The figure of Slim Shady haunts the moldering corridors of the Midwest. In every town you’ll meet them–tall, pale young men in hoodies on the margins of the mainstream economy. They roam the busted landscape of blue-collar America, enacting private sagas of self-destruction in search of some lost myth of unsullied masculinity. In high-school I saw these types–blunted would-be alpha-males who faded from the classroom into the self-imposed exile of vaguely criminal existence. They’d move into a trailer with their uncle who was rumored to have just gotten out of the joint. They disappeared from the community into the drug-addled small-town underclass that’s invisible until you know where to look. Rumors would float that they’d started using meth. Nowadays it’s much the same–except heroin’s the drug of choice and you can’t so easily turn a blind eye.
These types existed before Marshall Mathers. Through his music, however, the type has taken up permanent place in pop culture and found a name in the myth of Slim Shady. In The Slim Shady LP, Mathers catapulted white America’s festering id onto the national stage. The appeal extended across class lines. Songs like “My Fault” (a tale of giving magic mushrooms to an unprepared prospective female fuck) portrayed a world of perpetual adolescence where aimlessness was a fact of life and partying was just how you survived. Professional media-class types could enjoy the song as an innocent laff. Suburban kids recognized themselves in the juvenile debauchery (though of course eventually they’d grow up). The music took permanent hold, though, in what’s now called the white working class. All over you’ll find young men on the economic margins (working as cooks in fast-food restaurants or as transient construction workers) for whom Slim Shady is not a pop-culture artifact but a living, breathing figure to be lived up to. These young white men often enjoy other, black rap (mumble-rap nowadays) in a superficial, occasionally ironic manner. Eminem, though, is almost sacred–they have every word of every song memorized. Slim Shady and the accompanying mythos serves as something close to a verbally-transmitted epic saga of the dying heartland. And Eminem offered up version of macho pathos precisely as the traditional markers of masculinity were becoming increasingly difficult to achieve.
Throughout his career, Eminem’s deepened the Slim Shady persona. He’s not the only rapper, of course, who’s developed a personal narrative. Kanye’s album cycle from College Dropout to Graduation enshrined the saga of the talented semi-suburban black kid’s ascent towards self-absorbed superstardom. Black rappers like Tyler the Creator directly riff off that–and really the whole mood of mumble-rap can be considered a gritty evolution. In the same way, Eminem’s albums form a loose cycle that’s had lasting repercussions for the imagination of white America. Slim Shady was pure id; Encore invokes the heady days of high drug use. Relapse and Recovery are songs of experience which supposedly mark the hard-fought attainment of maturity. It’s no accident that Eminem became less critically respected around the time of Encore. As he “got serious,” his music spoke less and less to critics who were only in it for the irony. The titles of Relapse and Recovery are key–they signify to dedicated audiences. Though those CDs came out in the late 2000’s, they presaged the fate of a large fraction of young white kids whose life-stories are defined by the Sisyphean struggle of opiate-addiction and stunted attempts at sobriety. Eminem’s will to maturity resonates because in real life the Slim Shady lifestyle racks up consequences. Unplanned kids, child support, and baby mamas force those already on the economic margins to compromise with dismal options or literally starve. Mather’s vitriol against ex-wife Kim and his faltering stabs at fatherhood speak to the real-life gender divide and animosity between sexes. Deprived men and women stare into the void of traditional gender roles but have no obvious, more egalitarian alternatives. Their emotional scars and accumulating children are some of the few constants that situate their lives. The mythos of Eminem’s later albums (hard-won wisdom atop seething resentment) allows dignity and purpose for some of those poor estranged fathers whom respectable society would label “deadbeat.”
