Eminem, rebel with unneeded cause

March 04, 2001|By Barbara Frye

I'VE BEEN LISTENING to a lot of educated, middle-class people defend Eminem recently, and I've noticed that they like to point out that the rapper comes from, and sings about, a demographic that doesn't see itself in the popular culture.

He represents, they say, a group of young men who come from poor to working class backgrounds with no prospects of college or movement into the middle class. Violence, whether inside or outside the home, is a familiar part of their world; opportunity and respect are not.

So let's not reject Eminem because he makes us feel uncomfortable or forces us to see the inner lives of these invisible people, say many of his defenders. As renowned critic Nelson George said recently, Eminem's persona may be objectionable, but that doesn't make it invalid.

This is a difficult argument to swallow, especially considering that Eminem's domain is largely the privileged, suburban white boy's bedroom. It's hard not to feel that Marshall Mathers has put one over on many of these defenders. An education at the school of hard knocks needn't lead to hatred, as it seems to in his work.

I was raised in a family scarred by racism, alcoholism, poverty, domestic violence and divorce. I'm the only one of four siblings to graduate from high school, let alone attend college or graduate school. I absolutely agree with these middle-class types who point out that a whole section of our society is deemed to have lives not interesting or complex enough to be represented in popular art.

As a teen-ager, I enjoyed valuable friendships with middle-class kids, but I always knew I was different from them. They took college, a future and stability for granted. I fretted over these things constantly.

I was ambitious and wanted to get out. Like the kids who supposedly identify with Eminem's work, I looked to rock music for images of myself, and I found them in Bruce Springsteen, a very different kind of artist.

I was choked up and electrified all at once by his music. Finally, someone had confirmed that I, and my brothers and sister, were fitting subjects of poetry.

While Bruce Springsteen's work was infused with a desperation that I'm convinced many of his middle-class fans have never really understood, it was also about finding dignity and grace in rituals often ridiculed or simply ignored by those same people. It was about my father getting up before sunrise to put on his dark-blue work uniform and the boys I knew whose most valuable possessions were the second-hand cars they raced on back roads (and who seemed doomed to become that early-rising blue-collar worker themselves).

Like Bruce Springsteen, I didn't want that kind of life, but I didn't reject it as worthless or one-dimensional, either.

So when people - especially comfortable, middle-class people - credit Eminem for providing these powerless people with a voice, I wonder, a voice for what? Does anyone deserve a forum for hatred? I don't think so, and I certainly didn't hope for one during my most anguished, powerless moments growing up.

I understand also, as Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said during the Grammys, that rock 'n' roll is about rebellion, and we've seen this drama played out before with Elvis Presley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But those artists questioned our ideas about sexuality, music, authority and even separation of the races.

Certainly, youth rebellion has to make us uncomfortable for it to be effective, for it to make some lasting change in our culture. But what is the rebellious element of Eminem? Is it those lyrics that many of us find objectionable?

Keep in mind that hate is not rebellious: It's reactionary. Too many of us hold on secretly to these bitter little prejudices and make heroes of those who proclaim them loudly. (Remember Pat Buchanan?)

Finally, some would counsel us just to calm down, not to help Eminem's case (or record sales) by getting so hot and bothered. This may be a savvy approach, but I can't help but think that it's worth telling our kids that hate is not acceptable, no matter how brilliantly displayed.

Barbara Frye is a free-lance writer and a part-time copy editor for the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier.

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