“Damn, how much damage can you do with a pen?”
-Eminem, Who Knew
By Sam Fuhrer
When I was 9 years old, at my suburban elementary school in Chappaqua, New York, I came to class one day and said “Will the real Slim Shady please stand up.” Ms. Sharon, my third grade teacher, could have been the sweetest lady I ever met, and up to that point hadn’t raised her voice the entire year. When she heard me say that, she snapped. Turning red with anger, she threatened to send me to the principal’s office and said that if anyone referenced “He who shall not be named” again, there would be extraordinary consequences. This was in March, and bringing up Eminem in the classroom put her in such a panicked rage, that she never fully recovered for the rest of the year.
In the last 20 years, no one in any genre of art has made something that remotely surfaces the level of impact that the Marshall Mathers LP had on the culture. Slim Shady exploded into the new millenium, taking over MTV with his bleach blonde hair, baggy white t-shirts and blue jeans. He infested the air waves from coast to coast, and inspired an entire generation of young white men, ages 9–29, to dress like him, walk like him, talk like him and act like him. The same way thousands of Jewish girls across the country wore crucifixes because of Madonna in the 80’s, enormous groups of white kids began rapping and swearing because of Eminem.
The Marshall Mathers LP was an electrifying, self-aware masterpiece, that sold over 30 million copies worldwide. He artfully captured the ethos of the times, articulating the hidden subtext that most of the youth in America was thinking. The truth is there wasn’t an edgy character that was consumable for the new millennium. The 90’s boy band craze was losing steam, and the white washed music of 98 degrees, NSync and The Backstreet Boys had run its course. Their phony presentation was transparent and people could tell that they were put together in a factory. Kurt Cobain killed himself and the Beastie Boys were aging. Eminem’s originality was striking. He did things his way and unapologetically said how he felt.
Throughout the Marshall Mathers LP he made multiple comments about raping his own mother, dedicated an entire 5 minute track to a cathartic fantasy where he murders his wife, Kim, jokes about his 4 year old daughter becoming a drug addict and makes dozens of homophobic slurs. No wonder my third grade teacher was offended…
He also made multiple pop culture references, from Carson Daly to Fred Durst, Will Smith to Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears and of course, the beloved NSync. Each of them were mercilessly made fun of and the whole cultural lampoon became a nightmarish puppet show in Em’s music videos. He offered the antithesis to anyone that was exhausted by the current situation and it resonated with the disgruntled masses when he said “I’m not Mr. NSync, I’m not what your friends think, I can be a prick,” (The Way I Am).
It’s not that what he was saying was unique to the hip hop genre, it’s that because he was a good looking white man, he was able to penetrate a certain demographic more effectively than anyone had in the past, including Tupac, Biggie, Snoop Dogg, and N.W.A. He also used humor more than other rappers, was self-deprecating, and had the impeccable skill of making comments that he knew would cause a reaction, sometimes for shock value, sometimes to get it off his chest. The media was rarely able to distinguish which was which.
In America, the Media Industrial Complex does not care whether something is good or bad, it cares whether people will pay attention to it. Leslie Moonves, CEO of CBS, infamously said “Donald Trump may not be good for America, but he’s damn good for CBS.” While Eminem bluntly made fun of the media and the content it distributed, there wasn’t a hit music station, magazine publication or TV station that didn’t feature him. Either condemning him for hate speech or praising his artistic expression, every person in America had an opinion on him. Eminem made hip hop consumable for white people, and when something dangerous and offensive becomes commoditized, The market tends to over saturate it until it is fully absorbed within the culture. Eventually people become desensitized to what was once shocking and grotesque and come to accept it as mainstream.
It is possible to be at the top of your game, and still be a caricature of yourself. His new album, Revival, demonstrates a masterful command of the language, intricate rhyme schemes, some hilarious cultural references, and an overly clear political message. He’s improved his skills as a rapper, but his evolution as a human seems stunted and forced. On various songs he collaborates with stars including Pink, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran and Alicia Keys, coming a long way from the fringe artist shunned upon in classrooms. He is on the cover of feminist fashion magazines and regarded as a hero of the gay community. This new record relies on sophomoric puns and forced authenticity, while it tries to determine whether its politically correct or zany and offensive. It winds up being neither.
There is nothing that even grazes a sliver of the reaction that any track on The Marshall Mathers LP did. Even the line about putting Ivanka Trump in the trunk of his car barely raises an eyebrow. It comes off as a cheap imitation of himself, and a sad reflection on his waning relevance. He’s simply just playing Slim Shady, doing what he’s done on his past three albums, while trying to contribute to the cultural conversation. It’s like seeing the star high school athlete at a 20 year reunion and realizing that he may still be attractive, but is still the same dumb jock, and that’s not as charming once everyone else has developed and moved on.
Eminem recently created a viral video in a Detroit parking lot where he speaks about throwing Trump into his deplorable immigrant wall, and draws a line in the sand to divide both their supporters. It’s hard to imagine that the statement even remotely influenced anyone that had already supported Trump. In Don DeLillo’s novel, Mao II, a character says “I used to think it was possible for an artist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.” Almost a generation ago, Eminem did alter the inner life of a culture. He offered a voice for the silent majority, speaking up for angry white men and boys who did not feel represented by the status quo. The only person to do that on a massive scale since Eminem has been Trump.
Arguably, the three most impactful people on American culture since the year 2000 have been Eminem 2000–2006, Obama 2008–2014, and Trump, 2015–2018, each rising from the ether like a cultural Messiah during a political transition. Eminem was a refreshing dose of truth who voiced the unspoken outrage people felt with the hypocrisy of the Clinton administration. Obama redeemed the countries integrity after being internationally embarrassed by Bush’s response to 9/11 and the Iraq War. Trump is now the unlikely hero of the working poor who feel disenfranchised by a politically correct status-quo that seemingly left them behind. Trump and Eminem both share extremely expressive hand gestures.
In his book Zero to One, billionaire investor, Peter Thiel, says “The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system… And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network.” To that point, the next Eminem will not be a rapper. While hip hop will indefinitely remain a cultural staple, the genre has become too commoditized and ingrained in popularity, that words and messages delivered through the medium have lost their potency. Not so long ago, hip hop was fringe music for the disenfranchised, now it is the mainstream. It’s hard to predict what the next mega shift in the culture will be, but historically they run counter to the mainstream narrative.
As the 24/7 content and news cycle shows no sign of slowing down, it may not be an individual who rises from the noise to speak the truth, but perhaps something more monumental. The next thing to have a mega impact on the culture could be A.I., maybe the discovery of an alien life force, or maybe a massive global catastrophe. Either way, Eminem will have a response and an opinion, some people will listen, but it will not matter.