This is the first part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.
Eminem is an underground horrorcore rapper who, through some mix-up in the cosmic order, instead became the best-selling artist of the 2000s. To remember how incredibly big Eminem became in the late 1990s and early 2000s while rapping about killing himself, raping his mother, and murdering his wife seems like peering into some long-distant era: much further away than twenty years should be, more like a time memorialised only in photographs and letters. But that’s not quite right, either. It’s less like a far away past than a hole torn in the fabric of the universe, just wide enough to let a single impossible thing leak through. Eminem managed to feel dangerous even as he became ubiquitous, at once a fact of life and a radical notion that must be supressed at all costs. That tension is one of the defining features of Eminem’s discography: both boundary-pushing and mainstream, both snotty, scrappy underdog and superstar.
Listening to his early albums, it seems at times like he’s trying to Tom Green himself and see what he has to say to get kicked out of the music industry. (“I’m so sick and tired of being admired / That I wish that I would just die or get fired / And dropped from my label,” he raps on ‘The Way I Am’.) He pushes at the extremes in a way that is frequently grotesque, and right when you expect him to pull back, he doubles down.
We’re living in a time that has no patience for shock humour, that dismisses it as crass and offensive. Quite apart from the politics of it, I think a big reason is that we are still coming off a bit of a saturation point for shock humour in the 2000s, which necessarily meant a lot of people doing it who were quite bad at it. I mean, we lived through a time when Family Guy, American Dad! and The Cleveland Show were all on the air at the same time, we’re worn out on it, I get it. It’s the same fall from grace that has afflicted slapstick. But good slapstick is hilarious and delightful, and the same goes for good shock humour. Quality shock humour pokes and prods at the inherent arbitrariness of taboos and takes glee in smashing them. Eminem was, in his younger years, as skilled a shock humourist as you’ll find. Much of that is his wit, his self-awareness, his multisyllabic and internal rhymes, and his mesmerizingly slick flows, but a big part is that the guts of two decades has not diluted his early work’s effect. A lot of art that is primarily shocking loses its power with age – the original Frankenstein is a brilliant film, but it sure as shit isn’t scary – but I can’t imagine a time where people don’t gasp and giggle the first time they hear ‘I’m Shady’.
Eminem’s detractors at the time loved to use that against him: to argue that he was just saying stuff for shock value, a meaningless spray of diarrhoea for which he refused to be held to account. But what makes Eminem’s first three major releases – The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, and The Eminem Show, what you might dub his original trilogy – so special is that they go so far beyond that.
Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.
The quickest shorthand to explain what Eminem was doing is to say that he isn’t Slim Shady. Slim – the perspective from which his most outrageous songs are written – isn’t “real”. He’s an alter-ego: a serial killer, rapist, and all-around slasher villain. He’s Jason Voorhees, he’s Michael Myers, he’s Norman Bates. ‘My Name Is’ was Eminem’s first single, and it’s still a perfect introduction to Slim:
Hi kids! Do you like violence?
Wanna see me stick nine-inch nails through each one of my eyelids?
Wanna copy me and do exactly like I did?
Try ‘cid and get fucked up worse that my life is?
It’s a song where he rips off Pamela Anderson’s breasts, staples a guy’s balls, and kills himself twice. “God sent me to piss the world off,” he raps, and it sounds like a genuine calling.
Slim isn’t some after-the-fact justification, he’s wholly distinct and recognisable. The bleach blonde hair, the uniform of white t-shirts, the hockey masks and chainsaws that came out at concerts: all pure Shady. He is such a discrete alter-ego that Eminem doesn’t even have to signpost it when he switches personas mid-song. This seems blindingly obvious if you’ve listened to pretty much any Eminem, as he alternates between warning the listener of the dangers of literalism and going as far over the top as he can to drive the point home, but considering how often contextless lyrics are trotted out as proof of literally anything, considering how often entertainment journalists will refer to Eminem as Slim Shady like it’s a synonym, it’s worth stating the obvious. Slim Shady’s the bad guy, and everyone knows it. He’s told us so himself.
