Eminem has already won two Grammys for his last record, so it's hardly surprising that he was nominated this week for four more - including Album of the Year. The Marshall Mathers LP, after all, has gone septuple-platinum and the rap artist, pronounced "arguably the most compelling figure in all of pop music" by Newsweek, has been hailed by many critics as "a wizard at wordplay."
Of course, he has had his share of critics. His violent songs - some in which he raps of brutally killing his wife and raping countless women - have caused many to label him a misogynist. But such claims, it seems, are becoming old hat - even, the Recording Academy suggests with these nominations, a bit tiresome.
How has such blatant misogyny (not to mention homophobia) attained such critical acclaim? For one, many critics seem to buy Eminem's claim that his music is just entertainment, a "joke," even. "A screwball comedy," writes one reviewer.
Yet even if Eminem does mean this to be funny, even if critics and kids are amused, should we be laughing? Domestic violence is the number one health risk for women between 15 and 44. It is hardly something to joke about. Moreover, it would be totally unacceptable for a musician to poke fun at lynching blacks or gassing Jews - and rightfully so - but why should we not be equally horrified at violence against women? Why are those situations deemed serious, but women's issues considered simple fun and games?
Another popular, but equally unconvincing defense of the rapper is that he is a man divided. His sadistic desires are not those of the real Eminem, Marshall Mathers, but rather of his (self-created) alter ego, Slim Shady. It is through this character that Eminem vents his anger about women, "faggots," and his much-publicized troubled childhood. It is disturbing how seriously sympathetic critics accept this curious couple. "On the one hand, a lot of Slim Shady's cartoonish fantasies are offensive; on the other, they're better than Mathers recreating the kind of abuse the world heaped upon him growing up," notes one Rolling Stone writer.
Not only are such violent impulses considered harmless, they are also viewed as normal - not just to Eminem, but to his adolescent listeners as well. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Eminem was simply "putting on disc all the forbidden thoughts and scandalous scenarios that accompany adolescence." Another reviewer noted the songs honored "the socially unacceptable (but beloved by 14-year-old-boys) principles of violence, rape, misogyny, homophobia." According to this rationale, violence toward women is something men innately crave, a natural tendency that is finally being recognized through Eminem's "piercing honesty."
The relative ease with which Eminem escapes damaging criticism simply indicates a widespread tolerance of such abuse that has been quite evident in just this past year. During a primary debate, for instance, Al Gore was asked by an audience member if he believed Juanita Broaddrick's claim that she had been raped by President Clinton. Baffled, Gore refused to say he disbelieved it, but condemned such "personal" and "nonstop series of attacks" against Clinton. "Hate the sin and love the sinner" was his philosophy. Months later, dozens of "ordinary" men without criminal records were arrested after the Puerto Rican Day Parade in Central Park for harassing and assaulting upwards of 50 women while police stood by refusing to intervene. Needless to say, both these stories had a short shelf life.
Without suggesting that there is a direct causal link between Eminem and such violent acts, I'd say the lighthearted way in which he and his supporters respond to his misogynist lyrics does contribute to the already horrific level of tolerance Americans have for such crimes. And this pervasive attitude does affect us. Not only are nearly one-third of American women, for instance, physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives - but also 75 percent of such domestic violence cases are pled down to misdemeanors. We should not let our fear of sounding too moralistic prevent us from this national (and international) crisis. Nor should we let our respect for the First Amendment prohibit us from speaking out against what is wrong. By all means, let Eminem rap all he wants, but let's stop rewarding him for it.
Ashley Nelson (NelsG942@newschool.edu) is a graduate student in the liberal studies program in the Graduate Faculty at the New School.
Copyright 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc