Eminem is an enormously successful hip hop artist and producer. Since gaining fame in the 1990s, he has created a vast audience, just as he has consistently created controversy. A young white man in a largely black music industry, Eminem has presented an image that represents serious social problems. His being white alone is controversial, as it is widely felt that he is exploiting white fascination with urban black style. Then, his songs, usually in the form of his taking on a character, promote or address suicide, homophobia, victimhood, abuse of women, and violence in general. These lyrics then have double meanings, as many feel Eminem represents the worst of modern youth culture, and that he profits by appealing to the worst in young people. Nonetheless, the songs of Eminem, like the artist himself, are symbolic in an important way. In presenting himself as the “problem,” he asks for answers and draws attention to the most disturbing issues in today’s society. His real intent and effects may be debated. In the following, however, it will be seen that the lyrics of Eminem are based on real American issues, and the issues are all the more intense in his songs because he himself “lives” the problems, or represents the people who create, encourage, and live them.
Since rising to international fame in the 1990s, the hip hop and rap artist known as Eminem has been a figure of extreme controversy. He is a white man who has made a huge and lasting success in a field of music that most people associate with blacks, and this alone has set him apart in cultural ways. For many young white fans, he is a hero who crosses racial boundaries. For others, he is a “fake” who is not entitled to take on styles that were created by black artists. Meanwhile, Eminem’s sales break records and he is more established every year as an international star. Eminem’s image and many of his songs present him as a poor boy who is angry, and who uses hip hop to share his rage with the world. At the same time, he is a “poor boy” who has become a multimillionaire, even as he still performs in street clothes and talks the language of the lower classes.
Aside from any issues of his personal and professional life and reputation, however, the reality remains that Eminem’s music has always been hugely popular with young people. This is because the songs he writes talk about social problems that affect them. He does not preach or “discuss” in his songs. Instead, he uses his characters of Slim Shady and himself to present himself as one of the people living the issues and the problems. In this way he both brings to light problems in American society and asks his audience to look for deeper meaning, because he himself has no answers. The lyrics of Eminem are very much based on American issues, and the issues are all the more intense in his songs because he himself “lives” the problems, or represents the people who create, encourage, and live them.
Style as Statement
Before examining how Eminem’s lyrics directly address American issues, it is important to understand that his persona as an artist is the basis for all of this work. This in itself is a statement about social issues in America because Eminem “crosses racial boundaries.” He is white, but he writes and performs in a way that is identified with urban black culture. The background of poverty and hardship so present in his songs gives him credibility with black audiences, who do not in fact perceive him as white. His language is also “black,” as he uses slang and patterns of speech that were created by poor African Americans. This is as well constructed to an extent. It is noted, for example, that Eminem’s original producer, hip hop giant Dr. Dre, carefully encouraged language in the songs that would appeal to both whites and blacks. The goal was to actually use Eminem as a white rapper trying to succeed in a black industry,  so the style of his lyrics needed to reflect a kind of integration in itself. The “white boy” must speak to both white and black with credibility, and Eminem virtually created the necessary style and language.
Eminem is then always saying something about racial tensions, no matter what song he is singing. This image has also always placed him in the middle of debates as to his integrity as an artist. Many critics believe that Eminem’s usage of black style and language is an act, and one common to white young people who want to identify with the struggles of black people. Eminem himself admits to this. He says that being liked by blacks is vital to young whites and he sees himself as no exceptionl he admires the culture just as much. The criticisms of him, however, tend to come more from how he is seen as manipulating the markets. That is, he is seen as a white boy who is after the money of the other whites who admire black urban culture, or the adolescent market eager to adopt the attitudes of black urban culture: “Eminem…wants black kids’ respect and white kids’ money.” Here then is Eminem as an artist reflecting a huge social problem simply by presenting himself in a certain way. Mainstream, white America is not comfortable with the fact that its children are attracted to black culture. This goes back to the earliest days of rock and roll in the 1950s. Even then, blacks were unhappy with the ways white people took over the music they introduced, and with how there was still a huge cultural difference. As Alice Walker noted, it was as though the whites wanted what the black people had, but they did not want the black people themselves. Every time he takes the stage, then, Eminem reinforces this issue.
Then, Eminem blatantly takes on the issue itself in his songs. He refers to how he, like Elvis Presley, uses black music and language to be rich and famous, and this admission protects him from accusations of exploiting. It also represents the tension between the races in America in terms of white copying of black culture. Even though few of his songs actually talk about direct race issues, who Eminem is as a writer and performer symbolizes a conflict long within American society. This is the foundation of his style as fusing white and black interests and language. It is very much a manufactured style, and one created out of the need to confront racial concerns deep within the society by representing the concerns in itself.
