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A Toxic Bomb
Why Eminem and the Celebrity Bigots of the US cannot be excused or justified
Eamonn McCann, 17 Aug 2000
Peter Murphy s piece on Eminem a couple of weeks back reminded me of Oscar Hammerstein II.
You got to be taught to hate/At six or seven or eight , wrote Hammerstein in South Pacific.
South Pacific. Starring Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor. Naff use of colour filters, I seem to remember. A movie so uncool it isn t shown any more, even on TV3.
But it packed an anti-racist punch in its time, and is well ahead of Eminem in our own time.
The new white-trash rapper cries out against the trashing of the old white world. Where would he stand in current US political debate apart from posing leerily on the sidelines? George Dubya Bush is hardly the president he craves. More Dwight W. Eisenhower. From the good ol days when all that trendy nonsense you find in modern-day movies like South Pacific (1958) wouldn t be allowed.
Herein lies the political and cultural significance of Eminem. He operates to give ugly quaint notions a seeming credibility. Like a Ri Ra reading of the pastorals of John Charles McQuaide.
On his own, with an act comprising such sharply contradictory elements, Eminem would be certain to disintegrate soon, as he probably will, and for some of the personality-rooted reasons deftly detailed by Peter Murphy. But he s worth lingering on for a moment more, if only for the fact that he provides a route into the phenomenon of the US Celebrity Bigot.
Not every US celebrity is allowed bigotry. At the time of writing, baseball star John Rocker is clinging onto his career in the face of broad, huge hostility to anti-gay and anti-immigrant sentiments voiced in interviews earlier this year. He was booed for an unbroken 10 minutes at Shea Stadium last month, which I gather is a record for the venue.
Rocker is the most high-profile among a number of US sports stars who have recently found themselves excoriated for hate-talk. It seems that jocks can t get away with it the way shock jocks can.
Neither can politicians. Hillary Clinton, running for the New York Senate seat, saw her poll ratings jolted last month when it was alleged that she once attacked a political aide as a fucking Jew bastard .
But on the day last month when cops looked on as gangs wilding in Central Park assaulted every terrified woman they could corner, Eminem had the most-played number on local daytime radio: In a couple of minutes that bottle of Guinness is finished/You are now allowed to officially slap bitches/You have the right to remain violent and start wilin .
DJ Don Imus draws nationwide audiences that advertisers drool over to radio shows where he blasts out bigotry against immigrants, gays and women and pours scorn on anyone brash enough to take exception.
Media shrink Dr. Laura Schleissenger, who specialises in diagnoses in the form of diatribes against gays responsible not only for their own ailments but for the ills of any world they are welcomed into has signed a network television deal which, we are told, will boost her earnings to Letterman and Leno levels once the autumn schedules are under way.
The contrasting reactions to Rocker and Clinton on the one hand and Imus and Schleissenger on the other say something about the roles ascribed to particular categories of celebrity in
the US. It might be interesting to
speculate as to why Eminem is
allocated to one category rather than the other.
But what s immediately relevant is that he alone among that line-up is likely to be listened to here.
So what s he all about then? How come this guy s cusp-of-the-millennium music is wrapped around attitudes Oscar Hammerstein was writing a funeral-song for 50 years ago?
In interviews where he s put under pressure, Eminem retreats to a plea that it s only rock n roll and all just in fun. Anyone who s offended is a humourless oldster and a victim of political correctness. So you re a dork if you don t smile at: My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That ll stab you in the head whether you re a fag or lez/Hate fags? The answer s yes.
We must understand we are supposed to nod with knowing irony as he explains that I was put here to put fear in faggots , or invites women to Bleed, bitch, bleed .
In fact, there s neither humour nor irony, much less anything which could be construed as a rock n roll ethic, here. The only reason for voicing these thoughts in this way is to convey them to others unadorned.
Elsewhere, Eminem s defenders invoke the legacy of Lenny Bruce. But Bruce used words as razors to slice into race and gender-hatred. He skewered white anglo-saxon protestants, cops, cardinals and suchlike, not members of minority groups. When doubt arose as to his intentions, he d spell it out in as explicit terms as the law would allow, and then some. His art was elusive, sure, but there was nothing mysterious about his meaning.
There s no mystery about Eminem s meaning either, and it doesn t overlap or interpenetrate with Lenny Bruce s.
Notwithstanding the 10,000-word treatises on his cultural roots and political significance which have begun appearing in the fanzines which take music so-seriously, Eminem s music mainly comprises stolen rap rhythms used as sound track to Angry White Male movie-themes from the 1980s movies which themselves represented a backlash against the cultural progress engendered by the likes of Lenny Bruce and then given explosive expression in the onset of rock n roll.
This brings us close to the core of Eminem. Young and not so young white men who can t face and don t dare articulate their feelings of sexual inadequacy in a world where black guys have all the best moves and women and gays are out front and brazen can take solace in the nostalgic rape reveries of a white boy who apes, and it s the right word, the street music of blacks.
Just as repressed Puritans form a major element in the market for porn, The Marshall Mathers LP fulfills one of the prime functions of pornography expressing fantasies which no balanced person would want to put into practice but which are a secret turn-on for the twisted.
It is not difficult to imagine slack-jawed nerds relaxing to its rhythms and thereby feeling it easier to cope with the sexually comfortable multicultural world in which, perforce, they must live. In a recent essay, Why Hate Is Hot (where I happened on the concept of the Celebrity Bigot), the radical US commentator Richard Goldstein pitched the point perfectly: Your boss may be a woman, your sergeant an African American, your teacher a gay man, but every time you put the earphones on, you rule.
Does any of it matter much over here?
Consider a cartoon in the Daily Mail, the favourite British paper of a remarkable number of Irish media personalities , published two days after 58 young Chinese men had died from suffocation in a container carrying tomatoes into Britain, and three days after the former Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlan had suggested that the Royal Family might move out of Buckingham Palace into more modest accommodation. The drawing depicted a huddle of men with Oriental features skulking in a container filled with boxes marked "Tomatoes": the caption had one saying, Brilliant news! It seems Mo Mowlam is arranging to have us put up in Buckingham Palace .
Or listen in to late-night programmes on commercial Dublin stations, and hear, for example, Roma people who have fled to Ireland from unspeakable persecution described as pests by a presenter who then entertains a joke about pesticide.
Neither outburst will have been inspired by the lyrics of Eminem. Most media bigots in these islands are self-starters. But Eminem, and US hate-speech generally, will have had an influence nonetheless.
There s nothing in our popular culture which can invest a set of attitudes with credibility as naturally and effectively as association with the latest hip thing in music.
The context in which we have learned to locate rock music in all its styles and sub-genres makes it difficult to see Eminem as an ideological and cultural reflection of pre-rock red-neckery. Camouflaging ugliness in cool colours, Eminem enables any who are inclined to feel comfortable carrying it home.
To suggest against this background that Eminem s music should be analysed on its own terms, the mundane meaning of the words pushed out of the picture, is to miss the function which music fulfills in our world. It is to ignore the content while pondering the packaging around a toxic bomb tossed into our midst.