Category Archives: Millennial Literature

The Epic Eminem Analysis Part VI: “Square Dance” and “Soldier”

The following is part of a series of essays I’ve been writing on the “character arcs” and dramatic story structure of the Eminem CDs. I apologize if they’re excruciating, or (if you like them) if the wait between essays is excruciating. Life is busy. But click here to start at the start.

The_Eminem_Showprevious: The Eminem Show (opening songs)

So the first third of The Eminem Show serves to (1) set up Eminem as the unwitting leader of a generational movement that he’d never intended on starting, (2) remind us of the conflicts that have weaved throughout the first two albums, and in particular the “white artist in a black art form, who is bringing the profane/ vulgar/ scary black art form to the white suburbs” conflict, (3) and end the ongoing conflict with his mother in “Cleaning Out My Closet.”

So where does the album go from here?

I’ve made continuous comparisons to The Star Wars trilogy, since this is the third album in Eminem’s career, and I think it’s important to continue thinking with that analogy in mind. Our heroes have just killed Jabba the Hut and rescued Han Solo, so they’ve finished one task…but now the much-larger threat of the Empire still looms. Likewise, Eminem has given us his final words about his feud with his mother, but there are still some pretty big conflicts left to resolve: in particular, we’ve still got to address that whole Kim thing, and then we’ve got to come to some conclusions about fame and celebrity and about being a white rapper in a sea of black rappers.

Eminem knows it. He set it up in the opening song. And the audience knows it, too. He knows that’s where we’re eventually going.

“Square Dance,” the White Establishment, and White Insecurity

When I first heard “Square Dance,” I thought it was a brilliant beat and a brilliant concept, that weird country/rap mash-up. After all, here was the world’s most popular and important white rapper (ever); who else could mix these genres in a meaningful way? And when he began using his “cracker” white-guy voice, too, telling the audience to doe-see-doe, etc., it didn’t feel like he was making fun of white people, necessarily, but instead making fun of those white people who were scared of rap. The suburban moms and dads. The senators who’d called him out for easy political gain. With “Square Dance,” Eminem was simultaneously appropriating white-people music, and lashing out at the criticism he’d faced from the insulated white establishment. One of the first lines in the song, after all, is “No friend of Bush,” and in the second verse we get “a plan to ambush this Bush administration/ mush the Senate’s face in/ push this generation of kids to stand and fight/ for the right to say something/ you might not like.” (And then there’s my favorite line, when he seems to be speaking to his army of suburban followers: “You just a baby/ Gettin’ recruited at eighteen/ You’re on a plane now,/ Eating their food and their baked beans./ I’m 28, they gon’ take you ‘fore they take me.”)

But that doesn’t mean that “Square Dance” only targets the white establishment. Really, the song is an embodiment of several white-related conflicts.

The first stanza takes aim at Canibus: “Cani-bitch don’t want no beef with Slim, noooo.” And, though it’s never outright stated, the Canibus attacks seem to have a racial undertone (which we see play out later in the album, too): there is suddenly an insistence upon being recognized by black rappers: responding to attacks from some black rappers, and honoring the other black rappers he sees as heroes (and whose respect he craves). In previous albums, this is a frustration that reared its head only occasionally, but it was never a primary conflict for the character of Eminem.  He was building himself as a rapper and found it difficult to do so as a white boy, but he managed pretty well by being self-deprecatory and taking shots at the other (inferior) white artists, the Vanilla Ices and the Fred Dursts and the Everlasts and what-not; and really, most of his attacks were a response to critics outside of the rap world. Yes, there were mentions of other rappers we know he respected: the line in “Stan” about “underground shit” and “Ruckus” and “Scam,” the collaborations with Nate Dogg and Snoop and Royce and Sticky Fingaz, the D12 album, but the majority of the conflicts explored in the songs revolved around Marshall’s mother, and around fame and celebrity, and around profanity. Not necessarily the rap world, or (more specifically) Eminem’s place in the rap world. Yes, race was always an issue in the first two CDs. It was always there. But it never really seemed as if this–being a white rapper in a black world, and getting the same respect as prominent black rappers–caused him real frustration or insecurity. He was comfortable in this world. And fuck everyone outside that world if they wanted to judge him.

But now, in The Eminem Show, we see that maybe Eminem has lingering insecurities about the way that other rappers view him. It’s a chip on his shoulder. In The Slim Shady LP, he’d gained credibility from the Dr. Dre appearance on “Guilty Conscience,” and obviously he appeared throughout the D12 Devil’s Night CD, too, but at the same time, those songs sort of felt like jokes. It was mostly the prankster Slim Shady persona appearing alongside these black rappers, and nobody would confuse the jokey “Guilty Conscience” verses with the career-defining Snoop Dogg verses from “Ain’t Nothin’ But a G Thang.” You can only play a snarky persona for so long, after all, before people start saying, “Okay, show us the real you.” With the exception of the “Dead Wrong” verse alongside B.I.G., it had never really felt like Eminem was a serious rapper when he appeared alongside black rappers.

Maybe this was in the back of his mind all along? Maybe it was even the reason that he never took his beefs with Everlast and Limp Bizkit and ICP very far, because why continually position himself as just the best white rapper? What value is there in such a title? So here in the middle portion of his third album, Eminem–the serious Eminem rapper persona–is vocalizing that he belongs in the black world of rap, responding to criticism from other established black rappers, rather than simply doing the easy thing and making fun of the white rappers who have come before him. (Take note of this, by the way. This is one of the conflicts that remains unresolved at the end of this CD. And it’s one of the reasons why those Recovery-era verses with Lil Wayne and Drake and Kanye, et all, are so unbelievably powerful.)

That’s a big step.

And yet it’s under-stated on this song: the initial reference to Canibus, and then the “oochie walla” reference, the lines “What’s gotten into me?/ Drugs, rock and Hennessy,/ Thug like I’m ‘Pac on my enemies.” This is a rapper who wants to belong, but he won’t yet come right out and say it. Where it initially becomes prominent is in the final fading stanza of “Square Dance,” which feels almost improvised:

Dr. Dre wants to square with me,
Nasty Nas wants to square dance with me,
X to the Z wants to square dance with me,
Busta Rhymes wants to square dance with me,
Cana-bitch won’t square dance with me…
Dirty Dozen wants to square dance with you–YEE-HAW!

And it’s here that Eminem puts himself into the company of the larger world of black rappers. He’s no longer just Dr. Dre’s little buddy, a funny prankster of a rapper with a couple black friends (D12); now he’s square-dancing with Busta Rhymes and Xzibit and (most important) Nas.

Like I said, it’s under-stated. But the first time I listened to this song, I knew that this was important. I knew that there was something different about his approach toward the world of rap, the faintest trace of insecurity about his place in it, and a real desire to be taken seriously by the rappers he most admired. (If I wanted to make another comparison to the conflict in The Star Wars trilogy, maybe I’d say that this was like the sudden arrival of The Emperor, an inevitable twist in the narrative…but something that felt like it was long overdue. We knew it was coming, that Eminem couldn’t keep rapping about pop culture without really delving into his place in the rap world.)

