich man in the process.
The source of this confusion, this willful deception, these tens of millions of records, was Mather’s ‘Slim Shady’ alter ego; the hyper-violent, axe-wielding, horror movie manic who could mortify both liberals and conservatives alike. Mathers’ ‘Shady’ was portrayed as a demented lunatic who despised women, hated gays and fantasised over – among other things – their rape, humiliation and murder.
But an alter ego gimmick doesn’t make for a long career. Eminem perpetually contrasted the Shady villain against the more somber, restrained, ‘real’ Marshall Mathers: the doting father, the betrayed son, the mentally ill drug addict, the tortured soul. By doing so, Mathers almost created a clever way of blaming the hate & violence of his songs on ‘Shady’, whilst intimating that his more serious, less offensive material (the Stans, the Cleaning Out My Closets, Lose Yourself) were more reflective of him as a person.
Were this distinction obvious and evident, it would’ve gone a long way towards settling Eminem’s cultural worth. If the hate and misogyny of his material could simply be attributed to a fictional character, then it would’ve been possible to receive those songs in much the same way as one receives a horror movie or a novel about a serial killer. If, on the other hand, the violence and hate of the Shady villain are sourced from the artist’s own antipathies, then it’s not so much art as the mad fantasies of a deeply disturbed mind.
Whether it was accident or design, Mathers never allowed his audience that reassurance; the lines between the ‘Shady’ villain and the ‘real’ Marshall have always been blurred.
None more so has that been evident than in Eminem’s depiction of women generally and domestic violence in particular. Regardless of which character was responsible for it, Mathers’ music is uniquely misogynistic. Where other rappers would diss ‘bitches’ out of some ritualistic chest-beating, Eminem’s misogyny is specific; women are either dumb and vacuous ‘sluts’ only interested in his wealth & fame, or they’re cruel, deceptive and treacherous. Both are met with equal rage.
And yet there remains a most curious paradox. Insofar as Eminem/Mathers/Shady is the most creative and committed woman-hater his genre has ever known, he remains the only misogynist in rap to have written at least three songs against domestic violence.
On first reading, that seems a rather contrarian statement. After all, on 97 Bonnie & Clyde he raps about dumping his dead wife’s body; on the unlistenably gruesome Kim he kills her before our very ears and on the recently released Love The Way You Lie he threatens to tie her up & set the house on fire. The Fawcett Society this ain’t.
Yet the shock of hearing those songs, the controversy they caused and the concern about the effect these kinds of messages have on his young fans shouldn’t obscure the fact that Mathers succeeds in casting himself in the most despicable light.
Whether it’s the chilling calm and pathetic justifications of 97 Bonnie & Clyde, the unhinged breakdown of Kim or the conflicted, quasi-apologies of Love The Way You Lie, the same characteristics creep out of the speakers: constantly jealous, insecure, obsessive, possessive, resorting to violence every time he loses control and incapable of taking responsibility for his behaviour. Whatever else might be troubling about the messages Mathers submits in these songs, he makes one thing clear: these are the characteristics of an abuser.
But these aren’t reasons to lionise Mathers – indeed, they place his less violent woman-hating in an even more unsettling context, further suggesting that his misogyny can’t just be passed off as the ranting of his lunatic alter ego, but drawn directly from his own dysfunction.
The impossibility of distinguishing between the ‘good man’ Marshall and the ‘scoundrel’ Shady is the reason that Eminem’s artistic value remains undefined & contentious. Some see a man who highlighted & savaged the hypocrisies of pop culture & American society; others see a bully who got rich off the back of the women and homosexuals he threatened with rape, humiliation & murder. Ultimately, I suspect the final judgement will be a combination of the two: an outrageously talented rapper & a seriously flawed man who, in the end, just couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a cartoon maniac or a serious artist.