Will the Real Marshall Mathers Please Stand Up? | Music Review | Chicago Reader

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Will the Real Marshall Mathers Please Stand Up?

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Eminem
The Marshall Mathers LP
(Interscope)

In one of the more startling scenes from The Filth and the Fury, Julien Temple's recent Sex Pistols doc, the band plays a benefit for the children of striking firemen. The audience seems to be made up primarily of the beneficiaries, preteens done up in Never Mind the Bollocks T-shirts and buttons. Johnny Rotten hands out pieces of cake, then steps to the mike and launches into "Bodies": "SHE WAS A GIRL FROM BIRMINGHAM! SHE JUST HAD AN A-BORR-SHUNNNuh!" The kids, digging the carnival atmosphere, proceed to smear the cake all over his face.

This joyously anarchic moment provides a glimpse into the secret history of the Sex Pistols: beneath their commercial cynicism, they were having fun. The little Britons' response to them was far more sensible than that of their adult counterparts: Temple includes footage of a Hugh Downs type who observes that the Pistols and their ilk are "a bigger threat to our way of life than Russian communism or hyperinflation." An elected official calls them "the antithesis of humankind" and declares that "the whole world would be vastly improved by their total and utter nonexistence." Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols' manager, was an extremely gifted prankster, but even he could not have made this stuff up, and in retrospect it seems impossible. In today's jaded, fractured market, it's pretty hard to imagine a pop record capable of polarizing a nation.

Eminem, whose given name is Marshall Mathers, is practically begging for someone to call him "the antithesis of humankind," but outside the entertainment press, more people seem to be outraged by Bruce Springsteen's "American Skin." His third album, The Marshall Mathers LP, has moved 5 million SoundScannable units and squatted triumphantly atop the Billboard charts since its release in May. It sold 1.7 million copies in its first week alone, surpassing the previous mark for a solo act, set the week before by Britney Spears, by 400,000 units. Not that he didn't warn her: in the first single he tells her he's "been sent here to destroy you," and later on the record he refers to her music as "garbage" and asks for his 16 bucks back.

Like last year's Slim Shady LP, Marshall Mathers is violent, ugly, perverse, homophobic, and misogynistic in Boschian detail, and puerile teenypopper bashing is the least of it. In the first cut, the narrator rapes and kills his mother. In "Kim," named for Mathers's wife, he kills her for cheating on him; it's a prequel to Slim Shady's tour de force, "'97 Bonnie & Clyde," in which he drives out to the pier to dispose of her dead body. He spins out his more pedestrian violent fantasies--like cutting off a kitten's head--in equally graphic detail, and he makes a regular theme of horrendous gay baiting, which is barely tempered by his much-remarked-upon apparent endorsement of same-sex unions, "Who says a man and another man can't elope?"--which at any rate is undercut by the video, where he makes a sour face to that line.

In McLarenesque fashion, Eminem has managed to generate more lurid news about his personal life than his music. His mother's suing him for $10 million for defaming her. In early June he assaulted two men in two days, one who apparently kissed Kim outside a nightclub and one who had the misfortune to be down with the Insane Clown Posse. A little over a month later, Kim tried to kill herself in their suburban Detroit home--which Mathers, to the great distress of the town's officials, now wants to enclose with an eight-foot spiked security fence. All this real-life drama has seriously undermined the Eminem defense committee--which initially had a pretty good case.

On his records, Eminem is often witty, sharp, and genuinely subversive, articulating the anger of confused white men with a rationality Fred Durst and Jon Davis will never achieve. On the first record, at least, he had a real claim to the moral high ground, speaking to kids from places they really know: dead-end jobs, out-of-control parties, mom and/or dad's bedroom. He has Dr. Dre's best beats in years behind him, and, of course, he can rhyme like William Blake, as on Marshall Mathers's "Drug Ballad": "And everything's spinning / And you're beginning to think women / Are swimming in pink linen again in the sink / Then in a couple of minutes that bottle of Guinness is finished / You are now allowed to officially slap bitches / You have the right to remain violent and start wilding."

In this instance, he's describing the evolution of a predator, which is not the same as advocating aggression, and he's made great use in his work of such distinctions. Unlike the Pistols, or Marilyn Manson, or N.W.A, Eminem highlights the difference between himself and his personae right there in the music. Like Cerberus, this dawg has three heads: Eminem, the braggadocious MC; Slim Shady, the psychopath; and Marshall Mathers, a voice of reason who surfaces occasionally to point out to the kids at home that it's all a put-on. Confusingly, Slim Shady turns out to have been more of an Eminem record, and Marshall Mathers is ultimately dominated by Slim Shady, concluding with a five-song crime spree that includes "Kim." Only a few tracks on the first half of the record belong to Mathers, most notably "Stan," in which he catches up on letters from a troubled fan who can't tell when he's "playing." Frustrated by the lack of response to his increasingly desperate missives, Stan drives a car off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk just as Mathers is writing him back:

Dear Stan: I meant to write you sooner but I just been busy.

You said your girlfriend's pregnant now

How far along is she?...

What's this shit you said about you'd like to cut your wrists too?

I say that shit just clowning dog--

C'mon, how fucked up are you?

You've got some issues, Stan, I think you need some counseling

To help your ass from bouncing off the walls when you get down some....

I really think you and your girlfriend need each other

Or maybe you just need to treat her better.

I hope you get to read this letter

I just hope it reaches you in time

Before you hurt yourself.

I think you'll be doin' just fine if you relax a little.

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.

The message is urgent, passionate, and unmistakable: don't try this at home. It's a humane response to a problem the artist has described in interviews--fans who relate so well that they come by and ring his doorbell, assuming he'll understand.

He doth protest a bit too much about his influence: "Who Knew" asks "How much damage can you do with a pen?" and then answers the question: "Never knew I / ...could ever get this big / ...knew I'd affect this kid / ...get him to slit his wrists / ...get him to hit this bitch." On Marshall Mathers's title track he freaks out because "a bunch of little kids want to be just like me." Maybe I'm projecting here, but the melody bears an uncanny similarity to the song "Peter Parker," from Marvel's psychotherapeutic Spider-Man LP, in which our superhero has a secret-identity crisis: "Will somebody call me Peter Parker before I go insane? / 'Cause there's this other guy who I'd forgotten had a name." Like Spider-Man, Eminem claims to be exhausted by his own celebrity; by the end of "The Way I Am," he's pleading, "I am so sick and tired / Of being admired / That I wish that I would just die or get fired / And dropped from my label and stop with the fables."

As if. He might think he knows how Kurt Cobain felt, but there's no way he can relate to Aimee Mann. And despite his concern, he's not apologetic; like Charles "I am not a role model" Barkley, he doesn't think it's his job to tell kids what to think or, more importantly, what to think of him. In one particularly exhilarating sequence from "Who Knew," he uses this stance to turn Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," one of rock's most sanctimonious elegies, upside down: "Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor...this is for your kids' amusement (the kids!) / But don't blame me when little Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watching him / Apparently you ain't parents."

Like the Sex Pistols, Eminem exploits taboos to turn heads. But where the Pistols wanted, or at least advocated, that we tear down the walls, Eminem builds a fence. His material is extremely personal, and although it can be very funny, it's not a lot of fun. He requires us to both love and hate him, and to understand when each is appropriate. That's asking a lot of his audience, and apparently of his family, but he does have a point: if we can't distinguish between life and art, we have a bigger problem than the huge success of an ugly pop record. Unfortunately, Marshall Mathers has the same problem.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Mannion.

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