It is impossible to understand youth culture, particularly contemporary pop music culture, without addressing the significance of 27-year-old, white-rap-MC Marshall Mathers. Mathers is known by the stage-name Eminem as well as by his angry alter-ego alias, Slim Shady. Two short years and two albums later, few musical artists of recent memory have created more controversy and public outcry for lyrics that celebrate misogyny, rape, murder, and drugs.
In fact, his lyrics were specifically addressed by Lynne Cheney, former chairman of the National Endowment of the Humanities, at a recent Senate Hearing on violence in motion pictures, music, and video games. Mrs. Cheney stated to the Senators assembled, “In ‘Kill You,’ a song from his recent album The Marshall Mathers LP, he begins by describing the satisfaction of raping and murdering his mother and then goes on to imagine the joys of murdering any woman he might come across. ‘Wives, nuns, sluts,’ whoever ‘the bitches’ might be, he will kill them slowly, leaving enough air in their lungs so their screaming will be prolonged. He will paint the forest with their blood. ‘I got the machete from O.J.,’ he raps, ‘Bitch I’ll kill you.’”
This is not the half of it. Profuse profanity aside, the lyrics tell stories of his five-year old daughter, Hallie, assisting in the disposal of her mother’s corpse; his wife, Kim, attempting suicide; musicians and celebrities having oral sex on MTV, gay bashing, robbing a liquor store, schoolyard violence, and an assortment of other anti-social fantasies and rages. In his lyrical mission statement, he boasts, “God sent me to piss off the world.” He is succeeding. Marshall Mathers is the Pied Piper of the Bad—the street philosopher of generalized depravity. Eminem is the fusion of midwestern trailer park white trash and urban hip-hop cultures—Jerry Springer meets Montel Williams. Here lust and violence are depicted with graphic perversity.
And Eminem is wildly popular. His first album, Slim Shady LP (released February 23, 1999), sold more than 3 million copies. He won three MTV music awards, including the Best Male Artist; two Grammy Awards; and a big screen biopic is in the works. His second album, The Marshall Mathers LP (released May 23, 2000), sold nearly 2 million copies in its first week of release, becoming the second fastest selling album of all time. It has sold over 4.5 million copies. He has been on the cover of every music and youth-oriented magazine from The Source to Teen People. His bad boy antics, which have him facing gun charges as well as a legal battle with his mother, have only increased his sales. He boasts, “Every time a critic tries to slam me in the press, I sell more records.”
Eminem is an in-your-face mirror of the state of the American soul. We have made him a cause celebre. He’s an easy target for a Christian critic. Perhaps too easy. Our automatic response is to rush to judgment, rather than examine our own behavior. Our response is to decry the morality of his life and lyrics, rather than to pray for the holes in his soul as well as our own. Too often we turn to political solutions whether censorship or record labeling to address what are clearly cultural and spiritual problems. What lessons can we learn as followers of Jesus from Slim Shady? Here are four possibilities.
Misogyny of the Fatherless Boy
Eminem—like a growing number of other boys in American society—grew up fatherless. Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III on October 17, 1972, in Kansas City, Missouri, he claims to have never met his father. A single mother raised him in the midst of poverty. His mother, Debbie Mathers-Briggs, moved frequently and never maintained a steady job during his formative years. His life is a common story of many young adults. David Popenoe observes in Life Without Father, “We have been through many social revolutions in the past three decades—sex, women’s liberation, divorce—but none more significant for society than the startling emergence of the absent father.” Close to 40% of all children do not live with their biological fathers and if trends continue, nonmarital births will outpace divorce as the chief cause of fatherlessness. Nationwide, more than 70% of all juveniles in the state reform institutions come from homes where there is no father present. Fortune writer Myron Magnet concludes, “Ominously, the most reliable predictor of crime is neither poverty nor race, but growing up fatherless.” Men who are not simply abandoning a particular spouse, but the institution of marriage and the children born to it, are fueling the divorce culture.