You can’t miss me: I’m white, blonde-haired, and my nose is pointy
I’m the bad guy who makes fun of people that die
In plane crashes and laughs as long as it ain’t happenin’ to him
Slim is frequently a vehicle for horror and shock humour, but he’s also a vehicle for satire. As well as being worn out on shock humour, I think we’re living in an era that has trouble appreciating satire. The shock humour boom in the 2000s for some reason created a legion of dipshits using “it’s satire!” to justify their shittiest jokes, whether it’s CinemaSins saying their bullshit nit-picking is “satire” to absolve them of being accurate or insightful about the films they cover, or those “homophobic Millie Bobby Brown” memes being called satire because the people who started them were LGBT.
Somewhere along the way someone came up with the term “hipster racism” to describe a specific version of this phenomenon – where somebody does something racist and then says they were being ironic – which, like seemingly every left-of-centre concept coined in the Internet age, some treated as a contextless, always-applicable rule: sometimes people do something racist or misogynistic or homophobic and try to justify it after the fact as irony or satire, so therefore anyone who claims they are being ironic or satirical is just trying to cover their ass after they did something racist or misogynistic or homophobic. This is where you get feminists arguing that there cannot ever be a good rape joke, even though there are lots of rape jokes that are both very funny and at the expense of rapists and rape culture (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s “the implication” is the gold standard, but Sarah Silverman has done plenty). Context is declared not to matter. For me, it seemed like the argument peaked with #CancelColbert: Stephen Colbert, back when he was in-character on The Colbert Report, satirised the racism of the Washington Redskins’ owner, Daniel Snyder, starting a foundation for Native Americans that had the word “redskin” in the name by replacing the Native American slur with an Asian one; the corporate Twitter account associated with the show posted the punchline without context; online activist Suey Park started the hashtag #CancelColbert to highlight Colbert’s anti-Asian racism; when people pointed out that Colbert’s joke was at the expense of Snyder’s racism, Park claimed that her hashtag was satirical, like a snake eating its own tail. And now it’s 2020 and Donald Trump is president and satire is dead.
So when I say that Slim Shady is a frequent vehicle for satire, I get that can sound sort of meaningless, especially when he isn’t always in satirical mode. But Eminem uses Slim to satirise huge swathes of American culture, exposing the darkness lurking beneath the surface. Slim Shady recreates the Columbine Massacre, takes credit for the OJ murders and correlates his moral rot with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. There is something deeply fucked up at the heart of American society, and Slim viciously prods at the bruise. He’s the bugs in the dirt under the manicured suburban lawn at the start of Blue Velvet. While middle-class white audiences frequently perceived black rappers as threatening, Eminem’s white skin and blonde hair mimics the image of the all-American boy – an image that he fills his mouth with heinous filth to tear apart.
In reaction to the establishment’s vilification of gangsta rap – blaming young black men for society’s violence, because they happened to write songs that reflected it – Slim Shady openly declares himself to be everything that its detractors claimed gangsta rap was. He takes all of the things that both the left and the right criticised in gangsta rap – aggression, violence, misogyny, homophobia – and turns them up to eleven. It becomes something grotesque and unpalatable, a snarl of You thought that shit was bad? Watch this. He loudly proclaims that he’s trying to influence children. (“Children should not partake in the listening of this album – with laces in their shoes,” goes the ‘Public Service Announcement’ at the start of The Slim Shady LP.) “I invented violence,” he raps on ‘Kill You’, and instantly makes anyone claiming listening to Eminem records causes violent behaviour sound like an idiot. Eminem didn’t invent violence, and by implication, neither did Ice-T or NWA.
“Do you know why Dre’s record was so successful?” a record label executive says in a skit on The Marshall Mathers LP, “He’s rapping about big-screen TVs, blunts, 40s and bitches. You’re rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin. I can’t sell this shit!”
Like Dylan Clark wrote about the early punks, Eminem’s “anger, pleasures, and ugliness were to go beyond what capitalism and bourgeois society could swallow. It would be untouchable, undesirable, unmanageable… a proclamation and an embrace of discord.”
Slim is most sharply a satire of society’s obsession and valorisation of celebrity. He attacks celebrities to attack the institution of celebrity: after a laundry list of celebrity disses in ‘The Real Slim Shady’, he raps, “I have been sent here to destroy you.” But his most incisive attacks on celebrity are more inward-looking, aimed, if not quite towards himself, then through himself. ‘Role Model’, one of the funniest songs Eminem has ever written, mocks the idea that celebrities should be idolised or imitated: “Follow me and do exactly what the song says / Smoke weed, take pills, drop out of school, kill people.” He describes increasingly violent and absurd situations – throwing your grandmother’s corpse on your porch, beating the shit out of Foghorn Leghorn, cutting himself open with a chainsaw – always juxtaposed with the idea that he is a role model and the listener should admire him:
I get a clean shave, bathe, go to a rave
Die from an overdose and dig myself up out of my grave
My middle finger won’t go down, how do I wave?
