Watch & Listen

May I Have Your Attention Please? The Marshall Mathers LP & Me

By Pegah Morandi

1. Public Service Announcement 2000
0:07

Slim Shady does not give a fuck what you think/If you don’t like it, you can suck his fucking cock/Little did you know, upon purchasing this album, you have just kissed his ass/Slim Shady is fed up with your shit, and he’s going to kill you.

When I was just eight or nine years old—rosy-cheeked and not yet allowed to watch cable TV—my parents, brother and I sat in a polite row on our dusty purple lawson couch that we’d hauled from Idaho to Virginia and watched this Iranian comedy on DVD, the only type of movie that was really safe to watch as a family: No kissing, no sex, no adult language. The Iranian censors had made sure of it.

Someone in the movie referenced Eminem in one way or another and, as it goes when your entire family is culturally disconnected, someone (probably me) asked who that was. My brother was four years older than me and, in my infantile eyes, the apex of cultural wisdom. He sat contently in the early 2000s puddle of grunge and adolescent angst. He once yelled at me when I broke his Weird Al CD and at another point tried starting a band with Aaron Dickinson from across the street despite not really liking rock music (or knowing how to make music at all). He played Xbox. He knew the name of nearly every player on nearly every roster in the NBA. To me, he was—for those years, at least—quintessentially cool.

My brother, with this American expertise under his belt, said something to the tune of, “Oh, he’s this rapper who hates women,” and I recall in my hazy memory just sitting there, only half understanding the movie, angry that anyone would listen to this guy who hated women in the first place. How could anyone hate women? What on earth did that even mean?

2. Kill You
0:50

I invented violence, you vile venomous volatile vicious/Vain Vicodin, vrin vrin vrin!/Texas Chainsaw, left his brains all/Danglin’ from his neck while his head barely hangs on/Blood, guts, guns, cuts Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts — bitch, I’ma kill you!

At a later date on this unpredictable timeline, I’m 21 and in the midst of rapping “Without Me” from The Eminem Show at a birthday party at a karaoke bar. I do three or so Eminem songs throughout the night, including “Rap God,” which at a six-minute runtime is an almost cruel karaoke choice. Something’s wrong, I can feel it!/Six minutes. Six Minutes. There’s no sung chorus. Everyone stops paying attention at some point, because they’re understandably drunk and bored. I’m sober and floored at this twisting subliminal satirical lyrical labyrinth that I’ve stumbled into, or really that I’ve knowingly sprinted into, head first.

I am definitely trying to show off, whether it’s how skilled I am, or how skilled Eminem is, or how much I’m one of those insufferable I’m-not-like-the-other-girls-I-listen-to-hip-hop types. I do “Without Me” perfectly and “Rap God” near-perfectly. I get tripped up by that damn fast part that I haven’t practiced since Eminem was momentarily cool again back in high school. Uh, summa-lumma, dooma-lumma, you assumin’ I’m a human/What I gotta do to get it through to you? I’m superhuman. I used to do it flawlessly on-demand for a bunch of juniors on my high-school debate team. They would absolutely lap it up.

I forget that in “Rap God” Eminem spits “gay lookin’ boy” three times and later recounts breaking chairs and tables “over the back of a couple of faggots,” and that in “Without Me” he calls electronic music artist Moby a “fag” and tells him to “blow me.” Or maybe I’ve chosen to forget, but regardless the words still inelegantly show up on the TV screen, and there’s this embarrassing timespan where I silently bob up and down to the beat for a couple of bars or so, waiting for the lyrics to disappear. I don’t do the same for “Cum on your lips and some on your tits,” though; those words seem to come packaged in with the swagger I’ve appropriated in this karaoke performance. They pour out of my mouth with a popping intensity, and I can feel my eyes getting wider and my brows furrowing, as if to intimidate everyone there, as if to say watch me. The few people in the room who are mildly vibing with the song pause for just a slice of a moment to shift their gaze towards me, to see if I actually said it.

5. Who Knew
0:47

I’m sorry, there must be a mix-up/You want me to fix up lyrics/While the President gets his dick sucked?/Fuck that! Take drugs, rape sluts/Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up/Get aware, wake up, get a sense of humor/Quit tryin’ to censor music: this is for your kid’s amusement/But don’t blame me when little Eric jumps off of the terrace/You shoulda been watchin’ him, apparently you ain’t parents.