Research shows that a fatherless boy is more likely to grow up a misogynist. Boys need to break psychologically from their mothers. Without a father to legitimize this break, sons either become over-attached to their mothers or flee attachment to women in general. Both options evidence a deeply insecure masculinity. David Gutmann, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Northwestern University, writes, “Physical distance boys achieve by flight: from the mother’s home to the streets, to the fighting gangs that rule them, and, at the end of the day, to the all-male faternity of the penitentiary. Social distance they gain through violence: unable finally to split from mother, they provoke her—through criminality, addictions, sexual exploitations, and physical threats… They use violence to drop out of the mother’s cultural world, and off her scale of values; and, once evicted to the streets, they turn to booze and drugs for the transient comfort that they can no longer take from their mother’s hand.”
Marshall Mathers is the poster child of the misogynist fatherless boy. Tattooed on his belly is a tombstone that reads KIM: ROT IN PIECES. Kim Mathers is his wife of two years and mother of his daughter. It is no surprise that his lyrics celebrate violence toward women or that he has found the patronage of Dr. Dre, his surrogate father. Like O.J. Simpson whose strong and devoted mother was abandoned by her cross-dressing, homosexual husband when O.J. was three, Marshall Mathers also evidences the pattern of insecure masculinity.
His disdain for homosexuality and violence toward women follow a common psychological profile. Surely he is responsible for his attitudes and actions, but they do not emerge in a psychological vacuum. Here we see in spades the biblical warning that the sins of fathers are passed down from one generation to the next. What is the lesson here? Eminem reminds us that “The presence of fathers matters—especially in adolescence, particularly for boys.”
Mainstreaming of Resentment
Eminem’s popularity, in part, reflects a growing cultural polarization. Mainstream America is no longer middle class nor does it reflect its bourgeois values. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing. In the last twenty years, America has experienced what MIT economist Paul Krugman calls, “a seismic shift in the character of our society.” We are drifting towards an economic pattern that exists in countries such as Mexico, India, and Brazil. Nor is this only a liberal analysis of the facts. Conservative Kevin Philips writes, “What we are witnessing in the United States today is a broad transition toward social and economic stratification, toward walled-in communities, and hardening class structures.”
There are two consequences to this shift. One is the rise of a culture of resentment. Eminem sings on his song, “Rock Bottom:”
This song is dedicated to all the happy people
All the happy people
That have real nice lives
That have no idea whats like to be broke as f–k
I feel like I’m walking a tight rope
Without a circus net
I’m popping percuset
I’m a nervous wreck
I deserve respect
But I’m working sweat for this worthless cheque
The postmodern poverty of which he sings has created a growing underclass, many of them white. Eminem gives voice to their frustration and anger. Our society contains a double truth—within our borders an opportunity society and a caste society coexist. The lifestyles of the rich and famous fill the television screens in the rural trailer parks and urban ghettos of our nation. It offers an unfulfillable promise. The gap between the religion of consumerism and reality of poverty is being filled with apathy, frustration, hedonism, and nihilism. With some honesty, Hillary Rosen of the Recording Industry Association of America observes, “For each person who believes rap lyrics portray a foreign world, there is another who finds them deep and powerful because that world is all too real.”
And this world is a growing consumer market, even if poor. It has caught the attention of Madison Avenue. Without any moral scruples it panders to the lowest common denominator of social tastes to make a fast buck. In case one hasn’t noticed, there is a growing coarseness in popular entertainment. There is nothing unusual about Eminem for those who have grown up with a diet of WWF, MTV’s Celebrity Deathmatch, Faces of Death, Jerry Springer, Jenny Jones, Beavis and Butthead, South Park, The Greaseman, Howard Stern, RuPaul, slasher films, porn, and No Limit records. We are witnessing corporate sponsored versions of the Roman orgy—drugs, sex, and violence. Whether it is the CEOs of Vitacom or Seagram, wealthy men in pin-stripped suits are financing our cultural decay. The Medellin drug cartels have nothing on them. This is consumer-driven nihilism, free-market capitalism without a conscience. And when the Republican National Convention has WWF’s “The Rock” introduce vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney on national TV, one wonders where one looks for cultural gravitas. This much is certain, one is hesitant to immediately point the finger at a struggling white rapper from the corner of Van Dyke and Nine Mile Road, a blue collar Detroit suburb. Scapegoating is to miss the point of our culture-wide systemic crisis. Eminem reminds us that “cultural context matters.”