And this is how I’m supposed to teach kids how to behave?
Eminem returns again and again to the idea that celebrity is so valorised, fame so treated as synonymous with virtue, that parents abdicate their responsibility in favour of strangers who happen to work in the entertainment industry. A faith in the famous that the OJ Simpson trial should have destroyed instead just became pricklier and more defensive: rather than rejecting the exaltation of celebrities as role models for children and society, we decided famous individuals must live up to the responsibility that we have arbitrarily given them. Perhaps celebrities are not moral titans, but they should be, and anything less is their failure, not ours. The lives of public figures are treated as being for public consumption, and so must conform to public tastes – to have the appearance of authenticity and the attraction of fantasy and the exemplary morals of a saint. This is in spite of how, as Bo Burnham points out in Make Happy, entertainers are in the service industry, they’re just overpaid.
But Slim Shady isn’t just a satire. When I say that Slim isn’t “real”, it implicitly sets up a dichotomy: Slim Shady, a fictional character, and Eminem, a real person. But Slim isn’t a character the way that Colbert Report Stephen Colbert was a character. He doesn’t have that kind of distance. Slim has lived the same life as Marshall Mathers: the same Stephen King childhood – beaten into a coma by his bullies, a pill-addicted mother with Munchausen syndrome by proxy – the same daughters and on-and-off wife, the same successful rap career. He’s not a character, he’s a persona: one of three, each of them both real and unreal. There’s Slim Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers, three persons in one rap god. And each corresponds to one of the three aspects of the human psyche as theorised by Freud: the id, the ego, and the superego.
I do not generally care for psychoanalytical criticism. If you’ve studied English or film or any kind of cultural studies, you’ve probably come across some psychoanalytical theory, but if not, my kneejerk explanation is to say that it’s complete bullshit and boring to boot. I go back and forth on whether I can’t really understand it or it’s actually just nonsense. Even more so than other areas of academia, psychoanalytical theory consists more or less entirely of impenetrable jargon that’s designed to alienate a general readership, and – worse, somehow – endlessly circling arguments about the jargon itself.
“Is the camera eye a reflection of reality or is reality a reflection of the camera eye or is the camera merely a phallus?” a character asks in The Other Side of the Wind, and that’s about as perfect a summary of psychoanalytical cultural criticism as you’ll get.
But at the end of ‘My Name Is’, that perfect introduction to Shady, Eminem raps, “And by the way, when you see my dad? / Tell him that I slit his throat, in this dream I had.” Most of the time when people describe things as Freudian, I don’t see it – because I mean, the Oedipus complex is crazy, and almost no art is legitimately about wanting to murder your father and have sex with your mother, not even Hamlet. Not even Oedipus Rex, really. But Eminem’s first single has him talk about killing his dad in a dream, like a loudspeaker announcement that psychoanalytical theory finally might generate a worthwhile reading of something.
Freud theorised the id as the unknown dark side of the personality, instinctive and irrational, that part of the self that the conscious mind refuses to identify with. It’s “a chaos, a cauldron full of seething excitations”. It is where sexual and aggressive drives live, and it seeks instant gratification of all wants. Jung called it the shadow, and that’s what Slim Shady is. He gives expression to the shadow that shares his name, to the dark unknown self. On the song ‘Guilty Conscience’, Slim is literally the devil on your shoulder.
“Everyone has thoughts that they know are not representative of their personality or character. These intrusive thoughts — of violence, self-harm, the violating of social expectations and rules — are normal in every individual, and are impossible to block out,” Aristo Orginos writes, “The discography of Eminem revels in the embrace of these intrusive thoughts, and in so doing, allows for catharsis in the listener.”