“A lot of what he says makes me uncomfortable,” remarks Janet Maslin, a critic for the New York Times. “But the bottom line is if it’s good, you have to acknowledge that, and it is. It’s very cathartic to listen to him.” Maslin is a small, proper woman with arched eyebrows and the classy yet bold aura of Emily Gilmore from Gilmore Girls. She exists with the confidence and poise that’s common among older female journalists, those who came from the Hillary Clinton generation of professional, educated white women who are rarely photographed outside of a suit.

Maslin is also an Eminem fan, or so I suspect. She has covered the spectrum of Eminem and Eminem-adjacent material, ranging from Em’s own film 8 Mile to a collection of stories titled Vanilla Bright Like Eminem that have little to do with the rapper. In a 2002 piece for The New York Observer, Paul Slansky described Maslin as “[liking Eminem] more than either of her teenage sons do.” It’s supposed to be funny that Maslin likes him, of course, because she’s this prim, elite New York critic, but instead she can’t stop listening to this wide-eyed fucker in a tank top whose eponymous album has a minute-long skit where you vividly hear a man getting his dick sucked.

I want to defend Maslin so badly, partly because I want to shed the armor of irony I coated my Eminem fandom in after he became uncool. (If she’s allowed to like him, then so am I!) But I also want to agree with Maslin to clear my conscience, because if this haughty woman who professionally critiques art thinks these bars are good, then they must be great. It’s the same reason why I’ve been obnoxiously sending my friends PDFs I’ve scanned of Mark Cochrane’s “Moral Abdication: Or Just Father-Son Bonding with a Creepy Edge” from The Vancouver Sun in 2003, where the English professor expends a good amount of effort close-reading and analyzing figurative language in Eminem’s lyrics. I’m trying to prove that he’s brilliant, not to just to me but even to the academics who turn their nose at pop culture. Cochrane compares Eminem to his “other favorite poet,” Anne Carson, by some grace of God placing these two very, very different artists on the same plane of genius. And it’s so, so satisfying.

But I am a perpetually nervous woman and as such I am still anxious that Eminem is duping Janet, Mark, and me by playing to our weak, stupid hearts. Why else would “Stan”—a stunningly calm and somber hip-hop ballad that laments the crazed misinterpretation of Eminem’s supposed satire—come right after “Kill You?”

8. The Real Slim Shady 0:35

Feminist women love Eminem/”Chicka, chicka, chicka, Slim Shady, I’m sick of him/Look at him, walkin’ around, grabbin’ his you-know-what/Flippin’ the you-know-who,”/”Yeah, but he’s so cute though.”

I’m being tricked again, because I begin to feel for Eminem after he oscillates between a heart-wrenching masterpiece and a slimy, goofy, violent bopping tune like “The Real Slim Shady,” then back to a dark, moving elegy on his creative suffocation. I’m getting tricked, but I love it, like I’m playing some kind of perverted game. Em and I are both in on it: He switches from these enchanting tracks to a nasty, buzzy, aggressive party tune. If you listen closely, you can hear him smirk while he pivots.

Richard Goldstein wrote in 2002 that Eminem’s music was pop pornography, and that if he rapped about black people or Jews the same way he rapped about women and gays, nobody would give it a moral pass. “There is a relationship between Eminem and his time,” Goldstein claims. “His bigotry isn’t incidental or stupid, as his progressive champions claim. It’s central and knowing—and unless it’s examined, it will be free to operate.”

I like to think of myself as a feminist, at the very least in the way that nearly every college-educated woman in the northeast who’s read a single Teen Vogue article within the past three years considers herself a feminist. I play around with revisionist scenarios in my head: Would I have been as seduced by Em’s bombastic boasting, coupled with what Cochrane calls his “wounded vulnerability?” had I lived fully in his cultural moment? Would I have been as eager to fall into his traps if I had been one of the women of Eminem’s time?

I met Eminem around the time of Encore, but I didn’t get to know him until Recovery, when I could take him in on HOT 99.5 on the way back from middle school track practice. I think I fell in love with him in high school, around the Marshall Mathers LP 2, well after his prime had long since vaporized. I got to him too late. I was finally caught up to the culture I had grown up in, finally tuned into the same wavelength as the rest of the world. But I had missed the last train, and instead was sitting on the platform, alone, waiting for something, (anything!) to come.

