Mosh or Die

Eminem drops his shady act.

Eminem sees red

In 2002, when Eminem declared on The Eminem Show that he was “back/ with a plan to ambush this Bush Administration,” most critics decided the rapper was suffering from delusions of grandeur. The political references on The Eminem Show were dismissed as tone-deaf ego-centricism: Who did this punk think he was? Even longtime supporters were disgusted by the comparisons the rapper drew to Islamic terrorists (“There ain’t no plane I can’t learn to fly”). If Em and his alternate personas Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers were undeniably brilliant—the id, ego, and superego of a 1990s tabloid culture grown fat with cash—they were just as undeniably ill-suited to the gravity of life post-9/11, where bouts of self-righteous paranoia seemed woefully out of place.

Two years later, the tables have turned. Eminem is once again back with a plan to ambush the Bush administration—in the form of “Mosh,” a new video for a single to his forthcoming album Encore—and this time everyone is taking him seriously. (Even Moby, whom Eminem gratuitously attacked on The Eminem Show, has posted a link on his Web site, enjoining fans to watch the video.) And they should: The video is a brilliant piece of agitprop. Of course, it’s also slyly designed to needle the very liberals who love it so much.

Eminem has long been one of the best musical storytellers around, with a knack for turning his own life into the stuff of enduring caricature. “Mosh”—which is, in fact, animated—puts this talent to good use, capitalizing in part on the fact that reality seems like caricature to so many anti-Bush folks these days. “Mosh” is a pointed assault of the Bush administration and its disastrous handling of the Iraq war; it opens with a plane striking a building off-screen and concludes with a horde of disenfranchised citizens and soldiers, dressed in black hoodies with their faces masked, storming courthouse steps in order to vote. (Most versions end with the words “Vote. November 2nd.”) Done in stark black-and-white tones—leavened occasionally by the muted blues and reds of a presidential power suit—”Mosh” takes aim at the Bush administration’s tax cuts (and the widening gap between the rich and the poor); its self-serving appropriation of the heroic sacrifices made by young soldiers; and, most of all, the “psychological warfare” it has waged on those who “beg to differ” (hoping “to trick us into thinking that we ain’t loyal/ if we don’t serve our country”). Hence its warm embrace by lefty types everywhere.

Never mind that its critiques aren’t very sophisticated, or that “Mosh” has little of the knowing complexity of, say, Barry Shear’s troubling 1968 Wild in the Streets (about a young rock star who becomes president after mobilizing the youth vote). It effectively capitalizes on Eminem’s capacity to convert sustained anger (the political M.O. of the moment) into the grandeur of the charged-up underdog. “Mosh” ends with a stern call to both “Mr. President” and the “Senator” to stand up and see what stands before them: a horde of angry urban youth and minorities who have discovered, for the first time—in Eminem’s view of things—their full power. It’s terrifically moving, even if you know similar calls-to-arms have been made in the past, and with limited success. What makes “Mosh” interesting is that we’re watching an artist whose hatred of sincerity was central to his conception of himself find a way to be sincere. The result is more convincing than anything his peers have come up with: In a year when plenty of hip-hop artists and pop acts—Jadakiss and Green Day, among others—have thrown their cards on the table, “Mosh” is the ace in the hole.

What Eminem has figured out since The Eminem Show is that resolve might be a satisfying alternative to antic playfulness and impulsive anger—if he could dramatize it. He has. Musically, “Mosh” derives its power from the contrast between Eminem’s voice, which is calm, steady, and sober, and the repeated sound of what some disappointed fans are calling “leaden synths” and martial, plodding drums. The juxtaposition is striking. The beats are syncopated so that every breath is clearly heard, Eminem packs each line with stresses (“Let me be the voice in your strength and your choice“), ratcheting up the tension.

The video for “Mosh,” produced by Ian Inaba * of Guerrilla News Network, is much more effective because it adds visual dissonance. It combines animation and live action to disconcerting effect, moving from bombed-out ghettoes to stylized faces with large, imploring eyes. (GNN also produced the video to “White America,” which was never aired on MTV.) Planes fly menacingly overhead, we cut to Eminem as a Bush stand-in reading an upside down book about a pet goat. (One wonders if Eminem knows the similar image that went around the Internet for a while was doctored.) The police harass a black man (hip-hop artist Lloyd Banks); a single mother is evicted from her home; a soldier is redeployed. All of this is powerful but fairly easy to swallow; more complicated—and more interesting—are images in which a loner Eminem stands before a terrifying wall of anti-Bush newspaper clippings and scribblings worthy of the kookiest conspiracy theorist; or the figure of Private Kelly, whose fury divides him even from the voters transfigured by Eminem’s battle cry. As figure after figure silently joins Eminem’s determined march on Washington, “Mosh” coyly plays against the viewer’s sense of wishfulness—perhaps things really will change—by amping up the menace. The central conceit—an army of Eminem-inspired voters “moshes” to freedom—is not meant to be merely reassuring, in the same way that P. Diddy’s “Vote or Die” campaign is not simply a noble call to civic duty.

Indeed, what’s most remarkable about “Mosh” has little to do with partisan politics. Eminem is hardly carrying water for Kerry and the Democrats; the mode is noirish, fascistic, overtly menacing and antiauthoritarian. Em’s native mode is debunking the status quo, not building a new one up, and in “Mosh” he’s plainly taken measure of the fact that his video will be watched by upper-middle-class liberals thrilled by the PR value here: Even the pop culture hero who found nothing sacred—the savage from the urban jungle—is outraged by Bush. And so the image of an army of youth marching down the street is meant to make you feel, momentarily, that the peace between the classes is a precarious one, and that violence is the recourse—and the idiom—of those who feel themselves to be terminally disenfranchised. (It also wants to catch you out about this very assumption.) As the historian Juan Cole pointed out on his blog earlier this week, the “rebel Yell” with which Eminem assaults the administration is meant to “cannily turn the Republicans’ southern strategy against them, calling for a revolt against Bush policies by the guys Howard Dean referred to as having Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.” But surely it’s also a way in which Eminem is pointedly distancing himself from the platitudes of the left: He assumes that young urban minorities live somewhere beyond the red state/blue state divide.

Nor is “Mosh” free of self-recrimination: Like Michael Moore, Eminem wants to use art—specifically, the power of hip-hop triumphalism—as an inclusive and motivating force. But where Moore turns his lens on urban black youth in Fahrenheit 9/11 in order to squeal at their victimization, Eminem reminds them that he and they are “responsible/ for this monster, this coward/ That we have empowered.” Eminem is 32, but, as he told Rolling Stone, he registered to vote for the first time this year.

What’s interesting is that Eminem’s earnest work (see “Lose Yourself,” too) probably couldn’t exist if his scabrous, foul-mouthed persona didn’t. Many have wondered why the “Mosh” video was released just days before the election, rendering its “mosh or die” message less useful, since voter registration already ended. It may be that the video simply wasn’t ready—in September, Eminem said he would be working until the album was out. Or it may be that Eminem likes defeating our expectations. He chose to release a very different single from Encore, “Just Lose It,”earlier this month, to the befuddlement of some viewers. “Just Lose It” takes aim at dance music, shamelessly ripping into Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and Madonna. While funny, the whole thing feels slightly stale. All in all, it seemed a peculiar way to kick off the advance publicity for Encore. Unless it proved to be a feint, setting the stage for something totally different to come. As it was, it now seems. Trust Eminem to be sneaky about being earnest.

Correction, Nov. 1, 2004: An earlier version of this piece misspelled the producer’s name. It’s Ian Inaba, not Ian Inuba, as was originally stated. Return to the corrected sentence.