Monday, December 28, 2009

SONG #18-- Lose Yourself


Eminem has been most valuable to me in the last decade not as an artist, but as a terrific example of America's obsession with cultural authenticity.  When you're trying to explain the concepts of Othering and race as a cultural construct to high school students, Eminem is a pretty accessible example.  He seems to be the first white rapper to receive full and complete access to the entire hip-hop community.  Unlike many of the white rappers who preceded him, Eminem was able to seem not like a contrived, cultural appropriator (Vanilla Ice) or a synthesized hybrid of hip-hop and more traditional white musical forms (Beastie Boys).  Instead, he was just a "real" rapper, whatever that means.  To use a metaphor deliberately, Eminem cloaked himself in cultural blackness, and everyone believed him.  He therefore reminds me of a kind of rap Elvis Presley.  The phrase "keepin' it real" which dominated pop culture in the last decade was the rallying cry of Eminem's career.  Now, of course, he's a joke.  A man worth millions is no longer from 8 Mile; if he wanted to keep it real now, he'd write about taxes and marketing meetings.

Perhaps knowing that his race was always going to be a flashpoint issue in his career, Eminem strikes me as the most paranoid white artist I've ever heard.  His albums feel claustrophobic all the way through-- even the "funny" songs employ humor to push people away.  The singles that ended up as rallying cry for a generation of angry white kids remind those kids that they are not him and never will be.  Eminem has always been an island unto himself.

I don't know how seriously to take the furious misogyny of his catalog.  I'm fascinated by his palpable hatred of women and his obvious love for his daughter.  He may just have a classic madonna/whore thing going, but I've thought that, more likely, he is a damaged, furious person who was willing to spew out his worst thoughts to millions in a desperate plea to be heard.  I don't think he hates women nearly as much as he hates himself.  I imagine that he was hoping for help instead of adoration, and America built him a pedestal instead.  So now he just gives us what we expect, and he's bankrupt as an artist.  I hope that means he's figured out more of how to be a person.

So here's the question that I think it's worth asking about Eminem's art:  is he an authentic artist drawn to rap music because it first voiced and then gave him the outlet to speak about his considerable pain and dysfunction, or is he a calculated abuser of rap stereotypes to take advantage of his whiteness and a white community ready to champion a white kid who black kids also think is the real deal?  Is he an example of a deracinated American future or a minstrel blackface backward step?

I don't have a answer.  I do think, though, that this song is the closest thing we have to one.

I'm not a very big Eminem fan; I feel like I'm being bitched at most of the time.  Eminem is like that friend who, when he gets drunk, won't stop talking your ear off about his problems and also won't fall asleep.  His catalog screams "HELP ME!" to me, and I know that's not a popular opinion-- most people hear it as a defiant middle finger to the rest of us, a classic American cry of independence and rejection of the center.  Something like this:

But here's the thing-- that's such an obvious pose.  I Google image searched Eminem looking for a photo where he's smiling, and stopped looking after a hundred photos.  I'm sorry, but an authentic person would be caught smiling at some point by a camera somewhere.  Only someone always wearing a mask would never smile, ever.

"Lose Yourself," though, has the ring of authenticity more than anything I've ever heard, read, or seen of Eminem.  It's ironic that I'm going to try to suggest that this song is Eminem's most genuine moment, since it's the signature track of a film that turns his already-constructed rap persona into a film character.  We're at least four iterations away from a "real" person by the time Eminem performs this song, but perhaps all that distance allows him actually to be real for once.

FIrst thing to notice is the guitar-based backing loop; this song was obviously constructed to cross over as much as possible.  As the lead track to a major studio film, it had to capture as big an audience as possible, including folks who don't like rap music.  It's the most rock-oriented instrumentation of all of Eminem's singles, and as a result, speaks indirectly to the racial tension of his whole career.  Here's a potential way for all white folks to access rap music, originally a black musical form.  It's an update of Run-D.M.C. rapping with Aerosmith.

The first verse is brilliant in its simplicity and the imagery it employs.  I love the detail of throwing up "mom's spaghetti" as he waits to perform.  It's a humanizing moment, Eminem with his guard down.  Perhaps because he's writing in third person (so rare for a rapper, sadly) he can be more complicated in his characterization.  He's having the classic "freeze" dream of any performer.  In the second half of the verse, Eminem shows off the lyrical dexterity that makes him an undeniable talent.  All of the triplet figures that dominate the second half of the verse are terrific ("oh, there goes gravity / oh, there goes Rabbit he / choked, he's so mad but he / won't, give up that easy / no, he won't have it he / knows, his whole back's to these / ropes, it don't matter he's / dope...").  It adds to the sense of tension while also letting us know that if this kid can get over his nerves, he's going to be outstanding.

The chorus speaks to anyone from the lower or middle classes, whether we're talking about an audition or a performance or a college application or a job interview:

"You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo"

It's great advice for anyone who doesn't have a safety net-- live a passionate, purposeful life.  That's what missing from so much of Eminem's other music: purpose.  The nihilism that dominates his catalog is what holds it back.  A true nihilist doesn't make art, doesn't try to create or connect or figure things out. 

In the second verse, he summarizes most of his back catalog in thirty seconds.  He's honest about the emptiness of fame because of the lack of connections to other people; women leave him, and he's estranged from parenthood.  Albums' worth of vitriol about his favorite subjects (women, fame, society) are dealt with here in a more communicative and thoughtful way.  You can skip the first album if you listen to this verse.  Ultimately, they say the same thing.