Marshal Mathers_ Annika Bjerke.png
Art by Annika Bjerke

I have a mysterious soft spot, or nostalgia even, for the gross turn-of-the-millennium boyhood angst that hung in the air when I was barely old enough for even the semblance of a cultural moment to register in my mind. It’s possible that I’ve constructed it, this revisionist nostalgia for a time period I didn’t quite belong to, the world of the 90s kids who were too young to really be 90s kids, but who still remember, like, Lizzie Mcguire and Tamagotchis. I don’t think I’ve made up this feeling, though; rather, it’s specific to the childhood I had, surrounded by disgusting boys in a small town we only called a city on a technicality, breathing in alt rock and anxiety and those graphic T-shirts with long sleeves nested under them like the entire mood of the moment could be broken into particles of pollen.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that when we were children we had the highest understanding of culture, albeit not until after we’d grown out of it, because culture emanated through the air, through your skin and immediately into your memory without ever stopping to register elsewhere in your brain. There was no irony, no need to avoid being stereotyped for the things you liked. (And how could you be stereotyped? You were a child, a stereotype in and of itself.) There was no cultural criticism. There were no listicles on the top 40 beach reads and there was no catching up on episodes of Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Culture was just in the air, pure and simple, and we inhaled it along with the rest of our breath.

It doesn’t matter, I guess, whether I would have liked Eminem had I been 21 in 2000, because I’m 21 in 2018 and I like him despite all the evidence as to why I shouldn’t. I still lose my mind at the sound of that riff: May I have your attention please? I mean, can you believe it? That this poor white kid from Detroit would read the dictionary in his home because he had nothing else to do, and he ended up captivating the entire world?

17. Under the Influence
4:20

So you can suck my dick if you don’t like my shit/’Cause I was high when I wrote this, so suck my dick!/’Cause I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like my shit/’Cause I was high when I wrote this, so suck my dick!

I grow sick of listening to Eminem after I’ve run through The Mathers LP for the sixth time or so. This happens a lot with music, but it especially happens with Eminem. His nasally voice grows grating, and his lyrics become bitter. It happened with “Heat” from Revival, where he fantasizes about a woman over this really exhilarating rock and roll beat. The crassness begins to get tired, and I notice it most when I’m singing along and the words just feel ugly and bumpy. I suddenly have to say something like “I ask does she want a computer lodged in her vagina/Said my dick is an apple, she said put it inside her.”

 

By some rabbit hole of Google searches, I end up on the Eminem subreddit, which I’ve surprisingly never stumbled upon before. The cursor turns into a middle finger when you hover over a clickable link. The page, with a header that says “EMINƎM” next to Marshall Mathers’s rather unremarkable silhouette, is cringey to look at. His slouching posture is much less captivating or subversive when he’s 46 with an adult daughter and a heavy legacy to tend to. The page celebrates his accomplishments as though Revival and Kamikaze weren’t both utter busts, as though Eminem still could swallow down the entire zeitgeist with a single syllable. It’s like living in an alternate, deluded universe where Eminem’s nasty, horrific shock rap is still even marginally relevant, where this 46-year-old man somehow still has it, even though “it” was so deeply and inextricably linked to his youth and virility and spunk.

Earl Sweatshirt once said in an interview, “If you still follow Eminem, you drink way too much Mountain Dew and probably need to like, come home from the army,” and that’s when I knew for sure that it wasn’t cool to like Eminem anymore, that he’d lost his touch. I once told a friend I would never wear Eminem merch because “I would look racist” and it turns out earlier she’d bought me an Eminem sweatshirt as a gift for my birthday. It was such a thoughtful gift, too: She’d endured weeks of me blabbering on about Kamikaze and Eminem’s prowess, and any normal fan would want to support and represent the artist they love, right?

 

I’m listening to Kamikaze in Temple of Zeus, where the Cornell leftists meet the VSCO aesthetic sorority women. I’m feeling gloriously incongruous. Greatest in the world, greatest in the world, greatest in the world/No lie, I might be/The best to ever do it, the best to ever do it, the best to ever do it/I feel like the greatest. An acquaintance—one of a couple of men who consistently message me after I write anything about Eminem for the student newspaper—comes up to me and starts telling me about how Eminem hasn’t been good since he got sober. I start to clap back, but then a wave of exhaustion comes over me. I’m tired. The train has long left the station.

18. Criminal
4:32

I’m a criminal!

‘Cause every time I write a rhyme

These people think it’s a crime

To tell ’em what’s on my mind

I guess I’m a criminal!

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