Sunday 1 July 2001

Experiencing Eminem

A New Labour man contemplates one of the weirdest events of his life

Have you ever wondered what your reaction would be if you met someone whose views or actions you strongly objected to?

I would like to think that if I met Prince Philip tomorrow, I would kick him on the shins. I’m not a violent man, but I think a kick on the shins would provide just about the right level of humiliation for that reactionary old racist. But when I consider what I would say to one of the most disgusting figures currently in the public eye, Eminem, I find myself at a loss.

Earlier this year I attended the Brit Awards - the annual shindig of the British pop industry, plastic to the core (with just a bit of frankly very boring guitar music - Coldplay - around the crust). I felt pretty incongruous - despite my youth, I am more into Bob Dylan than Westlife. However, hanging out as I was with the great and good from one of the trendiest Labour constituencies, I don’t expect Michael Cashman and company found me to be much of an annoyance. But still, I could not help but feel out of place, and none more so than when the American rapper Eminem performed.

I was genuinely surprised that some of the people in the same party as me were looking forward to seeing Eminem. I should point out that my objections to the man are purely political, and this is a political article; I do not like rap music in particular, but I do not have any objection to it as a musical form which people can enjoy. When it comes to Eminem, I could not care less about his musical genre of choice. But when I protested to my colleagues that Eminem was homophobic and mysogenistic, moreover that via his music he encouraged violence towards the objects of his hatred, I was hit with what is best described as a barrage of reactionary tabloid cliches. “He doesn’t mean it”. “It’s all ironic”.

How did my colleagues know this? Have they ever read or observed Eminem attempt to paint himself as some sort of social satirist, with hidden meanings, reversed messages between the lines, and dark humour all interwoven into his lyrics? (I didn’t phrase my retort quite like this, you’ll be relieved to hear.) No. In fact, the only people who make these explanations are fans of the rapper. In an article in the Guardian in February, Giles Foden does his best to fall into this category. Advising critics of Eminem such as myself to “relax a little”, Foden correctly admits that Eminem makes “deliberately inflammatory statements”, but then plucks out of nowhere the assertion that in doing so the rapper is merely “parodying less thoughtful rappers”. Where is his evidence for this? There is absolutely none. To support his claim that Eminem’s incitements to violence are not sincerely meant, Foden offers us “the younger fans who buy Eminem’s albums probably understand this instinctively”.

If this is the best he can do, then I am afraid he has no case at all. Knowing that no evidence of the type I am demanding exists, he tells us that young people might somehow have an instinct for recognising the lyrics’ unproven irony. To be fair, he does quote Eminem in non-song mode once, saying “There are kids out there who, believe it or not, want to be the have-nots”. So it is okay for him to encourage violence towards homosexuals and women, because the people who might do it want to do it anyway? Eminem sings disgusting and potentially very dangerous lyrics; he offers no justification or qualification, from which we can only assume he means it; people like the lyrics; they realise how distasteful they are; and so they invent an excuse. To excuse yourself admits a weakness - hence the ideal solution is to excuse the performer instead. But Eminem seeks no excuse, and deserves one even less. His songs are anti-gay, anti-women, and pro-violence towards gays and women.

But let us return to the Brits, where Eminem received a rapturous reception and performed a song for us. When he came on, I moved away from my table, as I was keen to shout my protest at him and did not want to embarrass my colleagues too much (very New Labour, I must admit). So I moved nearer the stage and began making what was very much a one-man protest. This was a waste of time, other than for getting my adrenalin pumping in a way which I have only really experienced at demonstrations, as the music was extremely loud, and I soon noticed some security men prowling about.

Instead, I decided to wander around the arena, trying to gauge the reaction of people to Eminem. This proved to be, without any exaggeration, one of the weirdest events of my life. The teenagers at the front of the house were going absolutely wild. I have seen footage of Beatlemania, and I guess this was something similar. Even the motivations of the thirteen year olds were probably similar - they were going wild about the latest pop star. But at the time, the Beatles were saying She Loves You, Help, I Feel Fine, for god’s sake! Eminem, on the other hand, was inciting violence against certain groups of people. Did any teenage girls go out there after that and beat up a gay person? Well, probably not. But this country is a long way from eradicating prejudices such as homophobia and sexism. It is without question a social good that all people are treated equally and can live free from the fear of violence, and free from any form of prejudice simply because of what type of person they are. To achieve this will take a hell of a lot more struggle. Should we as a society be paying Eminem to preach his prejudiced gospel? Given that it threatens the mental well-being, self-respect and, yes, physical safety of some people?

The young people, then, went wild. They went hysterical. It is difficult to describe quite how disturbing it was for me to witness such a reaction to this man, considering the sentiments he was expressing. I am not interested in the face mask or the switched-off electric drill; these were just pathetic attempts at scaring people, made by a pathetic man. In fact his intentions in that regard were, in my mind, a touch ironic, as he did not need such sidelines in order to scare. Of course, I realise that there was not a direct relationship between the lyrics and the reaction. But in a way this is more worrying than if there had been - at least then it would be clear what we faced. But as it was - do these young people listen to the lyrics at all? If so, to what extent? Do they approve of the prejudices? If so, what hope is there for those of us who desire - and strive for - the creation of an equal society? What scares, or at any rate worries, me most is the possibility that these questions cannot be answered.

Eminem will probably fade away, like most modern pop stars. But the effects of his bigotry may remain.

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