Eminem's critics take him far more seriously than he takes himself.
‘Yo Milton Keynes, how you motherfuckers doing?’ With those words Eminem, the white-trash king of urban hip hop, greeted 65,000 motherfuckers in Milton Keynes, the capital of English suburbia tucked away in leafy Buckinghamshire. It was a better greeting than on his first night at the Milton Keynes Bowl, when he swaggered on to the stage and said: ‘HELLO LONDON!’
It was surreal watching Eminem and his coterie of black rappers ‘messing with you fuckers’ in Milton Keynes. Support act Xzibit got the crowd jumping up and down to ‘Shit like this makes a nigga wanna jump like this’ – even though there were precious few niggas in the white, well-to-do audience. The reefer-smoking band Cypress Hill got us chanting ‘Fuck the pigs’ – in a town where the only pig I saw was a pleasant young man giving directions around the shopping mall.
When Eminem came to Britain in 2001, he caused a good old-fashioned stink. Self-appointed moral guardians, from the Tories to the National Union of Students, were outraged that he wielded a chainsaw on stage and rapped about hating bitches and fags. This time around, the anti-Eminem lobby has gone in for some reflective soul-searching. ‘Many parents are worried’, says the BBC’s Alan Yentob. ‘Your children and mine love hip hop and its harsh attitude….’ (1)
Eminem’s critics have always taken Eminem more seriously than he takes himself. As the title of the Milton Keynes gig – ‘The Eminem Show’ – suggested, Eminem isn’t totally for real. Parts of the show were pure gangsta pantomime. The warm-up man told us to ‘make some noise for Eminem’, eliciting wild cheers from the crowd. Then he told us to ‘make some noise for Ja Rule’, Eminem’s ‘rap enemy’, and we dutifully booed. This was rap-on-rap violence turned into theatre, in order to get 65,000 white kids in the mood for dancing.
Even Eminem’s dumb critics have become part of the show. The concert opened with news footage of well-manicured ladies-who-lunch and right-wing Christian wackos denouncing Eminem as hateful and in need of a ‘good horse-whipping’ (those Christian fundamentalists always let slip their true desires). Both sides benefit from this staged battle: Eminem appears rebellious, the scourge of the American right, even as he plays a sell-out gig to middle-class teens, mums and dads and 29-year-old journalists (ahem) in Buckinghamshire. And in Eminem, the American moralisers of both left and right have an ideal punchbag, a cocky upstart who is clearly leading their kids astray, a rapper they can diss as disgusting without being accused of racism.
As with all good pantomime, there was plenty of audience participation. ‘You don’t wanna fuck with Shady’ rapped Eminem, to which the audience responded: ‘Because Shady will fucking kill you.’ In the build-up to the confessional classic Cleaning Out My Closet, Eminem got us to ‘wave our middle fingers in the air’ and chant ‘Fuck you Debbie, fuck you Debbie, fuck you Debbie’ – Debbie being his estranged mother, who sued her wayward son after he rapped that ‘my mom does more dope than I do’.
Eminem is simply the cartoonish invention of one Marshall Mathers. Suggesting that his songs cause people to become homophobic or misogynistic is like saying the men-in-tights of WWF wrestling are the root of all violence in modern society. Two 18-year-old girls next to me enthusiastically sang along to ‘bitches they come, bitches they go, Saturday through Sunday, Sunday through Monday yo’. No doubt some will cite this as evidence that Eminem’s lyrics induce self-loathing in the young. Others might think that the girls simply enjoy a good beat (as opposed to good beating) and find Eminem’s songs funny.
In the Eminem pantomime, nasty pigs and wicked mothers get booed, while the white-trash kid done good gets all the cheers. And he deserves them. Lose Yourself is still one of the best upbeat pop songs of recent times – even if it is, according to recent studies, the song most likely to cause motorists to crash (2). And it was moving to hear 65,000 people sing along to Stan, Eminem’s haunting and intelligent ballad of an obsessed fan who kills his girlfriend.
But it was a little disconcerting to see some fans waving their flashing mobile phones in the air to Stan, instead of the traditional cigarette lighter. Perhaps mobiles are seen as a safer alternative to the naked flame these days; after all, we wouldn’t want anything really dangerous to upset the funny pantomime.