With his bleached blond hair, tattoos and perpetual scowl, he is an urban nightmare, blue-collar rage personified. And he has the CV to go with it: his mother is suing him, while last summer he pistol-whipped a rival he suspected of kissing his wife, who then attempted suicide and is now suing him as well. He even brought his daughter, then three years old, into the studio in 1997 to record baby noises on a song about driving his wife's decomposing body to dump it in a lake: "Oh where's mama? She's taken a little nap in the trunk/Oh that smell (whew!) dada must have runned over a skunk."
Other songs fantasise about killing women and raping his mother, for whom he displays particular loathing. He also despises what he calls faggots, while appearing to regard himself with an unstable combination of admiration ("You never heard of a mind as perverted as mine") and self-hatred. He has sold millions of CDs, been nominated for four Grammy and six NME awards, and his single Stan was ubiquitous in Britain over Christmas, jostling for the number one slot.
He has been hailed as the new Elvis, a lyricist of compelling power, the most original and talented artist to emerge on the American music scene for years - in short, a genius. People who object to his lyrics, notably gay and lesbian groups in the US, are seen as spoilsports who don't get the Eminem phenomenon. His supporters claim he is the first white artist to give a voice to the white urban poor, disillusioned with and disenfranchised by the American dream.
His father disappeared when he was six months old and his mother, in Eminem's version of his life, took more drugs than he did. (She is suing him for defamation.) Add to this the fact that he is the first white rap star to receive the whole-hearted endorsement of black rappers such as the legendary Dr Dre, who produced My Name Is on Eminem's bestselling CD, the Slim Shady LP, and race confuses the picture. Eminem says he believes his collaboration with Dr Dre "will help break down the fuckin' barriers of stereotypes" and he is on record as hating the "n-word", a rare manifestation of political correctness from an artist whose career has been built on breaking liberal taboos.
A surprising number of commentators have responded not just by excusing his violent, hate-filled rants but by claiming he is beyond criticism. We shouldn't take his misogyny and homophobia at face value, we are told, because it comes out of the lived experience of the white American underclass. Eminem really did have a horrible upbringing in Detroit, with a family straight out of the excesses of the Jerry Springer show, and worked in burger bars until he became the most unexpected commercial success of 2000. Whatever he blurts out, no matter how repellently expressed, is painfully, genuinely felt.
That makes him authentic, as the hip hop star Missy Elliott explains: "He's just him, and whatever he raps about is whatever he's going through, and I ain't mad at that." This is a weird, specious defence, a bit like saying that racism is all right as long as it is sincere. Let's imagine a conversation about an artist, one who writes songs as nasty as Eminem's but with a different target for his violent fantasies. "These songs are about beating black people to death!" "Yes, but that's how he really feels." "Oh, that's OK then."
Nor is the endorsement of black rappers as surprising as it seems. West Coast gangsta rap, with its repetitive denunciations of hos and bitches and casual homophobia, makes Eminem a natural soul-mate; Dr Dre was once a mainstay of the virulently misogynist rap outfit from Los Angeles, Niggaz With Attitude. What is fascinating, and inherently racist, is the way liberal critics throw up their hands in horror when black men produce this stuff, but roll over and wave their legs in the air when a white kid gets in on the act.
Appropriating the status of victim, as Eminem has done so successfully, does not entitle him to vent his rage on another vulnerable group, whether it happens to be working-class women or gay people. It is not clever or funny to fantasise about domestic violence in societies where it is endemic: the Home Office has estimated that one in four British women has been assaulted by her partner, and things are not much different in the US. And people who do not take homophobia seriously need reminding that gay men are still being lynched in some American states, and have recently been bombed in the heart of London.
As for the effect of all this adulation on Eminem itself, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is providing some kind of freak show for the middle classes. He is a sanitised version of what affluent Americans fear most, allowing them the frisson of contact with danger, but in the knowledge that the threat he poses is to his own class - his family, or the guy who looks too long at his estranged wife - and ultimately himself. Validating his rage, which is what his fans are doing, is hardly going to help someone whose biography suggests he is already some way down the path to self-destruction.
This may one day be a tragedy for Eminem, and those closest to him, including his young daughter. The larger question is how societies such as ours, which are rightly suspicious of censorship, deal with outpourings of hate and rage. One argument is that we have all the more obligation to defend vulnerable groups, to insist that misogyny and homophobia are no more acceptable than racism. The alternative, which seems to have prevailed in discussions of Eminem, is that the only thing that matters is looking cool.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001