Personas: “Soldier”

But then, as quickly as this new conflict appeared, it was gone.

Here are the first lines of track 7 on The Eminem Show, the song “Soldier”: “Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,/never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one.” It’s almost as if he’s anticipating the argument that he doesn’t belong in the world of “gangsta rap,” and he’s admitting it. He belongs in the rap world, but let’s not confuse that with gangsta rap. Let’s not assume he’s saying he’s a gangsta just because he’s a rapper.

Then he shifts back and forth between the Eminem and Marshall Mathers characters, the relationship between the things he raps about and how he might have begun believing in the violent persona he portrayed in his records. Here’s the opening of “Soldier,” and I suppose it’s just best to paste the lines directly:

Never was a thug, just infatuated with guns,
never was a gangsta, ’til I graduated to one,
and got the rep of a villain, for weapon concealin’.
Took the image of a thug, kept shit appealin’,
willin’ to stick out my neck for respect if it meant life or death,
never live to regret what I said.
When you’re me, people just want to see
if it’s true, if it’s you, what you say in your rap’s, what you do,
so they feel as part of your obligation to fulfill
when they see you on the streets, face to face, if you for real?

There’s a real struggle here, as if Marshall feels he must live up to the persona he’s created on his albums. This has been brewing since The Marshall Mathers LP, but it’s mostly been general and hypothetical: a fake character named “Stan” who believes in the Eminem raps, and a series of generalized encounters in “The Way I Am.” But now this conflict reaches a boiling point because there is some truth to everything he has feared:

Anything I do bitch, it’s news,
pistol-whippin’ motherfuckin’ bouncers, six-two.

You can smell the lawsuits soon as I waltz in the room.
Everybody halts and stops, calls the cops,
all you see is bitches comin’ out their halter tops,
runnin’ and duckin’ out the Hard Rocks parking lot.

So far in this analysis, I’ve tried to keep the focus on the characters in the albums, rather than bringing in any real-life events. This is important, I think, because the texts/songs have a life of their own. Yes, they are heightened by our knowledge of what was happened in the “real world,” too, but I’m not trying to write a biography of Eminem; I’m trying to chart how he’s built the characters in the story of his albums. (If that makes sense?)

I’m going to make a small exception here, though, since this is a moment where Eminem is literally trying to show how the real world and the fictional persona have overlapped. And I’m going to try to do this as quickly and simply as possible. Okay, so this is from Wikipedia, the most trustworthy source ever:

Eminem was arrested on June 3, 2000 during an altercation at a car audio store in Royal Oak, Michigan, with Douglas Dail, where he pulled out an unloaded gun and kept it pointed at the ground. The following day, in Warren, Michigan, he allegedly saw his then wife, Kim, kiss bouncer John Guerrera in the parking lot of the Hot Rock Café, and he assaulted him and was then arrested. Eminem recreated the Guerrera assault in a skit on his junior album The Eminem Show on a track called “The Kiss (Skit).” Mathers was charged with possession of a concealed weapon and assault. Mathers plead guilty to the charges and was given two years probation for both episodes.

I take no responsibility for any errors or omissions or typos in the above (Hot Rock Cafe?). I just want to illustrate the real-world facts that (as discussed in the song) seem to be a result of the real-world Marshall Mathers believing in the song-persona of Eminem or Slim Shady. The song “Soldier” (and the skit “The Kiss”), in other words, is not just a narrative depicting Marshall Mathers getting angry upon seeing his wife kiss a bouncer, then beating the bouncer, then getting arrested for the concealed weapon…it’s also a meditation on what it means to develop personas for yourself, to get lost and confused about which personas are real, to believe in the wrong personas, and to find yourself becoming something you didn’t want to become. We have the line, “motherfuckers know that I’ll never be Marshall again,” which seems to be a resounding final word on a dark transformation: Darth Vader declaring that he is beyond help, that it is too late for him.

Damn.

Oh yeah, and then there’s that whole Kim thing, which we’ll get to next.

Next: Kim, and Celebreality (forthcoming)

The Evolution of Clutter

The latest episode of my home decor catalogue/ graphic novel “Clutter” is now available at Small Doggies Magazine online. If you’ve been following along, this is Part #9, and the married couple is starting to get down to business in the remodel of their new home. If you haven’t been following along, I’ve pasted the full Table of Contents below…You don’t want to fall behind at all, do you? Better get to reading.

TABLE of CONTENTS

1. a new season, new options (Tuesday, October 4th, 2011)

2. apartment living (Tuesday, October 18, 2011)

3. downtown living (Tuesday, November 1, 2011)

4. neighborhoods of orlando (Tuesday, December 6, 2011)

5. bookshelves (Tuesday, January 3, 2012)

6. entertainment center (Tuesday, February 7, 2012)

7. outdoor living (Tuesday, March 6, 2012)

8. glassware (Tuesday, April 3, 2012)

9. planning your remodel (Tuesday, May 8, 2012)

As a side-note, I’ve been working on “Clutter” for several years now. While it’s now an online serialized graphic novel, it’s had a long and interesting history as a story. It actually started off as a short story, written back in 2008 (around the time that I first moved into my house and began working on my own remodels). But as a short story, it just wasn’t working. I experimented with the length of the piece, chopping it into a series of short-shorts, but even then, I wanted the story to have a sense of momentum, to build toward a satisfying end, and it’s tough to do that with a bunch of individual short-shorts without saying the same thing over and over again.

The next step in “Clutter’s” evolution was as a piece of mixed-media fiction. If it’s not working as a traditional short story, maybe I can turn it into an actual home decor catalogue with real photos of the various elements of the remodel, the tools and the furniture and all of that. But I’m no graphic designer or photographer, and I found myself constrained by the items to which I have access…I felt weird going into furniture stores to photograph their stuff, too…And is there any literary magazine that wants to run a 30-page story structured as a home decor catalogue? Awhile back, I managed to publish a mixed-media short story structured as a long Wikipedia page (it’s called “Gold Saturday,” and appears in the journal Rip-Rap), but it took a long time to find the right home for that piece; most journals weren’t sure what it was, and rejected it immediately.

I decided that “Clutter” could still work as a home decor catalogue, but that it needed to be a stand-alone project…if I wanted to try to build a catalogue, I couldn’t half-ass it and do just 30 pages. I needed to do a full catalogue, with individual sections dedicated to different items, different portions of the house, all of it working together to tell the story of a married couple’s conflict as they buy their first house. And I decided that it couldn’t work as just a catalogue, that it needed some humanity, it needed the characters and not just the objects. And that’s when I knew that “Clutter” was destined to become a comic, where the characters could be displayed side-by-side with the catalogue items, where I could show their possessions as well as their pasts, presents, and futures.

It’s been a long road, from 2008 until now, but hopefully you’ll dig the final result. “Clutter” still has a little ways to go, but follow the links above to read the first nine installments, and then check back on the first Tuesday of every month for the new chapter.

The Epic Eminem Analysis: Part V

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.

White America

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.
Shit.
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.

Next: The Eminem Show Continues

Previous: The Eminem Show: An Introduction

CLUTTER!

I’m excited to announce that my serialized graphic novel, “Clutter,” has officially gone live at Smalldoggies Magazine.  Click here to read the first installment…It’s a story told in the form of a home decor catalogue, and I’m eager to hear how I did. Make sure to leave comments on the site, and check back every two weeks for a new “chapter” in the catalogue.

 

The Epic Eminem Analysis: Part IV

The Eminem Show: An Introduction

I wasn’t alive back in the 1960s or 1970s, so I have no idea what sort of excitement was generated by the release of a new Beatles album or by the next Led Zeppelin record. Everyone has seen clips of The Ed Sullivan Show, of fans lined up on dirty streets outside ticket booths and concert halls, of little girls pouring into stadiums, but I was born in 1980, and I grew up thinking that the “best music” was already a thing of the past. I never listened to Poison or to Def Leppard or to Journey, none of the ’80s rock that filled the daily MTV schedule, not until the 2000s when it was ironically hip to do so. My parents had stacks and stacks of old records, and somehow the hair metal and the suburb-friendly rap that my friends listened to (White Lion? DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince?) seemed–even to a 10-year-old–like a temporary amusement. There were cool and subversive things happening in the 1980s, no doubt, but for a kid living in Columbia, South Carolina (without cable television, for much of my time in that state, only three channels to choose from), there was no way to be aware of any of it.

Throughout the 1990s, after the death of hair metal and the rise of grunge/ alt rock, after the collapse of the corny mainstream rappers and the rise of gritty gangsta and street rap, my opinions slowly began to change. Maybe the “best music” was not behind us. Maybe Generation X was just getting started, just now revving its engine. Maybe I didn’t need to cling to Led Zeppelin like some deluded Republican clinging to the America of Leave it to Beaver. Maybe I’d someday look back on Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Bush and Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (on sleek compact discs) and someday force my children to accept these musicians as the standard bearers.

The only problem, though, was that most of these musicians couldn’t duplicate the success and the excitement of their debut CDs. Nirvana? Yes, there was demand for their follow-up, and the Unplugged CD was incredible, but…well, we all know the tragic end to that story, right? And Pearl Jam? They had a nice run, and they’re still popular, but their war with Ticketmaster (and their refusal to create new videos on MTV) seemed to cut them off with a lot of casual listeners, myself included. I lost interest. And Dr. Dre? I remember listening to “Dre Day” when I was in the sixth grade…and I remember hearing “Still D.R.E.” and “Forgot About Dre” for the first time when I was a sophomore in college.Big gap, Dre.

Why do I say all of this? Why does it matter?

Because I’d never anticipated an album so ferociously as I anticipated The Eminem Show.The second album had built upon the first so well, momentum growing, and I…seriously…couldn’t…wait. It was a generational moment, too, an anticipation shared by an audience of millions.

I mentioned in my previous post that The Marshall Mathers LP felt like a cliffhanger, like The Empire Strikes Back. It took the story of Eminem/ Marshall Mathers/ Slim Shady (and the entire supporting cast of characters) to a new level, the complications in the narrative becoming more complicated, to the point where we simply had to have an answer to the question: How will it turn out? It was like seeing Han Solo frozen in carbonite, Luke Skywalker presented with the knowledge that Darth Vader was his father, and the entire rebellion on the brink of collapse. Return of the Jedi couldn’t come fast enough, and neither could The Eminem Show. Hell, I bought the CD from the little indie CD store where I used to buy punk rock CDs in high school…got the last copy, on the day it was released…and even the tatted-up punk-rock store clerk was like, “Gotta check out Song 13. ‘Superman.’ Freakin’ rocks.” It seemed like the whole world was on the edge of its seat, from hard-core rap fans to rock fans to parents to children to stuffy newspaper columnists and cable news commentators.

How would the story turn out? Satisfying finish, like Jedi, or would it fizzle out like The Matrix and The Pirates of the Caribbean and X-Men sequels (yes, there were released later, but you get my point).

Once you pushed play, you couldn’t deny it: The Eminem Show was brilliant, was indeed the satisfying culmination of all that had come before. Some would make half-hearted arguments that it wasn’t as gritty as the two previous albums, that it wasn’t as raw, that–like Return of the Jedi with its cuddly Ewoks, or like the final season of The Wire–it was a little too polished. But these arguments came only after agonizing scrutiny, after weeks and weeks of non-stop continuous play. The verdict was absolutely clear. The Eminem Show was the final amazing piece of a trilogy, Eminem’s characters and themes elevated and further tied-together, the crisis moment and the climax and the denouement all in one album. And the response was (for once) universal acceptance and praise. From everyone, Eminem lovers and haters alike.

Of course, you can see the problem developing already, right? You can see what this means for the next chapter in the story, how such sunny positivity can affect someone who was so accustomed to life in the dark?

But that comes later. We’ll worry about Encore and The Re-Up in another post. For now, we’ve got to take a look at the The Eminem Show. What actually happened, and how did it progress the story?

next: The Eminem Show Analysis

previous – The Marshall Mathers LP: The Curse

I Just Want My Pants Back

I didn’t have high hopes for David J. Rosen’s I Just Want My Pants Back. I remember putting it on my Amazon wish list several years back, when I was first reading about “fratire” and searching through Amazon’s unending hyperlinked recommendations, one after the next. This was 2007 or 2008, maybe, and I had the strong feeling that “fratire” would be the next big thing: Tucker Max’s I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell was a cultural phenomenon, and Superbad and Knocked Up were proving that the general public was indeed interested in seeing the exploits of young male slackers, or reading the commentary of twenty-something white men who had been told by literature departments that their stories and their viewpoints did not matter because they had never been marginalized. (Read Tucker Max’s Huffington Post article for a little more background here).

Yeah, I was sold. If “chick lit” was so popular, I’d certainly begin to see “fratire” books in the hands of all of my male friends, on their coffee tables, in their bathrooms…it would be a grand awakening for 18-35 year-old male readers, books and stories targeted at their demographic, work that was likely comedic and raunchy, detailing the frivolousness of life in one’s twenties, and maybe the majority of the books would never be canonized, but hell, I was tired of having to constantly argue to my friends that they should be reading, that there was value in reading, that the experience was often deeper and richer than the superficial TV shows they DVR’d, or the popcorn movies they watched on the weekends. “Fratire” as a literary genre, I had decided, would change everything. Blogs were gaining popularity; my male friends read blogs, right, so why wouldn’t they buy a collection of blogs, like Aaron Karo’s Ruminations?

And maybe the real reason that young men had given up on books in the first place was, quite simply, that books had given up on them. Yes, I saw in my Creative Writing classes that there were young men who devoured Kurt Vonnegut’s entire catalogue, and there were hordes of Chuck Pahlaniuk or Bret Easton Ellis followers, but most of these readers were just Creative Writing students who had found a rebellious contemporary male writer that they wanted to emulate/imitate. On the first day of class in my CRW classroom, I always ask students to write their favorite books, and trust me: you’d be surprised at how many of the students (particularly the males) say, “I don’t really read.” Or how many of them tell me Fight Club or Cat’s Cradle or American Psycho, but when pressed to provide further examples of work that they enjoy, cannot move beyond those books. And my friends? They aren’t Creative Writing students. They’re just guys. Old fraternity guys. Sports fans. Dudes. They didn’t even like Vonnegut or Pahlaniuk because, well, they hadn’t really cared about literature since they were forced to read Frankenstein and 1984 and The Canterbury Tales in high school, and so they didn’t care about rebellious male writers (such as Vonnegut or Pahlaniuk) who seemed strikingly different or transgressive. My friends simply had better ways to spend their time than reading books, and (I’ve always thought) this was because there was no surefire genre catering to average non-writer/non-academic males. They weren’t going to take the chance on reading random books, Nick Hornby or Michael Ondaatje or Richard Russo, in hopes that they might find an author they like. From their perspective, no one was writing about 18-34 middle-class men (either in college, or stuck in cubicles), so why should they be the ones who bothered to read all these crappy books about…whatever the hell they were all about.

So: back to my Amazon list. I’m not sure how many of these fratire-style books I added to the list (and I’m not even sure how many of them are actually “fratire”), but I had this crazy idea that I would document the trend, that I would read all of these books, that I would become an expert on the genre, that–maybe–I would even write a multi-layered fratire novel that young men would read (drawn in by the lure of booze and boobs and tomfoolery) and it would be the reason that they came to appreciate good literature again, the reason they branched out and found new authors outside the fratire comfort zone. Well. If you’ve been around my site, you know that this little fantasy didn’t quite work out, that I started to think more broadly about “generational literature” and how the entire Millennial Generation might shape its books and films (and even more specifically, how the Millennial reliance upon communication over/ involving many different mediums would result in the rise of “mixed-media literature”). In other words, fratire never really took off. Someone made a movie of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and Aaron Karo is still writing his ruminations, and there are hundreds of thousands of blogs about stupid bullshit and occasionally one of them is insightful and witty and is released as a book to great acclaim (Stuff White People Like), but I must have been extremely deluded to think that anything could pry young men away from television, cinema, and the multiplying number of gadget and gizmos now at their disposal (iPods, iPhones, iPads, iEtc.). Some will be interested in reading fiction, but those few readers will not need a book about Beer Pong in order to draw them in.

I hadn’t updated my wish list, really, in awhile…or rather, I hadn’t removed some of the stupid crap I put onto the wish list…or rather, I hadn’t removed all of the stupid crap, and maybe I had some vague interest in a few of the books I’d originally targeted. And this past Christmas, I received I Just Want My Pants Back as a gift from my wife. “I liked the title,” she said, and well, it is a pretty funny title, and I was happy for the gift. Sometimes it’s nice to get a book that you never really thought you’d read, or that you’d forgotten you ever wanted to read.

After a few tough reads in the preceding months, I even put Rosen’s novel at the very top of my reading list. During the first weeks of this semester, while I was engulfed in photocopies and syllabi and student emails, I figured I’d use the novel (which was, presumably, going to be semi-amusing, right?) as a bit of brain relief. But the first two or three chapters confirmed my worst fears about fratire: we have a male protagonist (the book’s summary describes him as a slacker) who goes out every night of the week, drinks, smokes pot, has some easy sex, has a few female friends with whom he can share the juicy details; he lives in New York, is an Ivy League graduate but has no real ambition, and just wants to “live it up” in his twenties while the poor suckers he passes on the sidewalk are busy with all-consuming jobs and families. Really, I asked myself? This was the sort of story that I thought would become super-successful, that would redefine literature for male readers? I was annoyed with the book because it just felt like some douchebag know-nothing twenty-something’s blog (or facebook page), and I deal with enough know-nothing twenty-somethings at my university, many of whom think that–because they’ve discovered how to do their own laundry and shop for their own groceries–they have everything figured out. But I was also annoyed with myself for ever wanting to dedicate my time and energy to such a genre. I was embarrassed. One of my own rules about teaching is that I shouldn’t expend energy on the kids who don’t care, that it’s college and if they don’t want to be there, that’s their own problem. And now I saw my former views come into sharp focus: I wanted to write literature for people who didn’t care, and I wanted to dumb myself down in order to get their attention (and I’m not even that smart to begin with!)? A strong emotional reaction from 30-40 pages of a novel in which nothing had really happened yet…

But then I started to fall into I Just Want My Pants Back, hesitantly at first, discouraged with myself for enjoying it. But there were some things that were really working, here, and the novel touched upon many of my own ideas about what “Millennial Literature” could and should be. In fact, had I ever written a book that would fall under the category of “fratire,” I started to think that it would be an amazing compliment if the book was as layered (and even affecting) as Rosen’s novel.

Of course, my own opinions on the novel might just be so strong because the story (and protagonist) confirm my hypothesis about Millennial Literature characters: they are constantly searching for a sense of purpose. From a longer posting I wrote: “In contrast to many other generations still living, Millennials struggle with a sense of purpose, a single unifying experience to bring them together in a noble way.” By now, the idea of a long career in one place (working in the same office or cubicle, the way their parents might have) has become a nightmare for Millennials, a nightmare no doubt fueled by Office Space and American Beauty; they don’t have a loyalty to employers, and they often are unwilling to spend their lives simply plugging away at an okay salary so that they can raise a family; more than ever, young people think they can become millionaires (if just the right opportunity presents itself!), a thought articulated brilliantly in The Social Network when Harvard’s president lamented that young people all wanted to “create jobs” rather than find them; young men and women are going back to grad school in larger numbers than ever before, waiting longer to marry and to have kids, and it’s because they have an overwhelming fear of committing to the wrong purpose. If I take this particular job, then I’ll be stuck! If I marry, I’ll have to get a job I don’t like, and I’ll be stuck! I can be a millionaire, I know I can, but the dream is over if I commit to the wrong idea! There is one right job for me, and it is fun, and it doesn’t feel like work, and it pays a lot, and I will find/ make it! Never mind that this fear might cripple them, prevent them from doing anything of value. It’s there, and Rosen’s novel captures it brilliantly.

We see the “Millionaire Mentality” early in the book, this sense that the character (his name is Jason Strider) believes that he is destined for great things even if he hasn’t put in any real work: “I had graduated with honors from Cornell, but I was an English major who didn’t do all the required reading and owed his diploma to the friendly folks at CliffsNotes…I was sold on moving to the city. I had been a DJ at WBVR at school, and I figured I’d be able to find some kind of job in the music industry here, though I didn’t know what. The career center had helped me get a few interviews at radio stations, but they were all in ad sales, which seemed a lot closer to telemarketing than Telecasters” (13). And late on the same page: “I didn’t see the point in shaving every day and working long hours at something I wasn’t sure I wanted to be doing” (13). Heck, we even see the sort of mentality so prominent in parents of Millennials, the super-encouraging you can be anything you want! positive talk: “For some reason, my parents thought I might become a lawyer…Cornell was pretty hard, and the last thing I wanted was more school after school. Hell, I didn’t even know what lawyers did every day, except for what I had gathered watching reruns of Matlock while hung over” (15). So Jason instead takes a “bullshit job at a casting company,” which he calls “temporary,” even though he admits to a friend that he has “no idea” what he really wants to do. “‘It’s, you know, fine. I don’t need to shave or dress up, and it pays the bills. Eventually, I’d like to do something music-related…I mean, I think.'” (89) In one late conversation we see that he is scared of a “life that was defined by what I did for a living,” though this is the sort of fear that only matters to someone who hasn’t found that right job (209).