Our society does not regard negative feelings – fear, anger, sadness – well, or even neutrally. The positive thinking movement – which has almost swallowed self-help and popular psychology whole – teaches that negative emotions are “bad” and must be rooted out and destroyed. Barbara Ehrenreich writes about the damaging effects of this in her book Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and The World. After Ehrenreich was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was disturbed by the enforced positivity she encountered, where patients were discouraged from expressing anger or sadness and told a positive attitude was needed to beat cancer. “In the most extreme characterisation,” Ehrenreich writes, “breast cancer is not a problem at all, not even an annoyance – it is a ‘gift’, deserving of the most heartfelt gratitude.” This pressure to be positive acted as a wholly unnecessary additional burden, encouraging the patient to blame themselves if their condition did not improve.
While the cancer example is an extreme circumstance, Ehrenreich finds a similar enforced positivity in corporations, churches and unemployment lines. But here’s the thing: negative feelings are a normal part of everyday life that everyone will experience. Like all feelings, they demand to be felt, nothing more or less. Avoiding or trying to destroy negative feelings can’t make them go away permanently: it ultimately makes them worse, as they inevitably bubble over, but now compounded by feelings of shame and frustration.
Arlie Russell Hochschild explains in The Managed Heart: Commercialisation of Human Feeling that we all engage in some degree of “emotional management” – trying to coach the appropriate emotional reaction in yourself, like tamping down anger against a loved one, or generating feelings of sadness at a funeral, or showing polite friendliness when we meet a new person. We obviously can’t all just express all of our spontaneous emotions on full blast all of the time, or society would collapse. But, according to Hochschild, modern workplaces institutionalise emotional management, and this daily grind alienates the worker from their own feelings. She writes about flight attendants who struggle to come down to a normal emotional state when they go home, their faces frozen in a smile. Emotions’ “signal function”, the information they provide about yourself and your situation, is deadened. There’s a shadow of this in positive thinking: the requirement to have the “right attitude” at all times or be a failure, the institutionalisation of emotional management across every facet of our lives as we watch TED Talks and read self-help books about how anger or sadness aren’t just normal parts of the emotional cycle, they’re toxic, and you must root out and destroy them or it’s your own fault.
This demonisation of negative emotions plays into the moral panics that often develop around teenagers listening to music with dark themes. The story – as peddled by tabloid newspapers about each new generation for decades – goes that music about depression, death and mental illness encourages teenagers to feel sad, angry and self-loathing, or even kill themselves. For me, it was, My Chemical Romance and the emo subculture, accused by major media outlets of glamorising self-harm and encouraging suicide. But the same thing happened with teenage tragedy songs, with goth rock and heavy metal, with Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, and yes, Eminem.
The demonisation of negative emotions positions them as unnatural, and so when confronted with teenagers dealing with those feelings – with that particular intensity with which teenagers feel everything – adult society clutches for an external cause, like the music they listen to. It’s a story that adults tell themselves when they have forgotten what being a teenager feels like. In reality, the music offers solace and catharsis, and becomes popular in the first place precisely because it taps into what’s already going on inside teenagers. “I make fight music / for high school kids,” Eminem raps on ‘Who Knew’, and even though I didn’t listen to Eminem at that age I know exactly what he means: the armour to get through the day intact, headphones blaring and copy books scribbled with lyrics, an exorcism for your demons and a reassurance that it’s okay that you’re fucked up right now and a fantasy of power when you have almost no autonomy.
The ethos of self-care – which has come to rival positive thinking in its domination of online mental health discourse, often in the form of “inspirational” Facebook memes or viral tweets about how you should drink enough water or whatever – seems in a way like an antidote to this vilification of uncomfortable emotions. The rhetoric of self-care is all about how it’s okay to feel your feelings, and you should, like, lie in bed watching Netflix if that’s all you feel like doing. Aisling McCrea sums it up nicely in an excellent article for Current Affairs:
Though the term has a medical tinge to it, the language used in the world of self-care is more aligned with the world of self-help, and much of the advice commonly given in the guise of self-care will be familiar to anyone who has browsed the pop-psychology shelves of a bookstore or listened to the counsel of a kindly coworker—take breaks from work and step outside for fresh air, take walks in the countryside, call a friend for a chat, have a lavender bath, get a good night’s sleep. Light a candle. Stop being so hard on yourself. Take time off if you’re not feeling so well and snuggle under the comforter with a DVD set and a herbal tea.
