Eminem, Free-Speech Lefty

(Click on song titles to hear audio clips.)

“You think I give a damn about a Grammy?” scoffs bad-boy rapper Eminem in ”1-The Real Slim Shady - Audio,” from his second album, The Marshall Mathers LP, which has sold more than 7 million copies. But the Grammys certainly give a damn about Eminem—earlier this month his CD was nominated for four of them, including Album of the Year.

The nominations, apparently intended to offset the Grammys’ longstanding reputation for blandness and irrelevance, set off predictable cries of outrage from liberal activists. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation called the nominations “a high-profile platform for Eminem’s messages of violence” and said Eminem’s music “represents some of the worst in defamation.” And GLAAD’s not alone: The phone system of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which hands out the awards, was overwhelmed with protests after the nominations were announced, and one Grammy voter informed the Los Angeles Times that he “hung my head in shame.” These protests followed last year’s denunciations of Eminem in U.S. Senate hearings and an unsuccessful attempt by Ontario’s attorney general to ban the rapper from Canada on the grounds that his recordings qualify as “hate propaganda” under Canadian law. But here’s what the liberal protesters don’t get: Eminem is their prodigal son, a free-speech advocate who knows the First Amendment as well as other working-class renegades know the Second.

There’s no denying his shock value. On The Marshall Mathers LP and its predecessor, The Slim Shady LP, Eminem fantasizes about killing his father and raping his mother. He’s recorded not one but two reveries in which he coos at the only worthy female in his universe—his toddler daughter, Hailie—while pondering the murder of her mother. (“2-Kim - Audio“ is one example.) Such tracks as “Kill You” toss off anti-gay epithets, frequently aimed at heterosexual rivals like the members of boy band ‘N Sync or Insane Clown Posse, another Detroit-area suburban white-boy rap act. (As if the worst thing you could do to a straight man is call him gay.)

But Eminem doesn’t just deliver hateful, homicidal rants. He perversely turns the left’s free-speech absolutism against itself. Each of his albums opens with a “Public Service Announcement” that offers a disclaimer (“3-PSA 2000 - Audio” is a particularly explicit one) while mocking the very idea of disclaimers—“children should not partake in the listening of this album with laces in their shoes”—and both discs include defenses of his outrageousness in terms any ACLU member can understand. “How much damage can you do with a pen?” he asks, implicitly identifying with banned-books heavyweights like D.H. Lawrence and William Burroughs.

He also knows how to separate himself from what he says. Eminem alternately plays the parts of Marshall Mathers (his given name) and the aliases Eminem and Slim Shady, distancing himself from his violent alter egos and dismissing anyone who would imitate them: “I tie a rope around my penis and jump from a tree,” he jeers. “You probably want to grow up to be just like me.” Without the colorful imagery, Eminem’s stance is: “I just said it/ I ain’t know if you’d do it or not.”

Norman Mailer might recognize Eminem as the latest incarnation of the white Negro. But where Mailer’s ‘50s white hipsters identified with the suffering and alienation of African-Americans as a way to break free from middle-class conformity, Eminem raps about his tortured life. He portrays himself as society’s battered child, the product of a broken home and trashed schools. In one of his schoolyard plaints, he recalls being pummeled by a bully in the bathroom when “the principal walked in and started helping him stomp me.”

And as skillfully as Eminem plays the victim, he has no interest in making common cause with fellow outcasts. He’s more like Matt Drudge, taking the freedoms won by ‘50s and ‘60s radicals and using them to razz the contemporary left. Rather than speak truth to power, he’d rather just talk dirty. He may not truly believe in getting away with murder, but he does extol the pleasures of soft drugs and free (heterosexual) sex. When he assails Bill Clinton’s extracurricular sex life, it’s only to deflect attention from his own misdemeanors.

Like Clinton, Eminem hypocritically extols family values that his own behavior doesn’t exemplify. Still, he’s looking out for Hailie and expects other dads to do the same for their kids: In ”4-Who Knew - Audio” he says, “Don’t blame me if little Eric jumps off of the terrace/ You shoulda been watching him/ Apparently you ain’t parents.” In “5-Stan - Audio,” Eminem even expands his paternal obligation to include a troubled fan—although the rapper’s sense of drama requires that the song’s homily come only after Stan has already killed himself. 

“There’s millions of us just like me,” Eminem boasts, but his free-speech movement is a one-man operation. All he really cares about is what he can get away with. The rapper would never use the sanctimonious language of Grammy president Michael Greene, who defended The Marshall Mathers LP as a reflection of the “artist’s responsibility sometimes to throw [unpleasantness] in our face.” Eminem doesn’t know, or care, about the artist’s responsibility. But he does know his rights.