Constantly, the narrator goes out drinking, smokes pot, hits on girls, all those things that had originally annoyed me due to their frivolousness, but what makes the book so poignant and relevant is that Rosen eventually begins to starve the fun out of these events. Whereas the most stereotypical/ popular of fratire (fiction and nonfiction alike) seems to continue full-steam-ahead with frivolousness, rather than exploring other themes and ideas, Rosen lets his narrator grow tired of the binge drinking, the purposelessness. In fact, even though the book isn’t long and we are never exhausted while reading about late-night drinking and parties, we do become sick of it, also (though we grow tired of it before Jason Strider does, which actually builds drama through the ironic narration: we know what’s best for him, but he doesn’t know what’s best for himself). By the middle of the book, we know purposelessness is taking its toll: “Even during what were supposed to be the most fun times, in a bar, drinking in hand, life was starting to feel repetitive” (113). By acknowledging the narrator’s frivolous existence, the author is able to use it as a theme and a major plot element, rather than just a source of lame comedy.

In the end, I don’t want to make I Just Want My Pants Back sound like it is the defining book of the Millennial Generation, nor do I want it to sound like the book is flawless, that it made me laugh/cry/stand up and shout, blah blah blah. It’s very good. It captures the life of an average twenty-something Millennial male with thoughtfulness and honesty (traits that weren’t present in the regrettable The Average American Male by Chad Kultgen). It’s a book I’ll recommend to a lot of my friends, and it’s a book that truly captures the fear of commitment at the heart of the Millennial reluctance to actually “start life.” Is it as multi-layered or well-written as Middlesex or The Corrections or Refresh, Refresh? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It’s a nice book, and I think its main weakness is the very reason why “fratire” never really took off as a genre: by the time we’re done reading about the protagonist (frivolous 20-something male who likes drinking, sex, pot), we’re done reading about this protagonist ever again. Thanks for the time we had together, but you know what? Time to move on to your thirties, when you’ll look back at the previous decade and shake your head at all of your decisions and fears.

Paranormal Activity II, and the Motivations of Demons

I’ve learned not to expect too much from horror sequels. Last week, after all, I watched Lost Boys: The Thirst, and I don’t need to write a review to tell you how that one turned out. And anyone remember Blair Witch 2, which was much slicker than the original but which took that franchise into a quick tailspin from which it never recovered? That’s what I was expecting with Paranormal Activity 2.

But surprise! I absolutely loved this movie.

For starters, it took what we loved from the original film (the do-it-yourself handheld videotaping, the young couple who cannot escape the “paranormal activity” haunting them) and improved upon it. In this sequel, we’ve got handheld cameras, yes, but the film offers dozens of additional security cameras throughout the house; some are more prominently used than others, but the storytelling is much more fluid because we are able to see so much, to move from room to room without any difficulty. Also, whereas the first film focused on a young couple in a big house, the sequel gives us a complete family (husband, wife, young girl, newborn boy, dog), which automatically makes the entire situation Poltergeist-tense, and we also get a house that feels a thousand times too large for the family. Sometimes horror films succeed because of claustrophobia; in this case, though, the movie succeeds because of emptiness, the feeling that there is just so much space all around you that could be haunted, and there’s no way to get away from it all.

But the other great thing about this film is that it actually builds upon the story of the original, clarifying and sharpening the background, history, and overall conflict. It’s a prequel, sort of, and we actually see the characters from the original appear at various points throughout the film. We even come to understand how/when certain events in this film happen in relation to events in the original (much like Back to the Future II, where Marty McFly actually sees scenes from the first film happening in front of him).

My main gripe with the original film, in fact, was that it had an “easy” ending. The story had built and built, and really, the filmmakers saw no other way to end the thing except to suddenly give us a possession and a death. That movie (I argued) failed in the final frame because it forgot the motivation behind the demon at the center of the haunting. Sounds strange, I know. But the demon has a motivation for haunting the couple. And if the demon wanted to kill either of them, it could have killed them in the first scene. So why wait until an hour and a half of footage had elapsed? And if the demon wanted to possess the girl, why hadn’t it done so years earlier? Why wait? No, the movie actually told us (and The Exorcist used this same motivation for its demon) that the haunting was all about fear and terror, making someone’s life terrible. Why was a young girl possessed in The Exorcist? Because the devil wanted to be a dick. And you know what? That’s an excellent motivation.

So I loved the original, but hated the ending. Here, however, the story actually reveals a different motivation for the demon. And, just as in the movie Poltergeist, we come to know exactly why this family is being haunted. And this ties together brilliantly with the reason for the haunting of the young couple from the original. It would have been easy for this sequel to just give us a completely different couple in, say, North Carolina, and to just start a series of films about random unrelated hauntings…it still could have made a lot of money. But the film builds on the original, and actually makes the original into a better movie. The final scene in Paranormal Activity 2 is every bit as scary as the first, but it left me uneasy long afterwards, rather than leaving me questioning the entire premise.

It’s also important for me to note (because this is what I always do) that this series is shaping up to be the ultimate example of Millennial Literature. It’s a story crafted by the participants (handheld cameras, security cameras, etc.), and it’s all at once slick and well-produced, but still grainy and throwback, as if it’s just a bit disgusted with CGI. What makes it such an interesting example of Millennial Literature, though, is that so many movies and TV shows appeal to the youth generation by growing ever-louder, by jump-cutting epileptically, and the Paranormal Activity films are quiet, slow, still; they use silence and motionless images to capture our attention, rather than shouting at us. Quite the contrast to the average Millennial-targeted blockbuster.

Couch – Benjamin Parzybok

“Couch” is a bizarre little novel, the story of three young men (“slackers,” as the blurbs tell us) who become attached to a couch, then become commanded or compelled to undertake a “Lord of the Rings”-style journey whose mission is to return this couch (an ancient and magical artifact, we learn) to its rightful place, and to reset the balance of the entire world. When I picked this book off the rack, I literally couldn’t believe that (a) someone had actually committed himself to write something so strange, a Kilgore Trout idea, and (b) that a publisher had actually committed to the project, also.

It felt strange to read this book, then, with no real expectations. After all, how am I supposed to know what to expect?

After reading, I’ll admit that I was a bit exhilarated by the experience: everything about “Couch” is just so different that other contemporary fiction. There’s an unassuming innocence here, a complete lack of pretension (there are moments in the story, as legends are discussed, that feel as if they are pulled from the pages of McCarthy’s “The Crossing,” except here they do not feel mind-numbingly dull and literary), and we move through the novel swiftly, always surprised by what comes next.

