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On Eminem as an Essayist

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I want to say that I am talking and thinking and writing about Eminem lately because he’s released another album, and it’s blowing my fucking mind, but that isn’t it. As far as I know, Eminem is not recording a thing, and instead is painting his daughter’s toenails in a lawn chair somewhere outside of Detroit, sipping a mint julep as a hose snakes and slams across a well-manicured lawn. There are fountains there. There are guards and cameras and Porsches, probably.

But here I am writing and listening and channeling Eminem regardless from my one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the Midwest. Outside, the tornado siren is wailing, because it is the first Wednesday of the month, and inside, I am preparing this afternoon’s lesson plan and finalizing edits on my thesis dissertation. I will be a Master in four weeks, and I will frame this degree in something gold and beveled as a way to show that yes, I am proud of all I have accomplished. Look at my many achievements. Look at my long list of publications. Look at my awards and honors—not one but three honorable mentions.

And yet despite all of these things I tell myself when I have to—You are highly educated and cultured and reasonable and affable and you will find a job—it is Eminem I come back to, time and time again. He is what I covet in the deepest depths of my desperation. I turn my eyes up at the man who lives next door, the undergraduate in Ed Hardy T-shirts who engages constantly in demoralizing and degrading conversations with his girlfriend in the middle of our street in the wee hours of the night, or the stark brightness of daylight, yelling, “Bitch,” saying, “You’re such a fucking slut, Lorelei.” On some nights I have even thrown open my window, shouted back, called the police, screamed to his girlfriend, to sweet, sweet Lorelei, that she is smarter than this. And it is her job now to leave.

And yet I have never felt bothered by Eminem. He, writer of blatantly homophobic and sexist and needlessly violent lyrics, is untouchable. I am a woman, and I am a teacher, and I have spent months leading an after-school writing workshop that promotes creative expression in the community’s disadvantaged youth, and yet I adore Eminem. I channel his power. I do not think, nor have I ever, that I am uncivilized or uneducated or even capable of turning a blind eye to something that is blatantly wrong, and yet I am unapologetic about my feelings here.

I know everything you argue about him. I just really, also, like his music.

There was a time when I thought I might outgrow him. I was thirteen, or I was fourteen, and I assumed it wouldn’t take long until I no longer felt him. I was raised in an affluent neighborhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia by hard-working people, the daughter of a chemist and a French teacher, and from an early age, I was taught table etiquette and polite body language and the most pertinent and adorable French phrases.

“Bonne nuit,” my mother said each night. “Fais des beaux rêves.”

By eight I knew where to place the knife, and the fork, and the spoon when setting a table. I’d seen Paris. I’d seen Rome. I drank hot cocoa from a train car beneath the English Channel and I could fold napkins like nobody’s business.

“Like this,” I’d say to friends, folding old dishtowels my mother donated to our basement’s playroom.

And yet the first album I purchased was the Marshall Mathers LP, one where violence and degradation run rampant. “My words,” he raps, “are like a dagger with a jagged edge / that’ll stab you in the head / whether you’re a fag or lez / a homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest / pants or dress, hate fags? The answer’s “yes.”” I bought the album at Wal-Mart, and it was the corporation’s policy then to censor anything explicit, and so I tucked the disc in my pocket and walked all the way across town to my friend Mike’s house, swapping my version with his unedited copy while he peed or, more likely, masturbated in his bathroom. When finally he came out, I let Mike touch my thigh as we watched an old X Files, and then I called my brother and had him pick me up. I didn’t even like Mike. I just wanted to hear Em’s words out loud.

 

There was something about Eminem’s ability to rap I found mesmerizing, even before I knew lyrics could have a musical quality all their own. I was an adolescent just beginning to write poetry and read books for pleasure, but nothing felt as good as listening to Eminem in the privacy of my bedroom. Where I could hit the rewind button, again and again and again, listen carefully to each line and think about how it was formed.