McCrea criticises self-care’s singular focus on the individual to the neglect of social forces, but there’s something terribly insufficient about self-care even at the level of the individual. Its rhetoric is intensely, suffocatingly passive, slotting into an overwhelmingly traditional kind of femininity – pastels and lavender and baths and candles and herbal tea, and it’s okay if all you want to do today is just stay in bed and watch Netflix. Sadness becomes something soft and delicate; anger and panic become impossibilities. If you, like me, do not experience negative emotions in this soft, passive way, but as something insistent and writhing and painful, if you are not soothed by candles and herbal tea and your own motionlessness, self-care rhetoric has no real advice. It offers, ultimately, less a way to process your feelings than a ritualisation of avoidance.
Emotions are visceral and immediate, so in the immediate term, it is vitally important to find a way to deal with your feelings, not just try to push them away. In the immediate term, it is important to find vehicles for expression and catharsis: to feel the feelings, and release them.
Music is an invaluable source for cathartic release of negative emotions in a way that isn’t destructive or harmful. I don’t know how I would have gotten through my teens without Gerard Way howling “a thousand bodies piled up I never thought would be enough to show you just what I’ve been thinking” in my ear. Finding music that helps you express these feelings allows you to process them in a way constant avoidance makes impossible. And Slim Shady gives expression to the worst feelings you bury the deepest inside.
Eminem says the unsayable. Some of that is as he explains on ‘The Real Slim Shady’:
I’m like a head trip to listen to, ‘cause I’m only givin’ you
Things you joke about with your friends inside your livin’ room
The only difference is I got the balls to say it in front of y’all
And I don’t gotta be false or sugarcoat it at all
And yep, that checks out – I often think of Eminem when I make a particularly dark joke among friends and have an immediate irrational jolt of I’m glad no-one heard that who would use it to get me fired. (It is worth noting that this thought has never been discouraged by unemployment.) Partially it’s a bizarrely narcissistic fear (who would give that much of a shit about what I think?); partially it’s because people just love trying to get people fired now, I guess; partially it’s that, in the age of social media, telecommuting and neoliberalism, the masks we wear professionally are now expected to be worn everywhere, the concept of “free time” retreating in the rear-view mirror. (“There is no ‘off the clock’ when at all hours you could be documenting your on-brand experiences or tweeting your on-brand observations,” Anne Helen Petersen writes for BuzzFeed.) But mostly it’s a way to make concrete a much more generalised, abstract fear: that to present the truest, most authentic version of myself – my sense of humour, my thought processes, my tastes – will invite punishment. A certain degree of contextual self-censorship is obviously normal and fairly necessary: you wouldn’t talk the same way to your grandmother as on Twitter, or to your friends as in a meeting with your boss. But the social media age has fuelled an explosion in ritualised public shaming and with it (for me, at least) a kind of paranoid vigilance. The responsibility to publicly model good morals that was once limited to celebrities is now extended to ordinary people. Everyone is a public figure, and so everyone’s life is for public consumption and must conform to public tastes. It’s the moralising aspect of the online imperative towards curating the self, and I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. It’s misery. It’s prison.
And then there’s Eminem, all wicked grins and middle fingers, declaring “I’d yank my fucking teeth before I’d ever bite my tongue.” It’s exhilarating: recklessly brave, and somehow both hilariously shocking and warmly reassuring. It reminds me of Pink Flamingos and punk rock, of Troma movies and secretly sneaking episodes of South Park and Jackass as a kid. A reminder – one I always seem to need – that just because something’s in bad taste doesn’t mean it tastes bad. I can’t help but admire it.
But Eminem also goes so much further than the thing you joke about with your friends inside your living room. Slim Shady gives expression to the thoughts and feelings you keep buried, that you wouldn’t joke about among friends or even articulate inside your own head: I wanna crush your skull til your brains leaks out of your veins and I lay awake and strap myself in the bed with a bulletproof vest on and shoot myself in the head and bleed, bitch, bleed. Jung wrote about the importance of encountering the shadow – the id – without being submerged into it, to understand it and reincorporate it into the conscious self to produce a stronger, wider consciousness. Listening to Slim provides just such an opportunity.
“Slim Shady is an ironic character, a boogeyman, Satan himself with the spotlight shone on him,” Orginos concludes, “and Eminem makes him dance in front of an audience to show that perhaps not all shadows in the soul are to be feared.”
“I guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us,” Eminem concedes at the end of ‘The Real Slim Shady’, “Fuck it, let’s all stand up.”
