If you lived through 2001, I think that a time should come in your life when you realize and can recount the effect that Eminem, that white rapper dude (whose name is really easy to type), had on your life. I’ve decided that now is that time for me, so here is an unabashedly personal essay about Eminem’s influence on me, at the time in the eighth grade.
I was thirteen - a short, skinny white kid with a buzz cut and crooked front teeth. It was second hour algebra and a girl named Ashley, possibly the most popular girl in my grade, bounded up to me and asked, “Hey, do you like Eminem?”
Now, I had no idea who M&M was, nor did I have the slightest clue as to why she wanted my opinion on him, but I did know two things: Ashley was very excited about him, and Ashley was very cute.
“Of course! He’s pretty cool.”
“I know, right!”
Thus ended our conversation - a conversation, I might add, that pretty much embodied and format and duration of every other junior high coed conversation. I actually continued to be pretty clueless as to who Eminem actually was, but I soon gathered that he was a white rapper whose name could be pronounced as “M&M” without one’s classmates being the wiser.
Because the near-universal consensus among the adults that I knew was that Eminem was not appropriate listening for a Christian of any age, I listened to him at every chance I got. I did not have the guts to sneak the whole Marshall Mathers LP into my house, so I taped the radio edit of his single “The Real Slim Shady” off of Armed Forces Radio and memorized it to make up for my cowardice. Not having the album, though, didn’t stop me from contributing my opinion, solicited or not, about how awesome it was whenever the opportunity to do so presented itself.
If I had been a sly, conniving middle-schooler, I would have gone to great lengths to find a copy of Eminem’s first release, the Slim Shady LP, and listen to that for hours on end. That way, whenever the topic of Eminem surfaced, I could always play the universal trump card of, “Yeah, Marshall Mathers LP is ok I guess, but have you heard his older stuff? I actually think it’s way better than any of the stuff that they play on the radio these days.”
It’s funny how the object of music critique is to be elitist about “better” music than “they” play.
ANYWAY, this whole tale of eighth grade music appreciation would be moot if Eminem hadn’t been controversial. The Christian press hated him, denouncing this “vile” white rapper and his musical style on every street corner. It is pretty easy to boil the distaste down to a racial issue. The Christian media, largely white, had always cast a critical eye on rap music, but I think had largely brushed it off as music for black people - for the youth who didn’t browse their websites or read their magazines. Rap was a problem, yes, but for the most part it was not a problem that endangered “our” kids, they said. And then Eminem showed up.
You can attribute his success to quite a few factors (he’s a white fish in a black pond, he’s obscene, he had friends in high places, he made fun of celebrities, etc.), but I side with rock critic Chuck Klosterman and his reasoning. From page 175 of his book Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, “To me the biggest reason [for his success] is obvious: He enunciates better than any rapper who ever lived. He’s literally good at talking.”
Here was a rapper whose lyrics conservative and Christian white people could understand at first listen, and they weren’t used to that. All of a sudden they heard a white person being immature, obscene, and misogynistic and making bank because of it, and they didn’t like that.
Because our parents hated him, we kids loved him. We called his style “fresh”, his lyrics “funny” and “socially relevant” and his image “relatable”. We embraced him because he looked like us, talked like us, and, most importantly to an eighth grade boy, because he was really, really good at making fun of people.
But now this is 2009, and it seems very unlikely that Eminem will come out with any new material that will come close to topping his records that were released seven or eight years earlier. He no longer makes media headlines or angers Christian media watchdog groups. And while the Marshall Mathers LP didn’t drastically alter my musical preferences or listening habits, it was an album that had a great influence on how I saw music in relation to the social values and norms of society. Eminem, at least in my book, joins the ranks of other musicians, like U2, Bruce Springsteen, or Billy Joel, who have the unique ability to relate to a person on an individual level as well as to society as a whole. It doesn’t matter that a song of theirs goes multi-platinum - it can still be a story about specific events on your life. Eminem did that for me, and I am a different person because of it.