Suicide in Eminem’s Music
The social problems written about in Eminem’s songs are alike in several ways. The first is that each is usually treated in a very individual way. Eminem does not write lyrics that actually talk about suicide or drugs. Instead he usually creates a character who is dealing with the problems. Also, each issue tends to blur into others. Everything he writes about is a part of a culture, and everything in that culture affects the other parts of it. This can be seen in his song, “Stan.” While it is usually felt that the song is about suicide, that is only one side of the complex lyric. Then, the sheer length of the song makes it more of a short story because the entire being of a miserable young man is revealed in pieces. There is suicide, but that itself is a result of other issues that are within both the narrator and American society. The listener hears a gradual breakdown happening as Stan writes letter after letter to a music idol of his. At first the tone is casual and Stan only wonders why his hero has not written back to him. Then anger sets in because Stan is lost in his own life and he desperately needs this connection. He talks about problems of his own, such as a pregnant girlfriend, a friend who killed himself, and a childhood of extreme abuse. The final verses are statements of suicide marked by resentment: “You could have rescued me from drowning/ Now it’s too late”.  Stan will kill himself, along with his girlfriend, but the song goes far beyond the issue of suicide. The death is tragic because Stan has nothing else to turn to in his world but this hip hop hero who will not answer him.
Eminem is then writing about the misery of young people who are disenfranchised and have no values to support them. Adolescent suicide is an enormous problem in American culture. Since the 1960s, in fact, older male adolescent suicide has increased threefold. Not unexpectedly, the rise is largely associated with extreme depression. Stan is then a symbol. He is simply not equipped to survive because he has no core of being, so he seeks that through his idol. This is a powerful statement about American society, in that so many young people rely on “stars” to give themselves hope and to give their lives meaning. While it is normal for young people to identify with celebrities, Eminem’s Stan represents how dangerous it is when the identification becomes a “celebrity addiction.” It can be argued, then, that “Stan” is not about suicide, but about a society that produces people who are empty inside.
At the same time, Eminem will write about suicide directly as he does in “Cum on Everybody.” In the song he refers to Kurt Cobain’s suicide, but more important is the almost offhand way he mentions his own attempts. He writes about living in a way that practically invites death. He takes overdoses of drugs and is amazed to still be alive. He also predicts this as a kind of natural course to his own life: “I tried suicide once and I’ll try it again/ That’s why I write songs where I die at the end.”  The message of the song, however, goes beyond suicide or drug abuse, just as “Stan” does. To begin with, it is a perfect expression of a style that critics have identified with Eminem: self-hatred. The lyrics have him as who he is, a famous music star, and everything disgusts him. He spits on the girls who want to have sex with him, he takes more drugs because nothing matters, and he wants only to share this feeling of disgust. In Eminem’s lyrics, suicide is not only an extreme and tragic thing. It scares him and he is honest enough to relate this, but the importance of it lies in how it is nothing more than a response to a miserable life and world. As in “Stan,” Eminem is expressing a complete emptiness, and this goes to the social issues of today’s young people feeling disconnected from others and from their world.
The drug use and the “street” kind of living must play a large part here, but there is still the sense in the lyrics that the problems run deeper. In this song, Eminem is saying that suicide is an answer only because there are no other answers. There is also the message that the gratifications of desires is meaningless as well. Even sex and drugs cannot help fill the emptiness. Eminem is then highlighting a social problem: suicide is an inevitable response when the world is empty, and that emptiness is the problem.
Issues of Victimhood
The quality of being a victim is very important in Eminem’s lyrics. On one level, it changes the ways he presents the specific issues of drug abuse and suicide because he reflects a type of person who has no reason to care about anything. On another, and whether it is intentional or not, this stressing of being a victim reflects the same feeling in American culture. It is important to remember that Eminem’s rise to fame and his early work came out of the 1990s, and this has been noted as the decade in which the society placed a huge emphasis on people as victims of their own lives. Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz, for example, writes of how the entire justice system had changed because any sign of personal suffering was being used to free offenders in cases of extreme violence. Suddenly, lawyers were relying on evidence of childhood abuse, as when the Menendez brothers were nearly acquitted for the murders of the parents in 1993. In a sense, the society was insisting that personal responsibility was not easily defined because so many were damaged by forces outside their control. Blaming anyone or anything else, it is widely felt, began to become the American ideology of the 1990s.