If Slim represents the id, Marshall Mathers is the superego. The Marshall Mathers persona is the one that seems the most “real” – less exaggerated and more authentic. He’s less the good to Slim’s evil than the Jekyll to his Hyde: Marshall, too, is frequently angry and cruel, even as he seems more grounded in reality. You’ll find him on ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’, ‘The Way I Am’ or ‘Rock Bottom’: moments of absolute clarity, dealing honestly and seriously with deeply personal problems. Marshall does songs about how much he loves his daughters (where he doesn’t even kill anybody) and his grief over the murder of his best friend, the rapper Proof. Where Slim is Mr. Don’t Give a Fuck, Marshall is sensitive, insecure and sometimes self-flagellating.
Freud’s concept of the superego is that part of the psyche concerned with morality. It includes the person’s ideal image of themselves towards which they aspire, and the conscience, which criticises the id’s drives, fantasies and desires. The superego generates feelings of guilt, shame and weakness, and feels compelled to do what it deems to be right.
Marshall Mathers is this moral impulse, this self-critique, this guilt and shame and weakness, and it’s pretty much core to Eminem’s whole deal.
“What often gets lost about [The Marshall Mathers LP], is that it knows morality. It knows when it’s being bad, of course, but also how to be good,” Dan Weiss writes in his ranking of Eminem’s albums for Billboard, “…[Eminem] is constantly questioning the war between art and life. He never stops fighting for art, but he knows a bit about life, too.”
My favourite example of the Marshall Mathers persona is a song in which he’s a minor character. ‘Stan’ might be the best song Eminem has written, managing to tell its story with levels of immersion and depth where most story-songs just sketch the broad outlines. Stan, from whose point of view most of the song is written, is a character in five minutes of a song who feels as fully formed as the protagonist of a two-hour film. He’s an obsessed, unstable fan writing letters to Eminem. Initially the clues that Stan’s obsession with Eminem is unhealthy are fairly subtle (he writes that he is going to name his daughter Bonnie in tribute, and it is for the listener to register that he’s referencing ‘’97 Bonnie and Clyde’, a song about bringing your child to help dispose of her mother’s body) but as the song goes on and Stan receives no reply, he becomes more desperate, angrier and more unhinged. I think all the time about the end of the second verse:
See everything you say is real, and I respect you ’cause you tell it
My girlfriend’s jealous ’cause I talk about you 24/7
But she don’t know you like I know you Slim, no one does
She don’t know what it was like for people like us growing up
You gotta call me man, I’ll be the biggest fan you’ll ever lose
Sincerely yours, Stan
P.S. We should be together, too
There’s so much character detail worked into these lines. It’s always the point in the song when my throat catches. There’s Stan’s inability to differentiate between Slim Shady and Eminem or recognise Slim as an ironic persona: how the solace he finds in Slim is misguided and wrong, but it’s still the only solace he can get. There’s the uncomfortably familiar pain of connecting so intensely and personally to a piece of art that you imagine that you have a special insight into it and its creator that no-one else could understand: like Alfie Coates wrote about The Squid and The Whale, “we’ve all believed in art so utterly it felt like it could only be yours, because we’ve all been… alone and heard the song that only you – only you – can understand, can have, can own.” How Stan is both furious with Eminem and still desperately clinging to him, to the fantasy of him; how he is still trapped in the working-class poverty that rap allowed Eminem to escape; how he mistreats his girlfriend as his obsession with Eminem consumes everything in its path. There’s the jagged nuances of his sexuality: it’s easy to chalk “we should be together too” up to Eminem’s alleged homophobia – oh, wow, creepy gay guys sure are scary! – but there’s something so much more specific and tragic and odd there. For my part, I think Stan, like Christian Slater’s character in True Romance, “ain’t no f*g,” but he’d fuck Eminem.
Stan’s story culminates in tying his pregnant girlfriend up and locking her in the boot of his car. He gets drunk and takes downers, then drives off a bridge, killing them both. Eminem’s delivery is extraordinary: how he manages to depict the powerful, unvarnished horror of it without ever letting Stan become a bogeyman. Even as Stan claims to be rejecting Eminem (“See, I ain’t like you”), he sounds more desperate than ever for Eminem to love him back. The chorus – sampled from a verse of Dido’s ‘Thank You’ – loops again, and it might be my favourite sample anywhere ever, my go-to defense of sampling as an art: how what is, in Dido’s original, a fairly bland love song, becomes something so deeply unsettling, even haunting.