That resentment doesn’t dwell solely on baby mamas, though. The generation that’s exiled itself into addiction out of a lack of choices is also angry at those they perceive to have rigged the game. Some rural whites increasingly perceive themselves as an ethnic group oppressed by unseen elites. This has fueled the backlash against the supposed omnipresence of pansy political correctness. The early days of Slim Shady now seem an innocent period in anti-PC culture when you could rail against crazy bitches, faggots, and lesbos and still be accepted by most liberals. But that contradiction in the liberal conscience is more than matched by the contradictions of Eminem’s murky political beliefs. Mathers railed against Bush and the Iraq War (proof back then he was on “our side”) but in light of the demographics he’s now locked into it seems a precursor to Trump’s anti-Bushism and the alt-right’s anti-cuckservatism. The grievance of white adolescents is a hard thing to steer towards socially-constructive ends. It seemed inconceivable back then that white kids fantasizing about storming the Bush White House with Em could be anything but good. Mathers’ liberal media masters were appeased. In hindsight, though, it seems many listeners were yearning perhaps not for progressive alternatives to Bush but something closer to what we see in Trump today. Some of the aimless, angry white kids of anti-Bush yore have conceivably evolved into the aggrieved, reactionary Trump-base of today
Eminem has always served two masters with varying success. The media executives and music critic-types above him–and the faceless mass of listeners below. What did those above want out of him? (Besides a quick buck.) Armond White wrote convincingly back in the day in First about how Eminem functioned as a Great White Hope for those in the media-sphere still ambivalent about black rappers and hip hop culture in general. For them, Eminem was rap (hateful, juvenile, misogynistic) that one could enjoy without confronting messy racial politics. Eminem provided a way for whites to continue their constant claims on black culture for themselves. The dream was to make a synthesis of Whiteness and black culture purged of all traces of blackness. But history’s not a one-way road. Racked by its own contradictions, even the genocidal logic of white appropriation sometimes falters before its own desired end. Since the explosion of hip-hop culture, whites–both well-off liberals and the under-privileged–have hungered after that ultimate taboo–claiming the black card for themselves. The white elephant haunting Eminem’s stage has always been “nigga.” Well-intentioned white rappers have always drawn a red line between themselves and that self-appropriation. But in light of Em’s raging id and hatred of political correctness, it seems remarkable he never crucified himself upon such a controversy (of course, only in the furtherance of free speech). Eminem seemed ordained to fulfill that role–and as he faltered, his presence became less relevant. Appreciation of his music faded into pockets of white America that could take the “good” and dream of what could have been.
And then they got the dream. Deep within the heart of white America lies the contradictory impulse to have it both ways with that ultimate taboo. To hurl the hard “-er” at the Other–and to keep the “-a” for themselves as an aggrieved ethnic group. Trump and the alt-right have gotten very close to making that dream a reality. What sense can an old-timer like Eminem make of our current situation?
His recent (prerecorded) anti-Trump freestyle sheds light on the difficulty of his situation. He starts off faltering and in hesitation, almost like he needs to refresh himself on why he actually hates Trump. The whole thing’s a non sequitur–he alternates liberal talking points like Puerto Rico and Trump’s misogyny with insults like “Trump’s a bitch.” It’s terribly awkward and ends up getting really nowhere. At first glance it’s a publicity stunt–but the anger of Mather’s voice speaks to real, incoherent demons flaying his soul. Why really does Slim Shady hate Trump? When to do so risks alienating many of his listeners? Those MAGA’ers in his audience will decide whether to stick with Em. I think though, that many will choose to watch him from a distance with pity. Em once ruled their world. He gave solace to the reactionary imagination–but now they’ve moved onto power. Em stares ghostlike at the Don and sees the newer, more powerful model of himself. Much like his listeners, he’s now cast off and left to rage incoherently against conditions he does not fully understand. Marshall Mathers looks defeated–an abortion in the logic of his masters’ interest. His song is over but, as in his earlier words, “the beat goes on, da da dumb da dumb dumb.”
2 Bill Maher’s the most recent example, but the event’s already fallen out of memory: http://www.newsweek.com/bill-maher-real-time-racism-637404