But…but…

“Couch,” in the end, really doesn’t offer us a whole lot. At 280 pages, it probably drags on for 80 pages too long. The characters only seem to come into focus after page 150 (before that point, they feel like sketches, and their dialogue is rarely revealing), and the action sometimes feels under-developed, never detailed or cinematic, too easy. It becomes tough to visualize what is happening, many times. And the writing style is often lazy…we see glimpses of the writer Parzybok can be, with some vivid moments scattered here and there, but too often it feels as if he just got tired, or got bored with a scene and wanted to move on quickly. We have cartoonish exclamations throughout (“?!”), and “Dude!”-style exchanges that feel pulled not from real-life, but from an undergraduate creative writing course.

When it works, it works. It’s a breath of fresh air, all in all. But there’s little to make it truly memorable or important. Because of the bizarre premise (and indeed because of several passages in the book that started to make some interesting connections), I expected “Couch” to truly say something about slacker culture, about couch potatoes, about…well, anything…but in the end, the social satire feels so muted and distant that it never becomes resonant.

Refresh, Refresh

I remember reading a couple stories from Benjamin Percy in Esquire awhile back, and each of them was haunting, the type of short story that stayed with you long after you finished reading. For my money, at least, that’s the sort of story that I love: the kind that is not easily dismissed, that kind that might seem simple or innocent or easy on the surface, but that…just…won’t…go away.

So when I found Percy’s collection, Refresh, Refresh, while on a several-hour-long tour of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon, I decided to give it a shot. Usually, though, I don’t buy very many short story collections by authors with whom I’m not too familiar; I tend to stick with The Best American Short Stories or just read the full collections of authors whose novels I’ve already conquered (or I’ll borrow the collection from a friend, take it on a test drive). Same goes for albums. The more I hear and the more I like, the better the chance that I’ll buy an album from a new artist, but I’m not the type that wanders record stores searching for something I’ve never heard. So I’ve got to tell you: I was extremely happy that I took a chance with Refresh, Refresh.

The stories here are dark, many of them horror-influenced:we’ve got stories about bear attacks, stories about a potential Big Foot stalking an Oregon forest, stories about undiscovered caves expanding below ordinary residential houses, stories about post-apocalyptic landscapes…Refresh, Refresh has all the creepiness of House of Leaves, but all the sparing poetry of Cormac McCarthy and all the empathy and patience of an Andre Dubose collection. The title story seemed to be the piece that garnered Percy the most attention (it was collected in a Best American anthology, and won a Paris Review prize), but there were several others in this book that proved even more resonant, including one short story about a married couple stranded in a gas station during a hail storm. Some of the images from that story…wow.

And after reading, I actually think Percy will become one of the more respected voices of Millennial/ Gen-X literature. He’s actually doing the same work as Michael Chabon, attempting to mix “genre fiction” with “literary fiction,” taking the horror genre and imbuing it with the thematic complexity of true literature. But Percy is doing it better. With Chabon, his attempts at “mystery novel” and “adventure novel” seem to be mere curiosities, side projects. With Percy, we get the sense that he’s on a mission to carve out a real place for horror literature. He’s got a novel on the shelves now (The Wilding), and another in the works, so this is definitely an author we’ll have to watch. In ten years, he might be the next Jonathan Franzen or Michael Chabon, the voice of a generation.

Benjamin Percy: Home Page

Stories/Essays Available Online:

The Epic Eminem Analysis: Part III

The Marshall Mathers LP: The Curse

The characters had been introduced, and the world had formed its opinions: critical reception had been recorded in daily newspapers, in the glossy magazines; television personalities had registered disgust or elation at the release of The Slim Shady LP and the subsequent collaborations with Dr. Dre and B.I.G.; other musicians, other rappers were forced to articulate their own ideas on the Eminem phenomenon. Was he for real? Was he talented or just disgusting? A real rapper, or just a gimmick? Did he even care about hip-hop, the tradition, the history, or was he–the white rapper–just bastardizing the genre, hijacking it, capitalizing off the already-teeming ranks of white suburban kids who found release in black hip-hop CDs? And if you did accept that he was talented, would he be able to replicate his success from his first CD and maintain the popularity that had eluded almost every other white rapper in the previous two decades?

Some of these questions seem silly today, and for anyone who had seriously listened to Eminem’s first CD, the answers were already obvious. But in 1999 and 2000, it was evident that the questions were grating on the rapper himself. He had achieved an incredible amount of fame and celebrity in a very short period of time, and the criticism–in a new digital information age, with the internet suddenly making every review and every comment available at any time (even NWA and Ice-T hadn’t dealt with this type of instant and omnipresent backlash)–must have seemed smothering.

And The Marshall Mathers LP was the angry answer to every question, every commentator, every skeptical critic or musician. If The Slim Shady LP–so full of prankster-twisted talent–had been the answer to late-’90s pop, to a slick and disingenuous culture that was in full bloom, The Marshall Mathers LP would serve as a death-blow for boy bands and bling-bling-rap, the ultimate realization of all that was possible not just with the rap genre, but with all music.

The CD itself was an angry and sad story all at once, a sort of Empire Strikes Back-style sequel…I remember listening to it for the first time and thinking, “Wow. This certainly changes things.” I wasn’t sure how it changed things, or even what those “things” were, but if you remember the moment when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite (yes, that’s a nerdy reference that I’m making), or the moment when Luke learned that Darth Vader was his father, you certainly remember that strange feeling that anything was suddenly possible, and that you needed–you needed–the next installment in the story to come as quickly as possible. (No joke: I remember counting the days until The Eminem Show was released, something I’d never done before)

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s start with the The Marshall Mathers LP itself, what Eminem was doing, why/how it registered such an undeniable emotional reaction with the world, how his characters grew, and how the story’s rising action continued to climb.

Violence

The CD starts off with the same shock-rap lyrics as The Slim Shady LP, and so–when we first start listening–we almost think that it’s more of the same:

They said I can’t rap about being broke no more
They ain’t say I can’t rap about coke no more
(AH!) Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore
’til the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?

Ahh, yes, it’s just the “Slim Shady” character again. It’s just the rapper’s alter-ego throwing violent images together in the exact same way as he did in the first CD. It’s like watching Friday the 13th Part 3, which was just a carbon copy of the first two movies. No real growth. The second CD is the same as the first and…wait…something stops us in our thoughts. In one of the very first lines, has he already begun to question his own fame? “They said I can’t rap about being broke no more.” Has he already taken issue with the very material that allowed him to break through to the mainstream? Then we have this:

Shut up slut, you’re causing too much chaos
Just bend over and take it like a slut, OK Ma?
“Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing a whore,
snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?”
You god damn right BITCH, and now it’s too late
I’m triple platinum and tragedies happen in two states
I invented violence, you vile venomous volatile bitches

Now it’s undeniable. In the very first song, we have the Slim Shady character mocking himself and mocking the material from the first album. Questioning his own fame. Attempting social commentary about the claims that music can cause violence. Then we have these lyrics:

I ain’t “acid rap,” but I rap on acid
Got a new blow-up doll and just had a strap-on added.
WHOOPS! Is that a subliminal hint? NO!
Just criminal intent to sodomize women again.
Eminem offend? NO! Eminem insult
And if you ever give in to him, you give him an impulse
to do it again.