In the third verse, Eminem switches to the first person, and for me, that's the moment that blows the song open. If indeed he's talking about himself here, then it's an honest, critical appraisal of the choices he's made and cuts through all the cartoonish, foolish imagery of his previous work.  Instead of cutting up women and throwing them in the trunk of his car, "I'm a change what you call rage."  The art itself becomes what matters, not what you think about the artist, a crucial difference.  It's not a verse about how no one will ever understand him; it's a verse that begs for understanding.  The performance is outstanding; I love when he runs out of breath before "Teeter totter" and leaves it in-- it adds to the tension.  The last lines--  "Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go / I cannot grow old in Salem's lot / So here I go is my shot. / Feet fail me not cause maybe the only opportunity that I got." sound not unlike words used by F. Scott Fitzgerald to describe another poor, unsatisfied American with dreams of greatness and cultural escape.  In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald  describes the transformation of his main character from a North Dakota farm boy to Roaring 20s billionaire in a way that startlingly mirrors the transformation of Marshall Mathers into Eminem:

"Just why these inventions were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota, isn't easy to say.

James Gatz--that was really, or at least legally, his name. He had changed it at the age of seventeen and at the specific moment that witnessed the beginning of his career--when he saw Dan Cody's yacht drop anchor over the most insidious flat on Lake Superior. It was James Gatz who had been loafing along the beach that afternoon in a torn green jersey and a pair of canvas pants, but it was already Jay Gatsby who borrowed a rowboat, pulled out to the Tuolomee, and informed Cody that a wind might catch him and break him up in half an hour.

I suppose he'd had the name ready for a long time, even then. His parents were shiftless and unsuccessful farm people--his imagination had never really accepted them as his parents at all. The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God--a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that--and he must be about His Father's business, the service of a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty. So he invented just the sort of Jay Gatsby that a seventeen-year-old boy would be likely to invent, and to this conception he was faithful to the end...

He knew women early, and since they spoiled him he became contemptuous of them, of young virgins because they were ignorant, of the others because they were hysterical about things which in his overwhelming self-absorbtion he took for granted.

But his heart was in a constant, turbulent riot. The most grotesque and fantastic conceits haunted him in his bed at night. A universe of ineffable gaudiness spun itself out in his brain while the clock ticked on the wash-stand and the moon soaked with wet light his tangled clothes upon the floor. Each night he added to the pattern of his fancies until drowsiness closed down upon some vivid scene with an oblivious embrace. For a while these reveries provided an outlet for his imagination; they were a satisfactory hint of the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy's wing...

To the young Gatz, resting on his oars and looking up at the railed deck, the yacht represented all the beauty and glamour in the world. I suppose he smiled at Cody--he had probably discovered that people liked him when he smiled. At any rate Cody asked him a few questions (one of them elicited the brand new name) and found that he was quick and extravagantly ambitious. A few days later he took him to Duluth and bought him a blue coat, six pair of white duck trousers, and a yachting cap. And when the Tuolomee left for the West Indies and the Barbary Coast Gatsby left too."

You can argue that I'm being suckered-- it's the calculated movie song, after all, and maybe all Eminem is doing is selling me the version of him that I want instead of the "real" one that the hip-hop community already knows.  (It is apparently the most successful rap song in history, so I'm not alone if I'm being played.)  Maybe I want him to be a Whitmanesque figure seeking connection when he's just the voice of hopelessness that permeates young black America (The Wire, for example).  Maybe I'm Nick Carraway, forgiving Gatsby for his immoral pursuit of dollars because I need him to be something that he just isn't:

"Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction--Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life..."
Maybe, ultimately, it's the tension of not knowing what to think that makes the song so good.  That confusion, that tension, always makes for great American art.

Eminem has obviously reached his tipping point; he seems to be done as an artist with something to say or offer.  His moment has passed, but all the issues and lessons that his career reminded us about our culture remain, and I'll be interested to see if his career ends up making us a little smarter about race and identity or not.

Finally, since she's in this film, I pour one out for Brittany Murphy, another reminder of how much as a nation we like to create and then kill heroes.  Maybe Eminem's smart as hell to keep that mask on; at least then we can't get to him.


  1. Eminem is certainly an interesting figure. I agree, but disagree with everything you said in your sum up/take on him if that makes sense. I think he is looked at as the real deal because if he was whiney, hateful, too much, whatever...there was no denying he had a talent and a feel for hip hop music that white artists who try just don't have. I agree with your summation of him, but here is where i differ. I've always thought the lyrical direction and approach was a calculated move against the grain. the fact that Eminem and Dr. Dre worked so well as a duo definitely facilitated the experiment. hip hop at the time lyrically (at least in the mainstream) had become a pretty superficial medium (wrapping about going to the club, drinkin' and bling). i think he took the opportunity to air out his problems, but then took that whole parody angle that really took his career to the next level. which is kind of the brilliance of him when you think about it. it was taking the parodies of his situation (white guy in a dominantly black genre) as well as the ridiculousness of mainstream music and culture. and like the best of teens and young adults in a position such as him ,said "let's see how far i can really push this".
    was the guy a trainwreck of a person? most definitely. is there huge depth and meaning to his catalog? not really. but thankfully, every musical catalog doesn't require that. if anything, his catalog sets out in large part as an overview to american culture/society of teens and early 20's. sifting through that you can fine an accurate account as well as a mockery or parody of it.

  2. Really interesting take-- thanks for writing!