"We need a little controversy/'Cause it feels so empty without me": Man, was he ever right. When Eminem put out "Without Me," the first single from The Eminem Show, last spring, could he possibly have realized how gigantic he would become this year? In a depressed sales market, The Eminem Show has sold well over six million copies, and currently sits in the Top Ten six months after its release. His movie 8 Mile is shattering box office records and, as the holidays approach, shows no signs of slowing down. And the 8 Mile soundtrack entered the charts at number one, and has also taken its place in the Top Ten. It evidently did feel so empty without him: As 2002 draws to a close, Eminem is the only serious candidate for Artist of the Year.
But Eminem was wrong about the controversy part. The only thing controversial about Eminem these days is how uncontroversial he has suddenly become. When he wrote the lyrics to "Without Me," Eminem was no doubt thinking about the firestorm of criticism that erupted shortly after the release of The Marshall Mathers LP just two years ago. In June of 2000, reporter Eric Boehlert wrote an article for Salon.com with this provocative headline: "Invisible Man: Eminem May Be the Most Violent, Woman-Hating, Homophobic Rapper Ever. Why Are Critics Giving Him a Pass?"
In a bizarre, guilt-laden, over-reaction to the praise they had previously heaped on Eminem, every media outlet in the country raced to follow Boehlert's story, including Rolling Stone, where I wrote a piece decrying Eminem's "hate rhymes" and interviewed him about such topics as why he would freely use the term "faggot" but would never utter the word "nigga." Entertainment Weekly fretted that music had "gone too far," and Newsweek convened a symposium to ponder the impact of popular culture on the impressionable young. And if the liberal, media elite were incensed about Eminem, right-wing culture critics were only too happy to condemn a style of music they despised. Eminem's young, rebellious audience seemed to be the only people willing to stand by him.
Through it all, Eminem pretty much continued doing what he had always done, saying little and changing virtually nothing about either his persona or attitude. So when The Eminem Show was about to be released, everybody, including Eminem, was prepared for the backlash that never came.
And not only did the backlash never arrive -- in the past six months Eminem has become the media's darling, landing on one magazine cover after another, including such eminently mainstream outlets as The New York Times Magazine. When I went to see 8 Mile on the upper west side of Manhattan a week ago, the audience was packed not with sixteen-year-old black and white hip-hop kids -- though they were there too -- but with people in their twenties and thirties on dates or out for a Friday-night flick. They were not music fans; they were coming out to see the latest movie star. Movie industry research claims that more women than men are seeing 8 Mile. Far from being a misogynist pariah, Eminem is the hottest male sex symbol on the scene -- regardless of what People Magazine claims about Ben Affleck.
So what happened? Maybe after 9/11 the country has finally decided that it has more important things to worry than rap lyrics -- though that hasn't stopped viewers and women's organizations from protesting something as relatively innocent as a Victoria's Secret lingerie special on network television.
Or maybe Elton John's duet with Eminem on the Grammy telecast in 2001 -- and, more significantly, their post-performance hug -- defused the charges of the rapper's homophobia. After all, if everyone's gay Uncle Elton could embrace Eminem in front of a worldwide audience, how dangerous could he be? Even Eminem's own bad public behavior -- threatening "the Moby girl" on MTV's Video Music Awards and, hilariously, smacking down the hand-puppet Triumph the Insult Dog -- did nothing to dull the halo currently surrounding him. (Of course, MTV, characteristically sensitive to which side its bread is buttered on, dutifully removed the offensive footage from its endless rebroadcasts of the show.) And Eminem's ex-wife and mother, the primary objects of his anti-woman harangues, haven't exactly proven themselves to be the sort of upstanding citizens who could unite a nation in their defense.
Or maybe, in a country whose media appetites are whetted by twenty-four-hour news cycles, yesterday's scandals are just yesterday's news, even in the post-9/11 world. Eminem is enormously talented, and, more tellingly, he's selling records and driving people into the theaters at a time when everyone in the entertainment industry has been wringing their hands about when the Next Big Thing was ever going to emerge.
Well, the Next Big Thing is here, but it looks unsettlingly like the Old Big Thing. But then, if the dollars are rolling in and you can't remember much past last week anyway, what's the problem with that? After all, it felt so empty without him.