The other day I was having a conversation with a friend that somehow turned to Eminem. While I’m not a diehard fan or anything, I have some respect for the guy, and I said so to my friend. The friend was a bit surprised to learn this; “I respect his background,” he said, “but some of his songs are just awful. Like lyrically terrifying. Kim, Stan.”
For context, here’s an excerpt of the song “Kim”:
Don’t you get it, bitch, no one can hear you?
Now shut the fuck up and get what’s coming to you
You were supposed to love me
NOW BLEED! BITCH, BLEED!
For those who didn’t know, Kim is the name of Eminem’s ex-wife. So that’s some pretty scary shit, right? He’s basically proclaiming he wants to murder this woman, right?
Well, before we jump to that conclusion, I’d like to pose a different example:
I think you’re hot, I think you’re cool
You’re the kinda guy I’d stalk in school
But now that I’m famous, you’re up my anus
Now I’m gonna eat you fool!
I eat boys up, breakfast and lunch
Then when I’m thirsty, I drink their blood
Carnivore animal, I am a cannibal
I eat boys up, you better run
Both songs are written in the first person. Both allude to similarities between the narrator and the artist (the name “Kim” alluding to Eminem’s ex, the line “now that I’m famous” alluding to Ke$ha’s recent fame). Both assert that the narrator wants or plans to commit pretty fucking disturbing acts of violence against the opposite sex. So what’s the difference? Why does “Kim” serve to inform peoples’ opinions of Eminem’s own character after being labeled one of the most violent and depressing songs of all time, whereas Ke$ha can threaten to “pull a Jeffrey Dahmer,” chain a male dancer to a cross, and pretend to eat his organs on stage all in good fun, no harm no foul?
Because, the answer seems to be, one of this acts is clearly pretend, and the other is less clear. But what additional evidence is there against Eminem that doesn’t stand against Ke$ha other than the fact that his performance isn’t quite as fantastical?
As far as I know, Ke$ha doesn’t eat people. And as far as the internet can tell me, Eminem never attempted to murder his wife Kim. Is the argument against Eminem’s character, then, that while he didn’t technically do it, he has thought about it, and the act that he considered is, unlike cannibalism, feasible enough to be frightening? Is that thoughtcrime enough to condemn him?
Take Nabokov’s Lolita; like “Cannibal” or “Kim,” it’s a work of creative writing (unless you would argue that composing song lyrics aren’t an exercise in creative writing, in which case I give up, and wish you a good day). It’s also narrated in the first person. This first person narrator shares distinct similarities with the author (Humbert Humbert is a white middle aged man who has emigrated from Europe to America, as was Nabokov). It also happens that this character is in love, nay, obsessed with a preteen girl who he eventually kidnaps and has an affair with. I believe our modern word for this type of guy is “pedophile,” and as far as I know, pedophiles are slightly more common within our society than cannibals. They are also considered by our society to be just as abhorrent as wife beaters. So what’s the difference between Lolita and “Kim”? If the author of one of these works can be conflated with his first-person narrator and held accountable for his thoughts and desires, why not both?
“Well Leah, because books are pretend.”
No shit. And you know what? SO ARE SONGS.
I made this point to the friend mentioned above, and this is what he said: “because of the way people idolize musicians, what they say can have a huge effect on people, many of whom don’t understand that they may not mean the things they say/do. And musicians should take that into consideration”
Listen. I loved Lolita and I’m not about to go mack on a 12-year-old. And I loved that “Wrecking Ball” video, and I’m not trynna rip all my clothes off and go ride around on demolition equipment. And I love “Cannibal” too, and “Kim” to a lesser extent (only less so than “Cannibal” because the genre isn’t quite my style), but I don’t really want to eat or murder anybody (except for when I’m really hangry). And I know that none of those artists are necessarily advocating all of those things, either, because they’re all artists, including the musicians. And if we lived in a world where artists were held formally accountable for the ideas explored within their work or for the unknowable myriad of ways in which their work could be interpreted, the vast, vast majority of them would be producing boring, “safe,” garbage.
(And, for the record, the aforementioned “posting a photo of yourself on the internet boinking your pet” thing is a false equivalent. So let’s pretend you wrote a song about how you wanted to boink your pet and posted that on the internet. Now it’s a fair comparison. Because what these artists are doing is exploring hypotheticals, whether it be through a written work or a performed [that is, not real] enactment of the [in your case awful] idea.)
I think that performers like Ke$ha and Eminem are often unfairly conflated with their on-stage personas more often than authors with their first-person POV narrators due to the fact that curating a brand/image/package is so integral to success in today’s music industry. Consumers don’t just need to buy Born This Way; they need to buy into the Lady Gaga mythos, which constitutes everything from the cover art to the music videos, from the live performances to the interviews, from the Twitter posts to the prosthetic horns worn to dinner. But do you think that Lady Gaga is some sort of alien who travels around in an egg? No? Then, again, why would you conflate Eminem with his finely crafted persona, simply for being more believable?
Even if you don’t think Eminem endorses the behavior described in “Kim,” you might still think it’s disgusting, that he must be depraved in some corner of his brain to’ve been able to come up with it, and that the song is garbage. And that’s fine. But I would argue that the artists who allow their narrators/personas to explore dark, troubling ideas serve a vitally important role in society by providing venues within which to safely explore and examine these dark corners of our minds and the impulses that we’ve chosen to reject; spaces in which to think deeply about how and why we make the moral judgments that we do.
If I was queen of the universe and I could tell everyone what to do (as I will be, someday, when I come into my throne), I would encourage artists, particularly musicians who may not be so accustomed to the idea, to buy into the notion of experimenting with expression outside of what they might personally feel or believe, if for no other reason than that it’s a fantastic exercise in empathy. But also because if enough artists did that (and Beyoncé/Sasha Fierce comes to mind as a fabulous example of this experiment done right), it would both encourage more artists to follow suit and make it plain to audiences that such experimentation is something they should expect. Rather than hold artists accountable for the existence of troubling ideas, why not celebrate the opportunity to think critically about who we are?
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