My parents have a long history of trusting my decisions, and so my mother never took my Eminem album or cracked it in half or melted it on our driveway, like others mom I came to know. It was her belief, I think, that I would someday grow out of this phase, that it was one of many small rebellions I would go through—later dying my hair with Kool-Aid in the bathtub and insisting I didn’t eat anything with a face—and soon, someday soon, I would come to the realization that Eminem was nothing more than a disrespectful, uneducated, arrogant young man. He was detestable. And maybe my mother thought it would be better for all of us to get him out of my system now, through transference, rather than later in life through marriage.

But now I find myself wondering if my mother recognized then what I did all those years ago. If the reason my mother never slid pennies across that album’s glittering surface was because she knew, too, that Eminem was smart and capable and worked incredibly hard, that he fought for every song he produced and wrote, and that he had managed to access what was otherwise inaccessible, and maybe there was a lesson there.

The industry told him no, and so he rapped a very loud and capable, “Yes.”

It would be easy to build to even loftier notions of why my mother never confiscated that album, but the point is: she didn’t. She let me listen to Eminem. She let me blast him from my stereo and listen to his music through headphones as I ate the sliced apples she arranged delicately on a plate with cheese. She let me buy not one but two Eminem hoodies, and while I was never allowed to wear them to school—“Just think of what your teachers will think,”—I was allowed to wear them whenever I wanted in the privacy of our home, the one she kept clean and neat and nicely scented like pine.

And now I am twenty-five, an undergraduate instructor who teaches ways of interpreting anthologized short stories, essays, poems and plays. I tell my students, “Think about the intent, here.” I say, “What is the author really expressing?”

At night, in my dismal one-bedroom apartment, I work feverishly on what I hope will someday be my first book. And in my moments of despair—when I realize that not one of my thirty-four job applications has resulted in the possibility of promise—I turn to Eminem. I play “Not Afraid.” I play “Like Toy Soldiers.” I put on black and yellow spandex and work out in the student gym, beside my students, beside past students, and I sweat to “Renegade.”

Nothing has changed and, as far as I can tell, nothing will ever change about the way I feel for Eminem. He is brilliant. He is bold. His lyrics are in direct conflict of everything I think and feel and believe about society and the world we find ourselves in, but as an artist—as a writer and thinker—I can’t help but admire his persistence to pursue an identity outside of himself. To so create a character shaped by what he feels are problematic social norms.

“I’m sorry, there must be a mix-up,” he raps, “You want me to fix-up lyrics while our president gets his dick sucked? Fuck that, take drugs, rape sluts, make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up. Get a clue: wake up. Get a sense of humor. Quit trying to censor music; this is for your kids (the kids!). But don’t blame me when little Eric jumps off the terrace; you should have been watching him. Apparently, you ain’t parents.”

He is not a role model and has never attested to be. In the chorus of “Who Knew,” from The Marshall Mathers LP, he raps, “I never knew I would ever get this big / I never knew I’d affect this kid / I never knew I’d get him to slit his wrists / I never knew I would get him to hit this bitch.”

So distasteful, maybe, but Eminem is simply an artist making art. And my interest in him is the same as anyone’s: I wonder how he can be so skilled, and so confident, and what I can do to harness this same voice, though the words I have are different.

After three years in an intensive graduate writing program, I realize now that Eminem has the capacity to write stronger and cleaner prose than the vast majority of essayists I’ve studied. And while he appeals to a certain audience, and it may not be you, it is me.

And it is others.

He has sold more than ninety million albums worldwide, so much so that should these discs be lined up, mine and Mike’s and everyone, you could circle the globe four times.

India to China and back again and again and again.

Eminem will always succeed.

What I posit, I guess, is simple. That we take what we need from our mentors, that we discard the rest, that we are flawed but that so is everyone, and at the end of the day—as I grade papers in the library, as I write, “Explore this theme!” and underline ‘theme,’—I am listening to Recovery, because while not perfect, who, anymore, is?


Amy Butcher is the current nonfiction fellow at Colgate University and is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program. Her essays and stories have appeared recently in The Indiana Review, The Colorado Review, The North American Review, and McSweeney's, among others, and she lives and teaches in upstate New York, where she's at work on her first book. More from this author →