The moment Eminem arrived on the scene in 1999 with “My Name Is,” he took his place as the rock-star rage queen du jour — replacing Marilyn Manson, who replaced Courtney Love, who replaced Axl Rose. These stars always arrive with a big splash, venting their fury at all the ways the world has let them down. They don’t always last (Manson’s and Courtney’s shocks sure slid into desperate cries for attention pretty quickly), partly because they’re not all that interested in music per se, but also because they lack a subject beyond the old me-me-me.
Yet Eminem has proved his staying power as rock & roll’s biggest pain in the ass, at a time when most music is trying its damnedest to be dull. He’s not exactly what you’d call a hero — but in 2002, he was the only game in town, the star who tried to push our buttons and challenge our assumptions and piss us off and, as he so delicately puts it, roll up on us like Christopher Reeve. This was the year when he acted out all the most demented, most ignorant, funniest, ugliest, stupidest and liveliest sides of his psyche — sometimes humiliating himself, sometimes dazzling with sick brilliance.
Eminem summed up why he matters with his summer smash “Without Me,” a song that encapsulates everything there is to love and hate about him. It’s his catchiest hit ever, the first one where the music behind him is every bit as extraordinary as his rhymes, and the moment at the end when he tries to sing along with that Middle Eastern flogged-goat keyboard hook is the moment you kept waiting for on the radio all year. His brutal wit, his energy, his inventive rhyme-slinging are all at a peak.
So, unfortunately, are all the things people can’t stand about Em: his self-pity, his ego, his pomposity, his thin whine, his chickenshit terror of women and gay people and everyone else who doesn’t fit into his tight-assed little vision of the world. He’s a public figure who knows how to keep his audience riveted even when he’s ranting about how much he hates us. He’s a doting dad who gets more violent and misogynistic with every album. He’s one of hip-hop’s funniest lyricists, except once he’s off the mike, he has no sense of humor at all. So who is this guy, anyway?
Em might have taken his angry-blond stand-up act as far as it can go. After four years as a showbiz pro, he can’t keep getting away with his product-of-the environment excuses for his problems — we’ve already heard the one about the ex-wife he doesn’t like so much, and enough already about his mom. On his debut album, he still had real life to complain about, rapping about shit jobs and high school. On The Eminem Show, he’s mainly rapping about the usual high-life irritations.
But somehow, the more he complains about his lavishly documented private life, the more unknowable he seems. He’s cleaning out his closet but doesn’t tell us what he finds. All we know is that he worries a lot about how real he is, and the main way he can think of to prove he’s real is to demonstrate that he really, really, really hates the ladies. (We all have our least favorite Eminem moment, but has he ever spit a less funny line than “Put anthrax on a Tampax/And slap you till you can’t stand”?) He’ll have to think of more ways if he wants to hold on to his audience, and more than that, do something with that audience.
Also, he’s run out of harmless white artists to have heavily publicized, utterly meaningless beefs with — he’s already run through Christina Aguilera, Everlast, Insane Clown Posse, ‘NSync and Moby. (On the schedule for next year: Meat Loaf, Morrissey and the Olsen twins.) He’ll either have to switch to beefing with black people (hey, dude, Suge Knight has denounced your lyrics, and he didn’t like your Elton John duet, either) or grow up. Em had his all-time most embarrassing moment as a star this year at the MTV Video Music Awards, when he tried to pick a fight with a hand puppet. Surrounded by bodyguards, trying to bully a piece of mangy brown fabric, Em just looked kinda pathetic.
8 Mile proves that Eminem acts a hell of a lot better than Jennifer Lopez sings. But the really amazing thing about the movie’s success is that so many people were willing to wait in line and pay ten bucks for a chance to spend two hours inside Eminem’s head — there were probably just as many people who gladly would have paid ten bucks to not have to hear about the guy for two hours.
In 2002, Em was the only imaginable star who could cross so many boundaries and invade so many other people’s lives. His daughter, Hailie, is right, in the words she sings on the best song from The Eminem Show: Her dad’s gone crazy, and his craziness is part of the package he’s selling.
Still, as he has turned the corner on thirty, Eminem remains hung up on childhood pain, and it’s time to cut the cord. “White America, I could be one of your kids,” he says on The Eminem Show. Well, not when you’re thirty. Nobody knows how he’ll handle adulthood, but that’s the challenge ahead. An audience of millions hangs on his every word, listening to find out how he’ll do it. Some are kids looking for clues, some are vultures hoping he’ll fail. Let’s hope Eminem has something more to show them than his middle finger.