This song, “Kill You,” becomes a mission statement for the characters for the entirety of the album, and it is delivered through the voice of the prankster Slim Shady: “You don’t want to fuck with Shady/ cause Shady will fucking kill you.” Just the same as a medieval court jester, the prankster is allowed to make the most extreme statements so long as they are over-the-top. Here, he is not only mocking himself and his subject matter, but mocking every commentator who has ever suggested that violence in popular culture somehow equates to a violent artist, or violent fans. And it isn’t even a fair fight. It’s hard to argue with the irrational Slim Shady character: when he says that he will fucking kill us, are we supposed to argue that we’re actually afraid of him, that he’ll actually kill us? If we do, then we’re morons.

And then Slim Shady is answered at the very end of “Kill You” by the more rational voice of the Eminem character: “I’m just playing ladies. You know I love you.” It almost functions as a transition between songs. We start The Marshall Mathers LP with over-the-top violence in the voice of Slim Shady, and then we move to the more serious voice of Eminem himself. Not the alter-ego. The man. If Slim mocked his critics, how does Eminem view his newfound fame?

Celebrity Worship

I still remember the first time I ever heard the song “Stan.” Summer of 2000, riding in the passenger seat of a friend’s SUV around the city of Orlando. “Dude, this song is so fucked up,” he said and turned it up so that all we could hear was the pounding bass, the rain and the thunder, then the haunting voice of Dido. I hadn’t bought the CD yet; I’d been working a lot at the time, and I an mp3 of the album’s first single on my computer, so I figured I could hold out for a little while. But after that car ride?I almost felt guilty for ever downloading the mp3s to begin with…

“Stan,” of course, does fit into the larger Eminem narrative (it’s the epitome of the Empire Strikes Back idea, a moment of true darkness, complete with storm clouds and emotional deaths and “did that just happen?” reactions) , but it also functions as its own story, which is why it has probably become the best-known and (maybe) most popular song the rapper has ever created. It’s a tragic short story that, interestingly, introduces a character who will never again appear in an Eminem song: Stan.

Dear Slim, I wrote but you still ain’t callin
I left my cell, my pager, and my home phone at the bottom
I sent two letters back in autumn, you must not-a got ’em.
There probably was a problem at the post office or something
Sometimes I scribble addresses too sloppy when I jot him
but anyways; fuck it, what’s been up? Man how’s your daughter?
My girlfriend’s pregnant too, I’m bout to be a father
If I have a daughter, guess what I’ma call her?
I’ma name her Bonnie
I read about your Uncle Ronnie too I’m sorry
I had a friend kill himself over some bitch who didn’t want him
I know you probably hear this everyday, but I’m your biggest fan
I even got the underground shit that you did with Skam
I got a room full of your posters and your pictures man
I like the shit you did with Ruckus too, that shit was phat
Anyways, I hope you get this man, hit me back,
just to chat, truly yours, your biggest fan
This is Stan

It’s definitely a disturbing introduction, too. Whereas “Kill You” disguised its serious content behind the playful voice of Slim Shady, “Stan” immediately immerses us in depression and obsession. The character of Stan comes to serve as a stand-in for every celebrity-worshipper that has caused Marshall Mathers grief since the release of that first CD, and even comes to represent the rapper’s own regrets about ever having discussed his personal life in his songs (the line, “Man how’s your daughter?” hits like a sucker punch). And, of course, it gets worse:

I can relate to what you’re saying in your songs
so when I have a shitty day, I drift away and put ’em on
cause I don’t really got shit else so that shit helps when I’m depressed
I even got a tattoo of your name across the chest
Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds
It’s like adrenaline, the pain is such a sudden rush for me
See everything you say is real, and I respect you cause you tell it

Like a good short story, “Stan” gives us that steady rising action, the character slowly becoming more and more dangerous…until finally he snaps:

So this is my cassette I’m sending you, I hope you hear it
I’m in the car right now, I’m doing 90 on the freeway
Hey Slim, I drank a fifth of vodka, you dare me to drive?
You know the song by Phil Collins, “In the Air of the Night”
about that guy who coulda saved that other guy from drowning
but didn’t, then Phil saw it all, then at a show he found him?
That’s kinda how this is, you coulda rescued me from drowning
Now it’s too late – I’m on a 1000 downers now, I’m drowsy
and all I wanted was a lousy letter or a call

Here, we have the careful interweaving of Eminem’s lyrics from his first CD (the famous “fifth of vodka” line from “My Name Is”) with Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” a song from a genre that no one would ever confuse with rap, and which–coupled with references to Limp Bizkit and Marilyn Manson throughout the rest of the CD–offers an extremely potent response to the “music causes violence” argument to which this entire CD is a response.

And, of course, as quickly as Stan has appeared in an Eminem song…he is dead. All at once, he is one of the rapper’s most brilliant creations, and one of his shortest-lived.

Eminem himself doesn’t even appear until the rap’s final verse. We know that it’s Eminem (or perhaps just  plain old Marshall Mathers) because he is calm, rational.

I’m sorry I didn’t see you at the show, I musta missed you
Don’t think I did that shit intentionally just to diss you
But what’s this shit you said about you like to cut your wrists too?
I say that shit just clowning dog,
c’mon – how fucked up is you?

In fact, he even gives us his thesis statement on “celebrity worship,” a couple quick lines that seem to sum up his overall reaction to the past year and a half of his life:

I’m glad I inspire you but Stan
why are you so mad? Try to understand, that I do want you as a fan
I just don’t want you to do some crazy shit…

“Stan” became more than a song, I think. Later, it would become Eminem’s chance to reconcile with the mainstream world, with the gay community, with anyone he had ever offended…Later, it would become his most powerful statement, the one song that every fan (or admirer, or even casual listener) could point to and say, “This Eminem guy? He’s got some good stuff to say. ” Later, it would even become the song that (I think) made bling-bling rap irrelevant and stupid. But that would all come later, after the single and the video and the Grammy performance with Elton John.

Because, as much as I loved it the first time I heard it, it was only track number three on The Marshall Mathers LP. The story kept going…the characters had only really given us their introductory remarks.

Fame

The two next songs on the CD, “Who Knew?” and “The Way I Am,” seemed to work together to progress the story of Eminem’s angry reaction to the fame heaped upon him by the release of his first CD, and perhaps even an angry reaction to his alter-ego of Slim Shady.