This is very much the idea Eminem writes about in “My Mom.” It is hard to know if this is a character speaking through the lyrics or if it is Eminem’s own experience. He himself has been sued by his mother for defamation of character, and he claims that he does not even know where she lives. Either way, the message is strong and repeated at length: because his mother was addicted to Valium, the narrators is a drug addict. He expresses anger at a teacher who questions his rough behavior because, as the song constantly reinforces, it is not his fault: “My mom loved Valium and lots of drugs/ That’s why I am like I am ’cause I’m like her.” The statement is taken further as the lyrics talk about how the mother put Valium and other drugs into everything the boy ate.
Eminem also sings about other kinds of abuse, as the mother is hateful with him and treats him as a burden in her own suffering. What all of this then leads to is a song not about drug abuse, but about the cult of victimhood that arose in American culture in the late 20th century and is still in place today. As Eminem is an artist, it is hoped that there is some distance between himself and this character, and that he is actually offering a bitter and ironic commentary about a harmful trend in American culture.
Orientation and Gender
Another issue or problem that Eminem is famous for writing about in his songs is gay men. He has been extremely criticized for “bashing” gays in his entire career, and he uses the word, “faggot,” many times. Gay organizations usually point to Eminem as an example of a white, racist media figure who gains fame by openly attacking gays in his songs. Even as his friendship with gay singer Elton John has been widely publicized, critics have felt that Eminem is rooted in anti-gay opinion. At the same time, Eminem insists that he has no problem with homosexuals and that he likes gay men. When he talks about using the “faggot” expression, he says that it is a way of bringing down another man that has nothing to do with sexuality: “’Faggot’ to me doesn’t necessarily mean gay people. ’Faggot’ to me just means taking away your manhood..” In other interviews, he goes on to stress that his “bashing” lyrics have nothing to do with actual gay orientation or rights, as when he was asked in 2010 about supporting gay marriage in his home state of Michigan: “I think if two people love each other, then what the hell? I think that everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable, if they want.” This then adds another side to how he refers to gays in his songs, mainly because he is not actually reflecting the social issue of homosexuality in the culture. With Eminem, it seems to be on a broader level. It is not about orientation, but about masculinity, or the traditional ideas in urban culture of how a man should act.
This wider view comes through in his song, “Criminal,” which also seeks to separate himself as an artist from the man perceived as homophobic: “Whether you’re a fag or lez/ Or the homosex, hermaph or a trans-a-vest/ Pants or dress – hate fags? The answer’s “yes”/ Homophobic? Nah, you’re just heterophobic.” What he is doing is mocking the society’s fixation on labeling because of sexuality, and he is implying that multiple sexualities are everywhere. More importantly, the lyrics here stress that he “hates fags,” but only with “fag” as understood as not necessarily meaning gay. In a sense, then, it can be argued that Eminem is directly challenging society’s issues with homosexuality through a constant using of its own, most hateful, expressions. He is demanding in his songs that the society rethink how it views gays because, for him, it is only about being either “a man” or a “faggot” in a way not related to sexuality.
In terms of other social problems reflected by Eminem’s lyrics, it is hard to ignore the way women figure in his sings. As is well known, Eminem constantly refers to them as objects, and objects existing only for sex. They are “bitches” and “hoes”. At his least hostile, the lyrics are almost pornographic and present women only as nameless items for pleasure, as in “Fack”: “I never seen no chick like this/ This bitch can twist like a damn contortionist.” Usually, they are direct, crude, and extremely violent, as in “Fast Lane”: “To the point you don’t suck my dick/ Then you’re gonna get decapitated.” In “Spend Some Time,” Eminem does humanize a woman, but only to present her as having fooled him. In the end she is no different than all other “bitches”: “Now I just feel stupid for the loop that you threw me for/ Can’t believe I almost flew the coop for some stupid whore.” This element of objectifying women as sexual objects, and ones who are destructive and out to demean a man, runs throughout all of Eminem’s work and reflects the disturbing issues in American society regarding gender. On one level, it is clear that the hatred toward women in the lyrics is a part of the “street” or outcast image. Real hip hop men must be tough, and this means having no regard or affection for women.