Then there’s the last verse: it’s Eminem belatedly writing back to Stan, and it’s pure Marshall Mathers. In the music video, Eminem wears his glasses for the last verse, a visual signifier differentiating Marshall from Slim Shady. But just listening to the song itself, the difference is crystal clear. He responds to Stan’s queries, even ones that were described in disconcerting terms, and the dramatic irony – that we know that Stan has killed himself and his girlfriend, but the character of Eminem in the song doesn’t – makes the sheer politeness of it heart-breaking:
You said your girlfriend’s pregnant now, how far along is she?
Look, I’m really flattered you would call your daughter that
And here’s an autograph for your brother,
I wrote it on a starter cap
A sincere concern for Stan’s wellbeing wrestles with an anxiety about Eminem’s responsibility. It’s something that comes up frequently through the Marshall Mathers persona: a reflection of the moral and social implications of Slim Shady, and how listeners – particularly young listeners – relate to him. Stan references two separate songs from Eminem’s previous album, The Slim Shady LP, to describe his in-progress murder/suicide: ‘My Name Is’, when he says “I just drank a fifth of vodka / Dare me to drive?”, and ‘’97 Bonnie and Clyde’, as his girlfriend is locked inside his car boot. For Marshall, Slim’s a form of therapy – even a form of exorcism – but he has no control over how fans react, whether it be the stark, misguided literalism of Stan or something more subtly insidious, like laughing for the wrong reasons, what Sarah Silverman once called the “mouthful of blood laugh.”
A big part of the superego’s job is to criticise the id, and so the last verse of ‘Stan’ is both pure Marshall Mathers and in large part a criticism of Slim Shady – or, at the very least, a refutation of Slim Shady, a lesson in how to read him and a warning against doing it wrong. Marshall offers genuinely decent mental health advice:
You got some issues, Stan, I think you need some counselling
To help your ass from bouncing off the walls when you get down some
and in particular opposition to the Slim Shady persona, tells him to stop treating his girlfriend like shit:
I really think you and your girlfriend need each other
Or maybe you just need to treat her better
But underneath the whole verse is an intractable guilt, suffocating in the knowledge that the warning will never be enough, that the pain of making art is having no control over how people respond to it once it’s out in the world and having to live with – and shoulder the responsibility for – whatever that response may be. At the very end, Marshall realises what the listener already knows, and it’s fucking harrowing:
I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit
I seen this one shit on the news a couple weeks ago that made me sick
Some dude was drunk and drove his car over a bridge
And had his girlfriend in the trunk, and she was pregnant with his kid
And in the car they found a tape, but they didn’t say who it was to
Come to think about it, his name was… it was you.
The final part of the psyche as theorised by Freud is the ego, concerned with judgement, control, planning, defense, and intellectual functioning. The ego mediates between the id and the superego, trying to satisfy both the id’s desires and the superego’s ethics even as it reconciles them with reality and its concern for its own safety. “It serves three severe masters,” Freud writes, “the external world, the superego and the id.” And that’s Eminem, the persona that shares Em’s stage name: the thinking self pulled between Slim’s drives and Marshall’s guilt, trying to figure out how to explain himself to the world.
A lot of what the Eminem persona does is bragging, mostly about how good he is at rapping. “People steppin’ over people just to rush to the set / Just to get to see an MC who breathes so freely / Ease over these beats and be so breezy / Jesus, how can shit be so easy?” he raps on ‘Business’, in what Dan Weiss calls a showcase for his “purely original Mobius strip of a flow”. There’s ‘Rap God’, where he calls himself a rap god, then raps 101 words in less than 17 seconds to prove it.
But the Eminem persona is also the one who wades into politics: the judging intellectual self, channelling his rage towards justice. On ‘Square Dance’, he warns his teenage fans to take George Bush’s warmongering seriously, because they’ll be the ones shipped off to die:
Yeah you laugh ’til your motherfuckin’ ass gets drafted
While you’re at band camp thinkin’ that crap can’t happen…
You just a baby, gettin’ recruited at eighteen
You’re on a plane now
Eating their food and their baked beans
I’m 28, they gonna take you ‘fore they take me
I always have to remind myself that this was released in May 2002, after the invasion of Afghanistan but before the invasion of Iraq: how Eminem’s stance here was both bolder than it might seem today – the Afghanistan War was broadly popular, supported by as much as eighty-eight percent of Americans in October 2001 – and uncomfortably prescient.
