The trouble with Eminem – morality and social effects of rap singer’s use of offensive language in song lyrics – Interview
On the eve of the Grammys, writer Doug Wright (Quills) And GLAAD’s Romaine Patterson discuss Eminem’s Freedom (and responsibility) of speech
One of the best-selling CDs of the year 2000, The Marshall Mathers LP, features Eminem rapping lyrics like “My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge / That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or lez,” much to the anger and revulsion of many gays and lesbians, including the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. One of the most critically acclaimed films of last year, Quills, features the Marquis de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) writing about sexual perversity, much to the anger and revulsion of many French moral guardians, including Napoleon. Since Quills makes the argument that artistic freedom is vital, even when many find the art itself to be repulsive, we asked the film’s openly gay writer, Doug Wright, to talk about the Eminem controversy with GLAAD’s mid-Atlantic region media manager, Romaine Patterson, who might join GLAAD’s protest of Eminem outside the Grammy awards ceremony on February 21 (the rapper is up for four awards, including Album of the Year).
I’m going to be throwing out some devil’s advocate questions for both of you. A GLAAD spokesperson told Entertainment Weekly that Eminem’s Grammy nomination “sends a dangerous message that you can write, sing, and market anything.” Well, in a free society, can’t you write, sing, and market anything?
Patterson: While I love free speech, it does not really entitle us to make money or to be given a platform to be hurtful to other people. With kids in particular, in reference to Eminem, these words are becoming acceptable to them and are then going out of their mouths as quickly as they go in their ears, in the school hallways, in the locker rooms, on the street. Unfortunately, it has an impact on the lives of their peers, especially the gay and lesbian peers that are already struggling with low self-esteem.
Wright: I think a lot of Eminem’s lyrics fall into the category of unexamined adolescent diatribe. I don’t think that they are part of a larger ideology. And I think it’s something that we as a community have to press him to do–to articulate how his routine use of cruel, homophobic rhetoric accomplishes some larger, worthwhile goal. When you look at someone like the Marquis de Sade, all of his toxic prose is contextualized into a total ideology that we can accept or reject in its full magnitude. I think Eminem is just switching from song to song, trying to figure out what he’s about. He’s probably just battling amorphous and deeply threatening doubts about his own sexuality. Does that have any worth in the larger culture? I don’t think so.
As an artist, though, shouldn’t Eminem have the opportunity to work through those issues out loud and come out the other side with a clearer understanding of his own feelings?
Patterson: At whose expense? The young kids hearing “faggot” in the hallways every day at school? This is not an issue of censorship, this is an issue of responsibility. Eminem has said that he will not use the word “nigger” in his lyrics because he understands that that would be defamatory to the black community. Interscope [would] not let [Eminem] use lyrics that refer to Columbine [by name on The Marshall Mathers LP] for the same reason. It would be considered inflammatory. They sink to a whole new standard when it comes to words dealing with the gay and lesbian community. It’s still socially acceptable for Eminem to use the word “faggot” 12 times and use violent lyrics toward gays and lesbians.
Wright: I hope I don’t sound like I’m wearing rose-colored glasses, but sometimes you get an unexpected dividend from the controversy engendered by artists like Eminem. I don’t know if we would be seeing a weeklong series of specials on hate crimes on MTV or the Matthew Shepard movie had it not been for some of Eminem’s lyrics. When we as a culture come across something so patently offensive that we all have to rise up and answer, there can be genuine gains in public dialogue.
Patterson: I’d like to speak on the MTV thing. I was contacted by MTV a year ago, easily, regarding the MTV Matthew Shepard movie, and we worked with them a little bit on the whole Fight for Your Rights campaign, and I think that this is something they knew they were going to be doing long before the Eminem controversy.
GLAAD asserts that it doesn’t want to censor Eminem. If it’s not about censoring him, what do you want?
Patterson: Well, let me give you a good example: [Pro basketball player-turned-rapper] Allen Iverson recently put out a single with misogynistic, homophobic lyrics, much like Eminem’s. However, when his lyrics were brought to the attention of critics and organizations such as GLAAD, and when we spoke up about our concern, he listened. And of his own accord, he edited out the defamatory lyrics, and he publicly apologized for his actions while still being an artist. We want Eminem and Interscope Records–and even MTV and any music industry [figure]–to hold the same set of standards for gay and lesbian issues in music as they would any other minority group.
Wright: I’m wondering–you can encourage more appropriate speech, but what about the homophobia that underlies that speech? Sometimes the most terrifying kind of racist speech is delivered with a smile and a hug. So in tempering someone’s vocabulary, how can we learn to separate that from real underlying malevolence?
For the last few years, the Right has been blaming youth violence on movies, video games, music, and the media in general. Does GLAAD run the risk of joining that chorus?
Patterson: The important part of this particular question is parental responsibility.
Wright: Bravo, bravo.
Patterson: GLAAD has really pushed to bring this out in the public forum so that parents can have a clear understanding of what their children are listening to: The edited versions that are played on radio and MTV are not the lyrics their children are hearing on the CD. The fact that he is being listened to by target audiences as young as 7, 10, 11, 12 is very important. Parents need to know that these lyrics are out there, to help their children make educated decisions.
Wright: Look at something like the Columbine incident, and you see that volatile teenage minds will express themselves with the tools that they are given. Give them a paintbrush, and you might get a painting; give them a handgun, and you might get a massacre. What’s really troubling about someone like Eminem is the very purgative nature of art. If he purges his own demons by creating this kind of rhetoric, then it has a certain societal value, you could argue. And yet how can we as a society educate him sufficiently so that the ultimate result doesn’t defile us all, collectively?
What if you apply the same standards of appropriate speech to someone like gay novelist Dennis Cooper? Where is the line drawn?
Patterson: We have to look at the age range Eminem is targeting. His primary audience is young adults. The whole argument that kids are going to be able to make up their own minds–to distinguish what’s funny versus what’s not–relies on the judgment of kids who don’t even have their driver’s licenses. They’re not necessarily old enough to understand the real issues and ramifications of this language.
Wright: I find myself asking–naively Perhaps–if an Eminem lyric is more likely to incite violence against gays than a group of anxious 14-year-old straight boys watching a sex scene on Queer as Folk. Serial killer David Berkowitz–who committed an appalling series of murders in the 1970s in New York–claimed he was acting on orders from his dog. So what are you going to do, outlaw house pets? The underlying homophobia is the problem, because if extant, it will seek out any stimuli to justify its actions.
Patterson: I think each of us has listened to music that has been in some way controversial, whether it be Elvis or Madonna or whatever, but we’re not talking about swiveling hips, it’s really about hateful lyrics. And in the end it reinforces prejudice and gives people, especially young people, permission to express their emotions through violence aimed at gays and lesbians. To us, that seems like a very dangerous thing.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group