The refrain is engrained in the American consciousness by now, to the point where the response is unconscious. “Hi, my name is … ,” the squeaky voice begins, and all of teenage America shouts back, “Slim Shady,” in what could fairly be termed a Pavlovian reaction. Such is the phenomenon of Eminem, the most talked about pop musician in the country. The franchise of Slim Shady began with “Hi, My Name Is … ,” the huge single off of his major-label debut, 1998’s Slim Shady LP. When the follow-up album was released, 2000’s Marshall Mathers LP, listeners immediately gravitated towards “The Real Slim Shady,” an equally infectious single.
Of course, most readers will know that the story doesn’t end there. Eminem has been the object of derision from the moment he burst onto the scene. He and his music have been denounced as misogynistic, homophobic, violent and downright un-American. Yet the controversy has only fueled sales figures. The Marshall Mathers LP sold double the number of copies that Slim Shady did, eight million as of this February. The furor surrounding the rapper peaked in February with the Grammy Awards, where he performed with Elton John, in a much-publicized effort to soften his public image. But group after group lined up to denounce Eminem, calling him a charlatan or a liar, reminding the public that this was the man who had recorded multiple songs about killing his own wife.
Enough ink has been wasted on the Detroit-based rapper already, but to no end. His critics remain, and his albums still sell. But perhaps the public has wrongly evaluated Eminem. There exists a certain dualism in his music, a competition between Eminem (or Marshall Mathers, his birth name) and Slim Shady, the fictional anti-hero.
Now, the questions asked are the same as with every other controversial musician of the last decade: “Is this sensationalism or serious? Either way, is this something that should be allowed to continue?” But perhaps Eminem, consciously or unconsciously, has provided us with our most enlightened look at hip hop culture to date. “Slim Shady,” the persona, is just a caricature of hip hop’s prototypical hyper-masculine hard guy. The violence he preaches in his songs is beyond ridiculous; his intentions aside, it can only serve to illustrate how sensational hip hop has become in an effort to sell records.
It was Eminem’s mentor, Dr. Dre, who revealed in the hip-hop documentary The Show that a person would have to “be nuts” to do what he talks about. Likewise, Slim Shady is little more than a magnification of everything wrong with hip hop, to the point where only listeners incapable of sensing irony would take him seriously. Eminem is, by even his critics’ admission, one of the most talented wordsmiths in the hip hop universe right now. He retains near-legendary status in the hip hop underground for the work he did prior to Slim Shady blowing up, and is amongst the most clever emcees ever to hold the microphone. Slim Shady, the construct, is his invention, and in confusing the two, those who lead the crusade against Eminem have actually helped him to gain notoriety.
In order to appreciate his musical ability, it is necessary to appreciate the irony of his misogyny. By calling so much attention to himself and his lyrics, he has demonstrated to Main Street, USA that the violence against women so often referenced in hip hop is as absurd as fight scenes in 1970s Hong Kong kung fu movies. When Main Street takes that violence seriously, it legitimizes it and its messenger, and by ignoring the irony, it has lifted Eminem to the ranks of teenage superstar. Eminem’s music is dangerous in that its main audience, MTV’s teenage crowd, overwhelmingly does not understand the irony inherent in the lyrics. Perhaps Eminem himself does not. But to the crowd that actually takes the time to listen to and digest his lyrics in their context, Eminem could be the savior of hip hop. By taking misogyny and homophobia to their logical extremes, he has painted a picture so bleak and so harsh that no one is willing to accept it. Once hip hop’s core audience hears the underlying tones of its culture brought to the surface, it is hard to imagine the listener who would not be revolted.
Slim Shady himself says, “I’m like a headtrip to listen to/’Cause I’m only giving you/Things you joke about with your friends inside your living room,” If that’s true, there’s a part of all of us implicated in the negativity of Eminem’s music, whether we’d like to admit it or not. So won’t the real Slim Shady please stand up?