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Eminem is telling us something - don't censor the messenger

By Jason Sternberg - posted Wednesday, 15 August 2001

And I am whatever you say I am
If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am
In the paper, the news everyday I am

(Eminem, "The Way I Am", 2000)

He lived up to his reputation. On 26 July, 28-year-old white US gangsta rapper Eminem played at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena and backed up the next night at Sydney’s Australia Dome. The hour-and-a-half concerts cost the fans that paid $100 for tickets slightly more than a dollar per minute. Eminem performed with his trademark chainsaw (without teeth due to Australian workplace health and safety laws), dressed as a B-grade horror film serial killer. He swallowed a fake ecstasy tablet, sat in an electric chair and called his estranged wife Kim "a f****** bitch" while pro-drug messages flashed on TV screens around him.

And he told the crowd he’d brought a gun into the country.


Prime Minister John Howard called his music "sickening".

In the process, Eminem became Australia’s moral panic du jour. In an era where Baby Boomers maintain a stultifying stranglehold on youth culture, it’s little surprise that one of the biggest moral battlegrounds of the nineties and the new millennium has involved rap and hip-hop, a music and culture that perhaps demonstrate the new generation gap more clearly than any other form of youth expression.

Eminem, a Grammy winner and four-time nominee, is a pop culture icon. The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem's follow-up to his triple-platinum debut, The Slim Shady LP, sold 1.76 million copies in its first week, the second-highest opening-week album sales figures in history. As of the week beginning 6 August, Emimen’s Marshall Mathers was at number 18 on the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) charts and Devil’s Night by D12, featuring Eminem was at number six. According to those who testify from the moral barricades at these times, Eminem’s popularity makes vast numbers of the population very sick individuals.

The man himself begs to differ. "A lot of my rhymes are just to get chuckles out of people," Eminem says. "Anybody with half a brain is going to be able to tell when I’m joking and when I’m serious". Eminem understands his appeal. Lots of people – most of them young – relate to his music. "I believe that a lot of people can relate to my shit," he says. "Everybody has been through some shit, whether it’s drastic or not so drastic. Everybody gets to the point of ‘I don’t give a f***’."

Born Marshall Bruce Mathers III on October 17 1972, Eminem had a self-described "real, stereotypical, trailer park, white trash" upbringing, constantly shuffling between homes and never knowing his father. Finding it difficult to make friends, he retreated into pop culture’s comforting buzz of white noise. However, at age 12, after settling with his mother in Detroit, Marshall began hanging with friends and discovered rappers such as LL Cool J and 2 Live Crew. Developing a reputation as a nimble rhymer, he dropped out of school after failing grade nine and in 1996, released his debut album Infinite.

In 1998 he released The Slim Shady EP, which made its way into the hands of rap legend Dr Dre, who became Eminem’s producer and mentor. Following his charismatic video in early 1999 for "My Name Is …", which parodied everyone from Marilyn Manson to Bill Clinton, Eminem’s popularity gained enough momentum to warrant a US tour months before his major-label debut was released. The Slim Shady LP entered the US Billboard charts at number 3 with its shocking depictions of rampant drug use, rape, sex and violence, at times directed at his mother, father, sister and Kim Mathers, his wife and mother of his child.


Violence has always been a reality for Eminem. Bullied at school, he was once beaten up so badly he spent five days in a coma and has attempted suicide. In addition to the gun charges (for pistol-whipping a man he caught kissing Kim and allegedly brandishing a hand gun during an argument with a member of rival band Insane Clown Posse Eminem’s raps have also found himself facing custody battles with his ex-wife and defamation writs from his mother after claiming she "smokes more dope than I do".

Eminem’s raps are undoubtedly violent, homophobic, and misogynist. In "Shit on You", he threatens:

I will shit on you I don’t care who you are
I’ll shit on you
I don’t give a f*** about you or your car
F*** your house
F*** your jewellery
And f*** your watch
F*** your wife
F*** your kids
F*** your family
I’ll shit on you.

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About the Author

Jason Sternberg is a lecturer in media studies at the Queensland University of Technology. His forthcoming Doctoral thesis concerns the influence of media on Australian youth and vice versa.

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