Patching the Zeitgeist

It all started with George Lucas.

The man who once wrote that “people who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians” released the Special Editions of the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS in 1997, using new digital technologies to alter these works of art with bafflingly hideous changes like making Han Solo’s neck jerk awkwardly to dodge a clumsily-inserted blaster shot from Greedo. He altered them again for the 2004 DVD release, the 2011 Blu-Ray release and the 2019 4K release on Disney+, in which Greedo now says “Maclunkey” as he shoots. (Lucas apparently made that change before selling the copyright to Disney.) Obviously, directors had been releasing new cuts of their movies for some time when Lucas decided that, actually, being a profiteering, power-hungry barbarian sounded pretty good, but no one else in the era of home media had ever decided to make the original cuts totally unavailable by legal means and keep them that way seemingly forever. (The original trilogy will enter the public domain at some point, assuming we don’t turn the planet into a charred lifeless husk, but that won’t be for another seventy-something years at minimum.)

In the years since, few others have made the original versions of popular works of art unavailable in quite so calculated and malicious a manner. But in a world where art is increasingly available only in digital formats – and especially one where such art is increasingly stored on faraway servers and streamed to our computers rather than stored on them – the ability of copyright holders to alter or destroy works of art has grown exponentially. There’s Kanye West repeatedly “updating” his 2017 album The Life of Pablo on streaming services after release and Netflix letting Mitch Hurwitz recut the Rashomon-like fourth season of Arrested Development into a chronological order with shorter episodes (the original cut is still available on Netflix, but buried with the trailers). It’s not necessarily a power they frequently flex in obvious ways, at least outside the video game industry. But it’s still a power they have, and it should worry us.

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God Sent Me To Piss The World Off – Masterpost

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off is a four-part series about Eminem. Links to all parts are below. You can also download the whole thing as a PDF.

Part 1 – I’m just relaying what the voice in my head’s saying. Don’t shoot the messenger.

There’s Slim Shady, Eminem, and Marshall Mathers, three persons in one rap god. 

Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?

Eminem’s early music feels like a vital window into this radically different free speech debate of the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Part 3 – Though I’m not the first king of controversy, I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley.

Nobody embodies the white rapper in popular imagination quite like Eminem.

Part 4 – I’m a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly.

Watched in the context of his discography, 8 Mile feels less like a film about Eminem, the person, than about the environment that birthed him, that permeates his music.

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 2

This is the second part of God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, a four-part series about Eminem. Find the masterpost here.


Part 2 – How many records you expecting to sell after your second LP sends you directly to jail?

Discourse around freedom of speech is so terrible that it’s difficult to read the words “free speech” without rolling your eyes. Free speech is a joke: at best it’s an embarrassing forum post by a guy who is absolutely furious that the moderator keeps deleting his My Little Pony memes, at worst it’s a far-right dogwhistle. As outlined by William Davies, the right has diligently spent the last few years manufacturing a “crisis” in free speech that is supposedly infecting everywhere from college campuses to major media outlets. This tactic began in the United States, where freedom of speech is more of a hot button issue in general, and – if cable news is to be believed – college-aged liberal activists have a more developed apparatus for no-platforming speakers or demanding trigger warnings for assigned reading. (I am generally sceptical of the truth of this, because I was immersed in liberal-left university circles here in Ireland for several years at the height of this whole thing and never once encountered a “safe space”, even as middle-aged media personalities went on the radio to complain about safe spaces. I would not be in the least surprised if there are plenty of Americans for whom the same is true.)

Most of the stuff this debate is about is either not censorship or not even really happening, at least at any scale. It is not censorship that some college kids don’t find your gay jokes very funny or that someone put “trigger warning: rape” on their blog post or that The Guardian publishes an article disagreeing with your argument. The fakeness of this whole debate is something everyone left-of-centre is intensely aware of: there might be good-faith arguments to be had about the legitimacy of, say, no-platforming, but free speech warriors – from Fox News hosts down to the lowliest Twitter troll – are not approaching the issue in good faith. When they talk about threats to their free speech, they usually mean threats to the legitimacy of their authority. They say, “why am I not permitted to speak?” because “why are people disagreeing with me? I’m right!” would give too much of the game away.

But this has created a problem on the left. Not that the left “hates free speech”, as the right claims, but in liberals and leftists allowing the right to define the parameters of the debate. The right has made such a habit of calling the dumbest shit censorship – where most of the supposedly silenced end up regularly appearing on Question Time – that the left-of-centre has defensively embraced a minimalist approach to free speech.

Continue reading “God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 2”

God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 1

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.

Continue reading “God Sent Me To Piss The World Off, Part 1”