Richard Wagner was a great artist, but he was also an anti-Semite, and most assessments of his genius address this fact. The Birth of a Nation is a great film, but no appreciation can ignore its racism. No one dismisses such discussions as politically correct. But when it comes to art that is profoundly, even violently, sexist or homophobic, a different standard applies. Any attempt to confront the social meaning of such work is met with stiff—and I do mean stiff—resistance. Many men consider it their right to enjoy sexual bigotry, and many women want in on the action.
The latest example of identifying with the aggressor is the largely idolatrous reaction to Eminem’s new album. Hip critics quibble that he’s fallen off his edge—as would anyone but a genuine genius, given the speed with which outrage becomes shtick in pop culture. The usual response to Eminem’s situation is to up the ante by being even nastier, but bitch slapping and fag bashing have been declared off-limits for the duration of the war on terror. The record industry has been reduced to saluting the flag and honoring bluegrass. What’s a celebrity bigot to do?
The answer, for Eminem, is to carve a canny path down the middle. The sexual violence is more muted, though not absent from his new collection (that would be like leaving the dyke scene out of a porno). But it’s contextualized by what trial lawyers call “the abuse excuse.” Under the basher lies a boy betrayed by his wife and his mother. We’ve heard it all before, just as we’ve seen Eminem walk the line between talking the talk and deconstructing it. But repetition is an important part of brand building. So welcome to The Eminem Show, the pomo equivalent of Louis Armstrong singing “Hello, Dolly.” It’s so nice to have him back where he belongs.
I never would’ve dreamed in a million years I’d see
So many motherfuckin people who feel like me
Who share the same views and the same exact beliefs
It’s like a fuckin army marchin in back of me
By now, these legions include not just middle-class white kids but middle-aged machers who measure their years in the distance from weed to equities. One of them, a family man named Paul Slansky, wrote an homage to Eminem in a recent issue of The New York Observer. Watching him perform at the Grammys, “I fell in love,” Slansky gushed (hastening to add, “not that way, dawg”). Confessing to this crush, he discovers that his fine-dining friends all feel the same way. It seems there’s a secret order of dawgs moyens sensuels, and Slansky wants them to come out proud. “There should be no stigma attached to being an Adult Who Loves Eminem,” he writes.
The notion that there’s something courageous about this attraction has been carefully cultivated; it’s a classic marketing strategy. But in fact, Eminem’s ascension is a glaring example of the herd reflex passing for rebellion. The real dissenters are the activists who’ve been pummeled for failing to see the complexity and originality of this bleach-blond Baudelaire. As a former rock critic, I know how easy it is to throw the word genius around. In this case, however, it’s not about a lack of standards. It’s about using the imprimatur of art to avoid looking your pleasure in the eye.
The aesthetic defense is one of many Eminem alibis. We’ve been assured that this is just a pop-art pose, a cry from the working-class streets, an act of defiance against the forces of censorship, a repository for feelings we can’t express in life, an exorcism of our demons, or a sex charade. Of course, the same thing could be said about racist or anti-Semitic entertainment. Imagine a performer rapping, “I’ll stab you in the head/Whether you’re a kike or yid/Hate hebes? The answer’s yes.” I don’t think a critic like Janet Maslin would respond as she has to Eminem: “A lot of what he says makes me uncomfortable, but the bottom line is if it’s good, you have to acknowledge that, and it is. It’s very cathartic to listen to him.”
Say what you will about redeeming social (or artistic) value: At its hard core, Eminem’s poetics is pornography, and it’s accorded the same privileges. Just as we’ve declared the XXX zone exempt from social thinking, we refuse to subject sexist rap to moral scrutiny. We crave a space free from the demands of equity, especially when it comes to women, whose rise has inspired much more ambivalence than most men are willing to admit. This is especially true in the middle class, where feminism has made its greatest impact. No wonder Eminem is so hot to suburban kids and Downtown alter cockers. He’s as nasty as they wanna be.
Once you call this stuff cathartic, it’s a small step to removing it from the world entirely. Eminem’s music becomes an encapsulated experience, all the more heavily defended because it’s a guilty pleasure. Rock titans like Dylan and Lennon inspired a very different reaction, because their songs related to the rest of life. But the hermetic quality of pornopop makes it float above meaning. You can imagine anything you like about this sadistic spectacle, including a masochistic response.
A lot of hip people are consoled by the Pet Shop Boys’ funky homage to Eminem, in which he gets turned on by a gay boy and turns out to be a tender lover. In the academy, this is called appropriation—the queer corollary to those earthy essays by post-feminists who like to pig out to misogynistic ditties. Presumably they’re in no danger of hooking up with a B-boy, unlike the girls learning to eroticize guys who call them bitches. I wonder how Slansky would feel about a daughter of his having such a mate. But I’m not about to argue that children should be protected from this music—or that they can be. The danger isn’t the fantasies Eminem generates but the refusal to see them as anything more than that.
There is a relationship between Eminem and his time. His bigotry isn’t incidental or stupid, as his progressive champions claim. It’s central and knowing—and unless it’s examined, it will be free to operate. Not that this music makes men rape any more than the Klan-lionizing imagery in Birth of a Nation creates racists. The real effect is less personal than systematic. Why is it considered proper to speak out against racism and anti-Semitism but not against sexism and homophobia? To me, this disparity means we haven’t reached a true consensus about these last two biases. We aren’t ready to let go of male supremacy. We still think something central to the universe will be lost if this arrangement changes.
What is the relationship between that anxiety and the rise of Eminem? That’s a question criticism must confront. It’s not enough to repudiate his sexism in passing. That’s a disclaimer, not an interrogation. It skirts the crucial issue of why this stuff is so hot. And it presumes that we’re drawn to rapine rap despite its sexual violence. That’s the most dangerous form of denial.