October 22, 2013
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins' Eminem: The Real Slim Shady is an engaging and in-depth portrait of the rapper and analysis of his lyrics, as well as the social and cultural impact of his music.
Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes.
I've been drawn to Eminem's music for nearly two decades so I decided to do something about it by writing my second book. Closely examining the lyrics of 200 of his songs, I explore the freedom with which he bears his soul in a world obsessed with privacy. I analyze the dark and raw stories he tells about loss. Whether of his childhood and family, his struggles with addiction and relationships or his financial and spiritual journeys, Eminem's stories expose rather than sever every painful part of his life. Telling painful stories connects him with listeners like me. Layering these stories over tight beats that sound intentionally simple makes listeners like me feel like we can make them at home. His do it yourself sound makes us feel like his equals, creating a loyal fan base that has made him one of the most successful music artists of all time. Here's one other thing about listeners like me: We're women… and some of us are feminists. Though we're a demographic that hasn't fared well in Eminem's work over the years we are also a demographic poised uniquely to understand his frustrations. He says it himself, "feminist women love Eminem." To prove him right I'm answering in the affirmative with a playlist… and some tongue in cheek Slim Shady styled commentary along the way.
"5 Star Generals"
Eminem caught my ear when I was at New York University writing my master's thesis on underground hip-hop. While I dissected lyrics written and delivered by the likes of Company Flow, Natural Resource, BlackStar, J-Live, and Shabaam Sahdeeq, I came across a single released by Rawkus Records called "5 Star Generals" on which Eminem made a guest appearance. I would later learn that this was an old track the rapper recorded for cash and then forgot about while he was unsigned. Nevertheless, Em's first lines about sinning boldly by shooting nuns in Bible class and damning hell itself hit me like a ton of bricks. But, in an effort to be fair, I suspended my critical impulse and resisted the temptation to take offense from a literal interpretation of his words. After all, my research taught me to attend to what rappers shouted as much as to what they whispered. To me, Eminem's lines sounded like a raised middle finger, a declaration that expressed a defiant and angry identity. And I knew that lines like his, which were sure to engage and enrage his listeners, would make him famous and infamous.
"My Name Is"
To my surprise, my 89-year-old Cuban American grandfather, a poet and a reverend, heard something exciting in Eminem too. I stopped by my grandfather's house in Hollis, Queens, on my way home from NYU around the time the video for "My Name Is" was in heavy rotation on MTV. I could hear the song blaring from his television. This struck me as strange for two reasons. First, my grandfather wasn't fluent in English, so he was more inclined to watch Spanish- language channels like Univision. Second, he'd never expressed much interest in rap music other than commenting that he noticed kids rapping in the parks near his house every now and then. Of course, I knew that many of those boom-box-toting kids were now superstars like Run-DMC and LL Cool J. Because my grandfather didn't know that, I was surprised to catch him watching English-language rap videos. When I entered the living room my grandfather sat transfixed. After the video ended, I asked him if he knew what he was watching. Sitting up in his blue La-Z-Boy recliner he said, "I'm watching some guy who calls himself Eminem. I can tell he's probably a heathen and I don't care. I love what he's doing with his words." I was shocked. My grandfather went on to tell me that despite the obvious barriers that stood between him and Eminem, he was in awe of the way the rapper was using his voice and his words as instruments. And what really got me was when my grandfather said that Eminem's unapologetic tone reminded him of many preachers' fiery delivery over the years. I could not believe it. Grandpa's encounter with Eminem was not just sonic. It was spiritual. And from that time on, mine would be too.
"Cleaning Out My Closet," Angel Haze
The door to the closet opens as Angel Haze reps Shady 2.0. Like the original, the updated version begins with an appeal to the piece of the real Slim Shady in all nonwhite, female, LGBTIQ fans that may have experienced some form of personal tragedy in their lives. Like the original, this song is dedicated to the one she hoped would save her, her mother, whom she portrays as completely out-of-touch as she was abused as a child. The chorus explains that every scar she shows now is both proof that she never had a childhood and that she has learned to deal with her truth. Following in the, dare we say feminist (?), footsteps of Eminem, Angel Haze reveals that the only way out of the past and its hurts is through confession. As Shady 2.0, Angel Haze confirms that showcasing our vulnerabilities makes us all the stronger, whether female or male, as we survive and flourish in spite of threats that come from within and without.
"Dear Marshall," Debbie Nelson
When I first heard this song I heard only what was missing—complex rhyme schemes, high-quality production and raging reprisals. When I listened again I heard three powerful messages from a mother to her son. First, I heard a rejection of the idea that parents are all knowing and infallible, so, in a strange way, I heard Debbie spin her parental missteps into an unconscious way to help her son mature and make decisions that resulted in his success. Second, I heard a declaration of true love, as Debbie announced that her son would always be a part of her and, perhaps, the best part. Third, I heard a rejection of society's disappointment with mothers who do not behave as society says they should. It was then that I realized why Debbie has dominated the plots of her son's most powerful stories; because he realizes how alike they actually are.
