The Eminem Sideshow — 1791
To those paying attention, the domains of art and politics are frequently colliding. It is becoming harder, not easier, to divorce art from political whims. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is the case; the creative trends of the time as well as its political disruptions both reflect the cultural mood of the masses — or at least, in the case of creative expression, it should. This was certainly the case during the Vietnam era, where such songs as Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth and Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A Changin’ channeled the anti-war angst of a generation. But when artists adopt these movements only as a token piece within their work, it is rightfully seen as forced and corny. When the artist can no longer capture those feelings and visceral frustrations, they are inevitably seen as out of touch. A sense of inauthenticity and cultural ignorance replaces whatever brand value they once carried. This is as true of artists as it is of politicians, be they Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton who were both dogged by this perception of cringey and superficial sloganeers, despite being worlds apart politically. It strikes harshly against the backdrop of Trump’s brashness, whose biggest supporters describe his appeal as “telling it like it is.” By and large, both voters and fans can detect when politicos and artists are merely jockeying for what they think they want, rather than coming from a place of authenticity. It certainly can’t disguise their lack of personal appeal, no matter the validity of their message.
One of the most illustrative examples of this phenomenon was delivered by Eminem’s dud of a cypher at the BETs where he thought he was making some sort of explosive statement about President Trump who, for better or worse, is actually a socially controversial figure. The response wasn’t the fawning praise he might have expected, and it certainly didn’t mask his lack of musical strength. His verses rung hollow, weak both in terms of their effort and their content. Who can forget “Racism is the only thing he’s Fantastic Four, ’cause that’s how he gets his rocks off… and he’s orange!” (1:33–1:41). Even among Resistance true-believers, the sheer lack of novelty or pioneering was obvious, no matter how many of them were honest enough to admit it. It was a fitting prelude to the album the rapper would follow up with, which of course, had to as well take aim at a Drumpf — this time Ivanka, who he tells us in his trunk — a proper dud of a dunk.
Eminem certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on trading musical quality for grand moral and political statements, but his embarrassing attempt offers us a solid case study. What this story of a once celebrated pioneer of the hip-hop genre goes beyond rap itself, and tells a tale about the role of music and art during times of such broadly felt social anxiety and division. It is a story about an artist who conveyed the mood of an anxious generation increasingly skeptical of the powers that be during his rise in the 2000s, which marked a rebellion against religiously-driven restrictions on speech and expression. In large part thanks to Eminem’s aggressively inflammatory campaign that power has been erased. Today that impulse for control and regulation of speech is replaced by the left’s extreme protection of the security of identity. Where the religious right sought to stave off sinful thoughts and temptations, a different anxiety motivates the secular left. That anxiety revolves around the fear that words are going to damage a given group’s self-esteem. In a way that mirrored the evangelical right, their thinking assumes that people cannot safely consume entertainment or ideas without their nurturing motherhood.
This experience stretches across a host of domains within entertainment — a realization that was by comedian Sam Hyde and music critic Anthony Fantano. Now that we’ve moved beyond the era of evangelical thought policing, to dunk on Mike Pence isn’t to make a statement at all — or at least not one that drives the conversation anywhere that isn’t already being repeated by rappers, actors and comedians galore. Just the act of calling Tyler, The Creator a “faggot” as Eminem did in his track “Fall” kamikazes the listener into the middle of our ongoing debate about acceptable speech. Where otherwise they might not have been all too thoughtful on this score, it inspires the contemplation of what is ok to say in the context of artistic expression.
As the anger against the Christian establishment that motivated Eminem fades, his righteous revolt against Trump simply made him more of a conformist. Eminem lost his place as an effective channeler of that mood when he sought more to comfort than confront and challenge. In an identically crude and guttural way, Donald Trump and Milo Yiannopoulos in 2016 successfully ridiculed and thrust into doubt the new cultural establishment. This isn’t to say that controversy is an inherently correct pursuit, but it is to say that if you want to be non-cringe within rap, entertainment, and the culture in general, you strive to push boundaries — not allow them to shape you.
Though some would like to waive this cultural blip away as just silly rap talk, the significance of the controversy surrounding Eminem’s track goes well beyond rap itself and functions as a window into a culture pushing and pulling on what people are allowed to see and read. For instance, Chuck Palahniuk, one of the most prominent authors within transgressive literature and more widely known for his work Fight Club, relates his own experience with the secular left’s censorship of words or themes that evoke uncomfortable feelings. Palahniuk is the author as well of a lesser-known book, Haunted, which entails the short story Guts — about a series of internal organ damage caused by masturbation. Suffice to say, this is another creator who revels in causing discomfort, typically about things less comfortable than homophobic slurs. To boot, he’s a homosexual himself with a husband.
Some artists make it their mission to take their readers or, yes, listeners to forbidden places. In confronting those shadowy elements of our psyche, there is insight and strength to be found. Sometimes, though, it can simply be misguided. But it’s better to find that out than to let angry hordes prevent us from doing so, forever blocking off its potential for growth.