So how do the conflicts for the characters in Eminem’s albums come to resolution in The Eminem Show? In this post, I’ll take a look at a few of the opening songs to try to show how individual themes are tied up, and how individual characters in the Eminem story either take a bow, one at a time, or have their stories drawn out and heightened so that they can soak in the applause until the final curtains are closed at the end of the album.
From the opening chords of “White America,” we know that The Eminem Show is going to be a dramatic affair. If you’ve heard the song, chances are, you can remember the opening…the slow build-up, the bass, the jet fly-over, the scream of “AMERICA!” almost as if Eminem is addressing a crowd at a political rally.
It’s a brilliant opening, really, because Eminem is indeed “setting the stage” for his entire album. (Sorry about the puns and silly word-play, but it’s all true, right? I’ve got no other way to say it.) The song “White America” is like a recap at the start of an HBO show’s season finale: he’s offering quick clips of all that came before, getting us reacquainted with the conflicts that have defined his career and his characters, and–by building the song slowly, banging heavy and methodical drum beats–he’s inviting us to sit down before the show actually starts…he’s telling us to stay awhile, to become part of the story.
Here’s how “White America” starts:
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.
So many lives I touch, so much anger aimed
In no particular direction,
Just sprays and sprays
And straight through your radio waves it plays and plays,
‘Til it stays stuck in your head for days and days.
Who woulda thought,
Standing in this mirror bleachin’ my hair, with some peroxide,
Reachin’ for a t-shirt to wear,
That I would catapult to the forefront of rap like this?
How could I predict my words would have an impact like this?
I must’ve struck a chord with somebody up in the office
Cause Congress keeps telling me I ain’t causin’ nothin’ but problems
And now they’re sayin’ I’m in trouble with the government,
I’m lovin’ it, I shoveled shit all my life, and now I’m dumping it on.
We can clearly see the story being reintroduced. Slowly, like the yellow text at the start of a Star Wars movie…no, this is not the story that The Eminem Show will tell, but instead the back-story that we need to understand if we are to enjoy what comes next.
But as the song builds, Eminem begins heightening a conflict that had always been present in his albums: the white rapper in a black art form. It is the inescapable conflict of Eminem’s success, but if The Marshall Mathers LP seemed more focused on fame in general, then The Eminem Show clearly tells us that we’re no longer just dealing with a generalized fame; instead, Eminem has achieved fame in the white suburbs, and so not only has he taken on the ire of urban audiences (and peers) who remain skeptical of a white rapper, but now also white parents and politicians who have never really cared about rap lyrics until Eminem came along:
See the problem is, I speak to suburban kids
Who otherwise woulda never knew these words exist,
Whose moms probably woulda never gave two squirts of piss
‘Til I created so much motherfuckin’ turbulence
Surely hip-hop is never a problem
In Harlem, only in Boston,
After it bothered the fathers
Of daughters startin’ to blossom.
Now I’m catchin’ the flack from these activists
When they raggin’
Actin’ like I’m the first rapper to smack a bitch and say faggot.
Just look at me like I’m ya closest pal
A poster child
The motherfuckin’ spokesman now.
In short, the conflict for Eminem is not just about success…it’s been complicated by his whiteness, which has perhaps enabled him to achieve success in white places…and which, in turn, has created an army of fierce supporters, and an army of fierce detractors. In the end, of course, “White America” resolves nothing, but serves to establish a story that now has a national scope, a battle that is about more than just Marshall Mathers at conflict with his famous persona of Eminem. No, no. Eminem has unwittingly found himself at the center of…a generational movement?
In a great story, the first act serves to introduce the characters, the second act greatly complicates their lives, and the third act collects all of the major players on stage together and forces them into a point of no return. Well. After “White America,” we are in the final battle; after this, things will never be the same for these characters.
Business, and Cleaning Out my Closet
If “White America” sets the overall stage for the final act, then the next few songs on The Eminem Show get more specific, each introducing an individual conflict or character that will either be (a) teased out for the duration of the album, or (b) immediately shut down, once and for all. Consider The Return of the Jedi‘s opening half-hour: yes, it introduces what’s at stake for the entire film, but it also serves to end the conflict with Jabba the Hut (and the battle over Han Solo) once and for all, so that we can then switch our focus to the Empire and Darth Vader and the Rebellion.
So that’s what Eminem is doing in “Business.” He tells us, “Let’s get down to business,” continues building the Eminem-Dre relationship (which, remember, started off almost as a joke in “Guilty Conscience,” but which became deadly serious in “Forgot About Dre”), repeats his claim that “hip-hop is in a state of 911” (a theme that will grow and grow throughout this album), tosses some dirt on his old feud with the Insane Clown Posse (“‘Til we grow beards, get weird and disappear into the mountains/ Nothin’ but clowns down here”), and then the song is over and we’re moving on.
“Cleanin’ Out My Closet” is a much more serious moment in the album, and seems to function as the crisis and climax moment for a three-album-long conflict between “Mama” and “Eminem/ Marshall Mathers.” Judging by the title alone, we know that this one is going to be a sort of “point of no return,” the end of this particular thread in a narrative that began all the way back on The Slim Shady LP. It’s almost as if Eminem knows that this storyline has reached its peak, that there is nothing left to do but just spill every last detail, pour as much fuel on the fire as possible, and let it roar to a crescendo and then burn itself out.