In “Who Knew?” we have an interplay between the Eminem character and the Slim Shady character, again questioning the influence of music-violence in the real world. Slim Shady seems to appear in the first couple lines: “I put wives at risk with a knife like this/Shit, you probably think I’m in your tape deck now/ I’m in the back seat of your truck with duct tape stretched out.” But Slim Shady disappears pretty quickly, almost as if Eminem is breaking the third wall and telling his audience that there is only one person, that the Eminem-Marshall Mathers- Slim Shady trio is just a single man giving a performance:

I’m sorry there must be a mix-up
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 makeup!
Get aware! Wake up! Get a sense of humor!
Quit tryin’ to censor music
This is for your kid’s amusement

A couple other lines stand out as Eminem “thesis statements” for the entire CD. First, the chorus, which seems to come from an incredulous Marshall Mathers: “I never knew I would get this big/ I never knew I would affect this kid.” And: “So how much easier would life be/ If nineteen million motherfuckers grew to be just like me.” He delivers them in such a somber voice, dripping with regret even while attempting to protest the argument that his critics have made, so that you start to wonder if he is questioning himself already (by track number five!). And then there’s this:

How many retards will listen to me?
And run in the school shooting when they’re pissed at the teacher
Her or him, is it you? Is it him?
Wasn’t me, Slim Shady said to do it again
Damn, how much damage can you do with a pen?
Man, I’m just as fucked up as you would’ve been
If you would’ve been in my shoes, who would’ve thought?
Slim Shady would’ve been something that you would’ve bought
That would’ve made you get a gun and shoot at a cop
I just said it. I didn’t know if you did it or not

And the final line of the song: “How the fuck was I supposed to know?”

And then the angry, fed-up-with-the-bullshit beat of “The Way I Am,” which–like “Stan”–became something more than just a song.

In fact, even though it doesn’t really offer any new ideas or perspectives on the subject matter from earlier songs, it might just be the angriest song on the CD. It’s potent. You can hear the spit flying from Eminem’s mouth as he raps “Go call you a lawyer! File you a lawsuit! I’ll smile in the courtroom and buy you a wardrobe!” There’s a raw emotion here that–to be honest–I’m not sure I heard on the entire first CD. For my money, there might not even be another complete verse in the history of mainstream American music as angry as this one:

Sometimes I just feel like my father, I hate to be bothered
With all of this nonsense, it’s constant,
And “oh, it’s his lyrical content!”
The song “Guilty Conscience” has gotten such rotten responses
And all of this controversy circles me
And it seems like the media immediately points a finger at me
So I point one back at ’em
But not the index or pinky or the ring or the thumb
It’s the one you put up when you don’t give a fuck
When you won’t just put up with the bullshit they pull
Cause they full of shit too
When a dude’s gettin bullied and shoots up your school
And they blame it on Marilyn – and the heroin,
Where were the parents at?
And look at where it’s at, middle America,
Now it’s a tragedy,
Now it’s so sad to see,
An upper-class city having this happening,
Then attack Eminem cause I rap this way
But I’m glad cause they feed me the fuel
That I need for the fire to burn and it’s burnin’ and I have returned…

It’s all-encompassing. At first, I was going to cut and paste short quotes from the song, but then I realized: you can’t cut this song apart. It’s an avalanche of emotion; once you start, you simply cannot stop, each syllable building on the last and growing angrier, angrier, no breaks, no pauses, no periods, a long run-on of rage, until it’s almost a relief to be finished with the verse. Hell, we don’t think it can be topped. We think Eminem must be finished, energy expended. But then:

I’m so sick and tired of being admired
That I wish that I would just die or get fired
And drop from my label, and stop with the fables,
I’m not gonna be able to top Hi, my name is,
And pigeon holdin’ to some poppy sensations
They cop me rotation at Rock ‘N’ Roll stations
And I just do not have the patience
To deal with this cocky Caucasians
Who think I’m some wigga who just tries to be black
Cause I talk with an accent and grab on my balls
So they always keep asking the same fucking questions
What school did I go to?
What hood I grew up in?
The why? The who, what?
When and where and the how?
Till I’m grabbing my hair and I’m tearing it out
You’ve been driving me crazy, I can’t take it
I’m racing, I’m pacing, I stand and I sit
And I’m thankful for every fan that I get
But I can’t take a shit in the bathroom
Without someone standing by it
No I won’t sign your autograph
You can call me an asshole

Again, you can’t chop this song apart. If “Stan” would become Eminem’s most provocative song, his most celebrated, “The Way I Am” was likely the most honest piece he’d ever produced. We also get the feeling that this is a character that this character of Marshall Mathers/ Eminem had worked himself into a frenzy. Now he is no longer simply responding to critics or crazy fans (as he had been on the first songs), but showing the world how his entire personal life had fallen into disarray.

After the first song, he’d scrapped the “Slim Shady” alter-ego; after the second song, he’d killed the “Stan” character; after just a couple songs as “Eminem,” he’d now emerged as soul-baring Marshall Mathers…all other personas and characters were laid aside…Marshall Mathers–by this point in the CD, not even half-over–was already showing us his breaking point. You almost got the feeling that he might not make it through the entire CD.

So the focus would change considerably in the next few songs, shifting to celebrity culture (“The Real Slim Shady”), the tradition of rap (“Remember Me?” and “Bitch Please II”), and the city of Detroit (“Amityville”). And in “I’m Back,” the character of Slim Shady definitely reappears, perhaps in an effort to lighten the mood of the CD (who would have thought that violent shock-rap would be needed to lighten the mood?) and take aim at the threat of censorship. (there are  bleeped-out gaps in a few of the songs on my copy this CD, and to this day, I still wonder what words are beneath those gaps)

But still there was the occasional song of such unvarnished honesty that–once you heard the opening verse–you almost wanted to rewind and start over and listen again. There was “Marshall Mathers,” quietly furious in its declaration that Marshall was “just a regular guy.” There was “Kim,” the sequel to “Just the Two of Us” from Eminem’s first CD, a violent scream-fest that one-upped the graphic nature of any song he’d ever recorded (“Sit down bitch! You move again, I’ll beat the shit out of you!”), every single line delivered with an exclamation point. If “The Way I Am” was Marshall Mathers at his breaking point, “Kim”–at the end of the CD–was Marshall Mathers past his breaking point, a glimpse into one possible future. In this world, the violent insanity of the Slim Shady and Stan characters had infected the Marshall Mathers character, also.

The Cliff-Hanger

The Marshall Mathers LP was like The Empire Strikes Back in another way, too. There was no neat conclusion.

Yes, the CD answered every argument that the family-first/conservative critics could offer. Yes, it successfully showed the ridiculousness of celebrity worship and superfandom, the horrible consequences. But the honesty of the CD–the honesty of the voice, the honesty of the characters  in each song–was, by album’s end, also a curse: this was Eminem’s furious response to fame and criticism, a blood-curdling plea to leave him alone, his assertion that he was indeed human and not just another plastic Britney or N*Sync.

But really, the story itself only invited more scrutiny. In registering his angry response, Eminem had so finely chiseled the characters in the songs, revealing so many real details in his life, that the listening public now thirsted for more.

More complications for Marshall Mathers! More complications for Eminem! What happens next, what happens next?

The angry response of The Marshall Mathers LP would (yes!) cause further complications for the character of Eminem. And I was no different than the rest of the listening public: I couldn’t wait to see how it turned out.

next: The Eminem Show: An Introduction

previous – The Epic Eminem Analysis Part II