"Kim," Tori Amos
If Em's version of "Kim" stopped me in my tracks, Amos's version kept me there and turned me inside-out. Amos calls out to and responds as the notorious KIM, proving that Eminem is a prophet of our age because he dares to discuss violence against women. What's more is that Amos shows us what it means to be mature listeners. That rather than dismissing Eminem as a raging woman-hater we can accept his invitation to listen, work to understand his perspective and then present our own even if it differs. In doing so Amos joins Eminem in contributing to an understanding of gender relations so that everyone hears the issues in their subtlety, fullness and intricacy. Amos fills in the spaces between and around Em's notes in "Kim." She shows us that as men impose limitations on women by any means necessary they are hurt as much as the women who are so often their victims. "Kim," in all its versions, challenges us to understand that gender can be lived and expressed differently.
What would you think if you saw someone important, like a government official or celebrity, digging around in the trash? The answer: You'd probably think that this kind of behavior was suitable for beggars only and certainly not for yourself. But this is exactly what Eminem does in "Beautiful." He looks for himself, others, and their fallen world and finds everyone and everything in the garbage. In this way, "Beautiful" is a lovely parable. And, as with any parable, its objective is to illustrate a moral or a spiritual lesson using a simple human relation. The lesson in this case is looking for something or someone that has been lost. In Em's parable, there are several ideas evoked by the lyrics and music about how to find what we have lost. The slow and deliberate beat invites listeners to connect the song and themselves, the song and the rapper. The release provided as Eminem sings the chorus doesn't just change the course of the song, but converts the shared loss into an opportunity for discovery. Just as the discovery begins, the drums suddenly increase in volume; the bass and guitar begin to cry out as a background harmony that builds and adds to the intensity. The sounds remind us even if we choose to shield our eyes, we cannot shield our ears from the plight of those around us. In "Beautiful" we become aware of others' oppression while remembering that they are no stronger or less beautiful than anyone else. We're engaged not just with the sounds, but also with the spirits of the people who produce them in active relationship.
"When I'm Gone"
The most beloved female protagonist in Em's stories is his daughter, Hailie Jade. She is always his muse. As an infant, she represents all the potentials and possibilities that passed her parents by. As a child, she represents a reason for her father to succeed and survive. As a teen, she becomes her father's conscience and, in some ways, the reason he can finally be himself. We see this transformation in "When I'm Gone" (2005). The song is one part lullaby and one part last will and testament. The platinum blonde fire-breathing monster Slim is nowhere to be found, except in Hailie's memories. In his place stands Marshall Mathers, who has questions, ranging from the experience of unconditional love to the experiences of spitefulness and resentment, which only she can answer. How do you like that? Eminem answers to a woman.
"Lose Yourself," Taylor Swift
Some women love Eminem enough to pay homage by covering explicitly. Enter Taylor Swift. When she stopped in Grand Rapids, Michigan on her 2011 tour she performed Eminem's "Lose Yourself" and demonstrated that the song continues to resonate with audiences because it makes them feel closer to the life he lived before he became a rap sensation. The song also resonates because it speaks to Eminem's strategy of identification, of "losing" himself. Swift's cover makes a powerful statement about introspection and explanation in "8 Mile" and motives for becoming an entertainer. What is really so threatening about Eminem's talent, love for, and success in rap music? Was it that Eminem was trying to be black? Or, was it that he was trying to be a different kind of male? Did Eminem lose himself in the music for real? Swift's cover suggests that the question of "losing yourself" is one that many female musicians, regardless of racial background, still have to deal with in their own ways in a male dominated entertainment industry.
Slim Shady never learned life lessons about authority, relationships, and leadership from his father. Instead, he learned how to keep people at bay by making them as angry as he was at his father. That is why he can give everybody the middle finger, and he says that he doesn't have to care or respond. Slim is that hate-filled and hateful person living inside Em who, despite all evidence to the contrary in terms of rap skill, is operating out of inferiority and neediness. From the beginning of the song he inquires about his father, "Where's my Dad?" Slim seems to have received the messages of insecurity and inferiority his father (perhaps inadvertently) passed down. Slim simply was not good enough to make his father stick around. And, as he expresses so vividly, he is anything but happy about it. Slim is also the part of Eminem whose raison d'être was solidified after his first public performance because he got booed so badly. Public rejection reminded Slim of his father's rejection. Slim Shady invests his energy in lashing out at the world rather than admitting that he wanted to be loved by his father and was not. Being rejected by men who matter to them is a theme to which many women can relate.
"The Way I Am"
This song could be a feminist manifesto. If by feminist manifesto we mean promoting as valuable the socialized skills, activities, behaviors and viewpoints that have been traditionally defined as feminine and, thus, trivialized. In the song, Em highlights difficulties of promoting work-life balance, frustrations with public displays of emotion and desires to be nurturing being mistaken for weakness. He expresses disgust over being labeled by the way he looks and sounds rather than by the true content of his character. If you think about it he's saying that he feels trapped in traditional gender roles. Here's the frustrating formula: march onto the scene, dis someone to show how he doesn't take any shit, forcibly interact with a woman because getting consent is for wimps, and then end the story without letting anyone else get a word in edgewise. "The Way I Am" criticizes this formula by enacting it, arguing that those who do the labeling really do have all the power, including the power to entrap themselves.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady links:
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