Logic of Therapeutic Catharsis
Eminem also reflects the therapeutic ideal of verbal catharsis. Says his manager, Paul Rosenberg, “He’s still got tons of anger in him. His records are psychotherapy for him. He works out his problems in the recording booth.” Eminem has been on tour with LimpBizkit, the band that incited the Woodstock ‘99 riots, a 2000 tour named the Anger Management Tour. Its name is more than ironic; it is part of a wider rationale for lyrical combat as a palliative for physical violence. The same argument is sometimes made for violent video games. They help boys release aggression. And yet such arguments belie common sense as well as a host of scientific and anecdotal evidence. This fall the FBI released a two-year study conducted after the Columbine school shootings concluding that students who have a “preoccupation with themes of violence” are more likely to be perpetrators of violence.
Such observations are keen insights into the obvious. As Christians we must not fall prey to this catharsis psychobabble about releasing male aggression. Giving up anger is the first step to learning to love like Jesus, for it involves giving up the right to have one’s own way. Jesus observes in the Sermon on the Mount that anger, contempt for others, and verbal “dissing” of others is the root of violence. Jesus’ warning is among his strongest in Scripture: “Anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ [an Aramaic term of contempt] is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 7:22). Does anyone truly believe today that the words one says to another person may put them in risk of hell? Our words uniquely reflect our heart. Jesus warns, “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). But on the receiving side, words have the unique power to destroy another person. Jesus’ high ethical bar is evidence of his respect for the personhood of others.
Yet today verbal anger is bracketed as therapy and disassociated from physical violence. And so the self-centeredness of anger and the studied degradation of others goes largely unchecked. For many, it is cool to use profanity. It’s cool to pack a gun. It’s cool to pick a fight. Power is the only morality that matters. Power, not love, is the measure of a man. In such a culture one would best examine one’s own heart before judging Marshall Mathers. For our culture is awash in anger—some of which stems from our own hearts in own words and actions. Eminem reminds us that “Venting is rarely constructive.”
Disconnect of Responsibility
Finally, Eminem makes us realize that many do not believe in the power of words. Words are cheap today. Lying and spin control are our common experience. Everything is trivialized as a joke. Nothing is serious. The discerning listener of Eminem, we are told, will understand that it is all intended as a joke. But one wonders whether a Black artist could get away with lines that read, “Got pissed off and ripped Pamela Lee’s tits off.” A decade ago, 2-Live-Crew outraged the adult public. Today similar lyrics are met with mainstream adulation.
Words and language are the building blocks of culture. They create a reality. And yet we discount them as “mere words.” Danny Goldberg, president of Artemis Records, defended the lyrics of contemporary music at the Senate Hearings with this advice, “We don’t have pictures. We don’t have nudity. We don’t have blood. All we have is words, and all we can do is label the curse words.” We can bemoan the contemporary use of the First Amendment. But isn’t the problem far deeper than judicial judgments or legislative warnings? We live in a world where words and actions are all disconnected from responsibility. Nothing is to be taken seriously and no one is responsible. “It’s just entertainment.” “We give them what they want.” “I say it the way I see it.” Or as Eminem intones:
Look, I can’t change the way I think
And I can’t change the way I am
But if I offended you? Good
‘Cause I still don’t give a f–k.
Whether Eminem cares or not, whether his words are meant as a joke or not, their power remains in their offensiveness. For one cannot long listen to such lyrics without desensitizing one’s mind to the feelings of others and their intrinsic value as persons. Eminem reminds us of this simple fact “that words are powerful.”
The importance of fathers, the impact of context, the violence of anger, the power of words—these are lessons we learn from Slim Shady. They are lessons we might miss if our first response is to judge. Marshall Mathers is finally more about us than about a shock rapper from Detroit. Eminem reminds us of the breadth and depth of living in a nihilistic culture.