The song begins by setting up the character of Eminem (the rapper), and furthering the ideas of fame/protest we saw in “White America”:
Have you ever been hated or discriminated against? I have.
I’ve been protested and demonstrated
Against. Picket signs for my wicked rhymes,
Look at the times, sick is the mind of the
Motherfuckin’ kid that’s behind
All this commotion, emotions run deep as ocean’s explodin’,
Tempers flarin’ from parents, just blow ’em off and keep goin’,
Not takin’ nothin’ from no one,
Give ’em hell long as I’m breathin’, keep kickin’ ass in the mornin’
And takin’ names in the
Evenin’, leave ’em with a taste as sour as vinegar in they mouth.
Then Eminem switches the focus from himself to the character of “Mama,”a woman we first saw in the gritty childhood memories of “Brain Damage,” “If I Had,” and “Rock Bottom,” and who is then described as having “taken shots” at Marshall on the song “Marshall Mathers” (“My fucking bitch mom’s suing me for ten million/ She must want a dollar for every pill I’ve been stealin'”). We don’t always know the particulars, but it’s fairly easy to conclude that this has been a caustic relationship for many years, and its every stage has thus far been detailed in song by Eminem. And in order for the feud between mother and son to end, he’s got to first explore the origins of the rift:
I’ll take you back to ’73
Before I ever had a multi-platinum sellin’ CD.
I was a baby, maybe I was just a couple of months
My faggot father must have had his panties up in a bunch
‘Cause he split, I wonder if he even kissed me goodbye.
No I don’t. On second thought, I just fuckin’ wished he would die
There are moments of real honesty for the character of Eminem in this song, moments of sincere regret, and that’s what makes the song so painful and yet so embraceable:
Now I would never diss my own Mama just to get recognition
Take a second to listen for you think this record is dissin’.
Where the song becomes most gut-wrenching is when the spotlight is entirely on the mother. It is at this point that we very nearly have a switch in the point-of-view, as if Eminem himself is trying to see the world through her eyes but, in the end, cannot understand her motivations or her actions:
But put yourself in my position: just try to envision witnessin’
Your Mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen,
Bitchin’ that someone’s always goin’
Through her purse and shit’s missin’.
Goin’ through public housin’ systems,
Victim of Münchhausen’s syndrome.
My whole life I was made to believe I was sick
When I wasn’t ’til I grew up, now I blew up,
It makes you sick to ya’ stomach, doesn’t it?
Here, we see the final rejection of any “understanding.” Here, we see Marshall Mathers (the man) and Eminem (the rapper) boil into anger, into hatred, and the conflict burns so intensely hot that we know it is an irreconcilable relationship.
Wasn’t it the reason you made that CD for me, Ma?
So you could try to justify the way you treated me, Ma?
But guess what, you’re gettin’ older now and it’s cold when you’re lonely
And Nathan’s growin’ up so quick, he’s gonna know that you’re phony,
And Hailie’s gettin’ so big now, you should see her, she’s beautiful,
But you’ll never see her, she won’t even be at your funeral (Ha ha).
It is over. They are done, Marshall Mathers and his mother:
See what hurts me the most is you won’t admit you was wrong.
Bitch, do your song, keep tellin’ yourself that you was a mom.
But how dare you try to take what you didn’t help me to get?
You selfish bitch, I hope you fuckin’ burn in hell for this shit.
Remember when Ronnie died and you said you wished it was me?
Well guess what, I am dead, dead to you as can be.
And what is the lasting impression of this song? If this was indeed the end of the conflict between the two, who is the winner? Who is the loser?
I would argue that it isn’t a clear outcome, that the song leaves a lingering sadness because we know that Eminem–as a world-famous rapper–will always have the final word, and that–despite any “ha ha” glee he might try to display in the song–the most memorable moments of “Cleanin’ Out My Closet” are the ones in which his voice bursts with hatred or cracks with sadness. Yes, Eminem has indeed cleaned out his closet, has said all that he will ever need to say, and from a positive viewpoint, we know that his argument will be the lasting view. But he has only “won” the argument because he is the one who “admits [he] was wrong,” but Mama does not. If she (and remember, I’m talking about her character in these songs and CDs, not the real Mrs. Mathers, who we’ve never really met) appears again and says “I’m sorry! Everything I did was wrong! Give me one more chance!” then Eminem/ Marshall Mathers becomes the real loser here for airing their every dirty moment.
But it’s his honestyand vulnerability that allows us to empathize with him in this battle between mother and son, that allows him to say hateful things and still keep us on his side, and that ultimately allows him to turn the page on a three-decade-long chapter of his life, and know that we will still be there with him through the next ten or fifteen songs.
So that’s the opening of the album, and it’s already an excruciating and draining affair, but as Eminem says in “Cleanin’ Out My Closet,” “It’s my life, I’d like to welcome ya’ll to the Eminem Show.” And so there’s no turning back now. He has ended one conflict, but the album is just getting started.