At the same time, there is the plain reality that Eminem here is reinforcing male issues with women in a dangerous way. He is a popular artist and many young men model themselves on his persona and his music. This being the case, Eminem’s abuse of women in the music does not only reflect the societal problem, but amplifies it as well. It also connects to how, in modern American culture, young men debase females for the same reason they abuse gays: they are not male. In plain terms, Eminem is promoting the idea that rape and abuse are the only correct ways of dealing with women, and there is no real sense that this is meant in an ironic way. It is true that in “Spend Some Time” he presents himself as having been hurt by a woman, but this is again only another case of stressing being a victim. This is done to justify the abuse. It is in fact remarkable that Eminem is so big a star because this suggests that the girls and women who listen to his music either share his ideas or do not take them seriously. This in itself reflects social problems, if only in that something is wrong when women support any expression of themselves as worthless and deserving of violence. It may well be that, in his constant disgust of women, Eminem is expressing a feeling that runs deep in American males. He needs them for sex but he hates needing them, and it is likely this attitude, primitive and disturbing as it is, has meaning for the millions of young men who idolize Eminem.
Violence as Content
Finally, there is the overwhelming emphasis on violence in the lyrics of Eminem, and this goes very much to a critical issue in American society. It must be said again that, as with the attitudes towards drugs and women, the songs are meant to present a specific kind of life or person. They are strongly urban and stress survival at any cost. This is added to by the fact that the drug culture of the streets is naturally violent, and hip hop is powerfully associated with the murders of some of its biggest stars. It is also important to remember that Eminem is never entirely “himself” in his songs. Very often there is a character in place, as in his creation of Slim Shady, which is meant to represent a certain type of dangerous man. He ends “Criminal” making this clear: “Shit, half the shit I say, I just make it up/ To make you mad so kiss my white naked ass.” At the same time, there is no escaping that the lyrics are filled with violence. The words of Slim Shady in “Kill You” glorify it: “Texas Chainsaw, left his brains all/ dangling from his neck, while his head barely hangs on/ Blood, guts, guns, cuts/ Knives, lives, wives, nuns, sluts.” At the end of this song, as in others, Eminem adds the disclaimer that this is not real and that he is “playing.”
Still, it is a constant repeating of savage imagery, and through characters who live to kill, mutilate, and rape. There is also never a clear sense that the lyrics do not in some way reflect the darker feelings of the writer himself, and this is reinforced by the confusion the songs express. Eminem writes about committing violence, but he also presents himself or the character as tortured. Even more importantly, there is a kind of casualness to the violence. Like suicide or abusing women, it is not done to actually achieve an end, but because nothing matters. This is where Eminem’s lyrics powerfully reflect a critical societal problem. Time and again, he writes of hurting others as a joke, or as meaningless, and this goes to how distanced the culture is from real violence. In American society, the public sees every day through media the most extreme forms of brutality, and there has long been concern that this is desensitizing people to the realities of it.
It is to be hoped that Eminem is, again, setting up a persona, rather than expressing his real feelings. Even this, however, still leaves the problem of a kind of glorification through the words alone. The question must be asked: how strong is any disclaimer that the song is not serious when the entire lyric explodes with graphic images of violence? It is certainly possible that this in itself is the statement Eminem is making, but it also seems to be a dangerous one. He reflects violence in society, but he does it in so direct a way that the lyrics may be seen as part of the problem, and no real effort to interpret it. This is essentially true of all the social issues Eminem writes about, in fact. He does not examine in any way, and he does not question. Instead, he writes and performs in ways supporting the worst of all the issues, from the disenfranchisement that leads to suicide to the using of women as objects. What this translates to is what may be called a unique and risky way of reflecting the problems. There is the strong possibility that his listeners only enjoy the thrill of the criminal ideas and desires Eminem expresses, even as they exist to demand questioning. To Eminem’s credit, however, it must still be said that he “puts it all out there.” His songs do not ever hold back in glorifying behaviors based on not caring about anything at all, and this is a powerful statement in itself. Every Eminem song is a kind of challenge. He is asking his audience to consider the selfish, victimized “thug” he sets himself out as, and he also laughs at those who idolize this presentation. It may be that no popular songwriter has ever been so daring in the way the choose to reflect social issues.
As has been discussed, it is easy to criticize the songs of Eminem as nothing more than a marketing effort. They draw on the appeal of the street thug and they also gain through a white man’s adoption of an urban, black stereotype. There is a great deal to question, then. There is also the enormous factor of the lyrics as virtually promoting serious disorders, and even psychotic behaviors. Eminem celebrates a kind of modern nothingness. His songs say that, as we are all worthless, all that can be done is taking care of immediate needs and desires. Through this, however, he makes a strong statement. In a sense, he demands that Americans look at themselves by presenting to them an extreme version of the worst of them, and in this way he unusually reflects the problems facing America. It is a strategy unlike any other. The lyrics of Eminem are completely based on modern American issues, and the issues are all the more intense in his songs because he himself “lives” the problems, or represents the people who create and encourage them.
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