The ‘Good Man’ Marshall and the ‘Scoundrel’ Shady

August 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 Goesis 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 Marshall Mathers LP is now 10 years old.

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.

From Eminem's controversial video "Love The Way You Lie"

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.

Food for thought

October 7, 2008 at 3:53 pm | Posted in British Politics, Celebrity, NHS, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
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I haven’t found the time to sit down and watch Ministry of Food yet, so I have no idea whether I’d be repulsed by Jamie Oliver’s supposed ‘patronising’ of the working classes or impressed by his idealism. I do agree with this comment that for all the cynicism about a wealthy celeb ‘slumming it with the chavs’, his intentions seem good and his approach – however meddlesome, intrusive & embarrassing it might be for the show’s subjects – seems considerably more effective than the hand-wringing warnings of health ministers. On the question of whether it’s freak-show TV, I think it’s wise to consider someone’s past record, and on that basis I think Oliver deserves a pass: his Fifteen restaurant chain, which sprang from a show where he hired 15 kids from deprived backgrounds and taught them how to work in hospitality, was an impressive achievement. Very few people in his industries have made a fortune for themselves whilst trying to persue some measure of positive social change, and for that he deserves credit.

I’m writing solely from favourable reviews here, but the show’s concept appears to be as much of a social documentary as ‘Breadline Britain’ ever was, and by occasionally panning away from the core focus on unhealthy diets, you’re made aware of the kinds of connected issues about education & deprivation that simply don’t get the kind of serious discussion they deserve. Going even further, it also raises more esoteric issues about the role of the state in tackling obesity, the future of the NHS, and whether the progressive left has the answers for any of the above.

Continue Reading Food for thought…

Rebels without a clue

March 11, 2008 at 10:40 am | Posted in Celebrity, Drugs | 2 Comments
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A UN report claims that drug use is bad for Africa; media reports on how it’s bad for celebrities 

Over at Obselete there’s a lengthy post about the trend towards blaming all the world’s problems on celebrities. Last week, a UN report blamed the Dohertys, Mosses and Winehouses of the world for glamourising drug use and criticised our judicial system for being too lenient on these strung-out snort machines. Septicisle rightly points out that the endless ambulance-chasing of Doherty and Winehouse, their physical deterioration and very public breakdowns hardly leave the impression that drug use is glamourous, and also notes that without an obsessive and intrusive media making money out of stalking them, there’d be no such stories in the first place:

All of this though is still missing the most obvious point: that without the sanctimonious media that feels fit to follow a “celebrity’s” every movement, and indeed has the power to both make that individual’s image in the first place and then later to destroy it if it so desires, the public at large that are apparently so influenced by celebrity behaviour would never know about it in the first place.

[...]

Newspapers of course love to have it both ways: they denounce the behaviour of celebrities in comment pieces and leader columns while their sales and showbiz pages depend on capturing that very behaviour which would otherwise go unnoticed.

But in the media’s obsession with celebrity, a far more important part of the report was missed; namely, the toll that the drug trade is taking on the failed states of West Africa. Sunday’s Observer featured some first rate reporting:

By day, Guinea-Bissau looks like the impoverished country it is. Most people cannot afford a bus fare, never mind a four-wheel drive. There is no mains electricity. Water supplies are restricted to the wealthy few, and landmark buildings such as the presidential palace remain wrecked nine years after the end of the war. But this wreck of a country is what the UN – which declared war last week on celebrity cocaine culture – calls the continent’s ‘first narco-state’. West Africa has become the hub of a flow of cocaine from South America into Europe, now that other routes have become tough for the traffickers.

With the old lines of supply becoming more heavily-policed, the drug barons of Columbia established a trade route through countries like Guinea-Bissau, in large part because their state is so weak that politicians and police officials are easily bought-off. It is this terrible situation that prompted Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN’s anti-drugs office, to write this passionate comment piece:

And yet for every rebel with a cause, there are 10 others without a clue. While some well-meaning pop idols and film stars might rage against suffering in Africa, their work is being undermined by the drug habits of careless peers such as Kate Moss. For the cocaine used in Europe passes through impoverished countries in west Africa, where the drugs trade is causing untold misery, corruption, violence and instability.

Of course, Kate Moss is not directly responsible for the drug trade in Africa and it’s still far too easy to blame celebrity substance abuse for making it more widespread amongst the general population. That said, anyone who has ever bought or used cocaine is still an indirect accomplice in the misery of millions. And for those celebrities who lend their voices to campaigns on behalf of Africa and yet still find time for the odd line, it’s the vilest kind of hypocrisy.

Costa’s piece ends with this pointed plea: if you don’t care what the drug does to you, at least spare a thought for what it can do to others.

Too true. But no one’ll ever write a pop song about it.

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