Then there’s ‘White America’, Eminem’s best primarily political track. Despite minor efforts to crudely reinterpret it for This Age of Trump – largely based on the title alone – its commentary on race, art and freedom of expression remain as relevant as ever even as they seem like a crystallisation of the early years of the Bush administration. ‘White America’ resolves the contradiction at the heart of Eminem’s career – how he could be both ubiquitous and dangerous – by attributing both to his whiteness within a white supremacist society. That he became so incredibly popular thanks in no small part to being white is obvious – “let’s do the math / if I were black, I would have sold half” – but he also attributes the hostility and censorship he faced to his whiteness. He seems so dangerous precisely because he’s not “other” in the way that black gangsta rappers were: “White America / I could be one of your kids,” he bellows in the hook, and everything suddenly clicks. When the moralisers complained about misogyny and violence in gangsta rap, it was easy to, implicitly or explicitly, fence young black artists off as an aberration from American culture, threatening to corrupt the innocent (and implicitly or explicitly) white children. But Eminem is white, and that makes him terrifying, almost uncanny. He’s less an external corruptor than a revelation of what was there all along, just beneath the skin. He declares himself “the posterchild / the motherfucking spokesman now / for white America”, and he’s absolutely right.
But mostly, it’s a searing argument for free speech, forcing free speech to the centre of the debate when censors hid behind protecting the children or whatever. It’s about how America’s supposed values – free speech chief among them – are beautiful and important, but they will always be tossed to the side while its true values, like racism, always endure. Although Eminem mentions activists, the finger is pointed most firmly at the government and America’s white suburban middle class. At the end of the song, he shouts “FUCK YOU, MISS CHENEY! FUCK YOU, TIPPER GORE!” at the top of his lungs, “FUCK YOU WITH THE FREEST OF SPEECH THIS DIVIDED STATES OF EMBARRASSMENT WILL ALLOW ME TO HAVE. FUCK YOU!”
Where Slim Shady frequently wracks the Marshall Mathers persona with guilt, the Eminem persona will always stick up for Shady, attempting to explain him to a world eager to misinterpret and mischaracterise. ‘I’m Shady’ starts off as a typical Slim Shady song – “I try to keep it positive and play it cool / shoot up the playground and tell the kids to stay in school” – but partway through the last verse he switches personas:
Well, I do take pills, don’t do speed
Don’t do crack, don’t do coke, I do smoke weed
Don’t do smack, I do do ‘shrooms, I do drink beer
I just wanna make a few things clear
My baby mama’s not dead, she’s still alive and bitching
And I don’t have herpes, my dick’s just itching
Where the Marshall Mathers persona talks about misunderstandings of Shady like they’re painful and shame-inducing, for the Eminem persona, it’s an opportunity to laugh at the squares who don’t get the joke. And I mean, I love ‘Stan’ and ‘Bad Guy’, but songs like ‘I’m Shady’ are their comic inverse: because sometimes “my baby mama’s not dead, she’s still alive and bitching / and I don’t have herpes, my dick’s just itching” says all that needs to be said, and then it sticks its tongue out and tells you to fuck off.
He pulls the same trick on ‘My Dad’s Gone Crazy’ – switching from chainsawing his balls off to explaining himself sincerely – but his defense of Slim Shady in the final verse is more full-throated, embattled by years of hostility and censorship:
‘Cause when I speak, it’s tongue in cheek
I’d yank my fucking teeth before I’d ever bite my tongue
I’d slice my gums, get struck by fuckin’ lightning twice at once
And die and come back as Vanilla Ice’s son…
And that’s pretty much the gist of it
Parents are pissed, but the kids love it
Nine-millimetre heater stashed in two-seaters with meat cleavers
I don’t blame you, I wouldn’t let Hailie listen to me neither
It’s a justification of himself and of Slim Shady, but also of all art, and the rights of artists. It’s political advocacy and a moral crusade. The Eminem persona is pulled between Slim Shady’s id, Marshall Mathers’s superego and the external world. And where they intersect it finds the most important work Eminem’s ego – the judging, thinking self – can do: to scream at the top of his lungs that he and everyone else has a right to say whatever they want, when that right is constantly, constantly under siege.