Wednesday, June 29, 2011

“Renegade” Reterritorialization: Eminem and The Eminem Show

The emergence of Eminem as the world's first white rap superstar between 2000-2004 marked a turning point in both hip hop's economic legitimacy and democratizing potential. In four short years, Marshall Mathers sold over 50 million records, earning him the Grammy for “Best Rap Album” three times (his winning streak to be interrupted only by Outkast's Stankonia in 2002). In retrospect, the eventual success of a white rapper in the mainstream came as no surprise to the music industry; since the early days of gangsta with N.W.A and Dr. Dre, rap music's primary consumers had long been rebellious white teens (Watkins 131). But it was not until Eminem was marketed as a representative voice for rebellious white teens themselves that this constituency would make a mark in the mainstream media with enough self-reflexive force as to shatter popular notions of race and class, both in the hip hop nation and American identity.

The story of Eminem's rise to fame begins with his career as a competitive battle rapper. A series of victories in these exhibitions of braggadocios verbal insults would earn Eminem his stripes in the hip hop community, sharpening his lyrical sword skills and forcing him to formulate a defense against the detriment of his own whiteness in a black art form (Watkins 89). In the semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile, Eminem plays the role of “Rabbit,” a little known rapper living in Detroit. The plot stresses the hardships of his life as a blue collar worker in living in post-industrial Detroit, where the lifelong job security associated with the era of Fordism has been replaced by the neo-liberal discourse of cost-efficiency and disposable untrained labor. “Rabbit” eventually comes to escape the frustration of his dead end job at the dilapidated car manufacturing plant through MCing ('moving the crowd') in underground rap battles. He is able to silence his opponents’ attacks against his white working class origins by acknowledging these facts himself, taking the words out their mouths in the last round:

This guys no motherfucking MC

I know everything hes got to say against me:

I am white, I am a fucking bum,

I do live in a trailer with my mom

Fuck ya'll if you doubt me,

I'm a piece of fucking white trash, I say it proudly

Fuck this battle, I don't wanna win, I'm outtie

Here, tell these people something they don't know about me.

(Eminem as “Rabbit,” 8 Mile)

By 'flipping the script' and using his status as a poor white outcast to his advantage, Eminem was able to affiliate himself with hip hop's rebellious/marginal sentiments, winning him fans from both sides of rap's seemingly all-important racial divide. Watkins argues that “Eminem’s emphasis on his demoralizing past and the anger he harbored toward society played well because these were also pivotal themes in hip hop. It was as if Eminem were saying...'I too am young, poor, and despised.' In short, “Look past my whiteness and you will see that I am one of you.' (Watkins 93). Mathers' universalizing appeal to outcasts and the disadvantaged allowed him to capture an audience whose racial affiliations did not matter so much as their class origins.

Through bleach blonde hair and plain white tees, Eminem articulated his street authenticity through symbols of white poverty, as opposed to gangsta tropes of bling. In “White America” he raps: “Who woulda thought; standing in this mirror bleaching my hair / with some peroxide, reaching for a t-shirt to wear / that I would catapult to the forefront of rap like this? / How could I predict my words would have an impact like this?” (Eminem, “White America”).

Eminem's very image brings to light hidden issues of white poverty in America that violate popular notions of race and class, which until his emergence have been especially indicative even of corporate hip-hop’s marketing schemes (i.e. if urban black kids approve of the music, so will suburban white kids). In a manner similar to Elvis Presley, who straddled and shook the fault line between black music and white working class sentiments with rock n' roll (Watkins 101), Eminem entailed a crossing-over of seemingly contradictory identities within hip hop, which shook the core of American normativity through a largely youth-defined audience. He provided the grounds for a de/reterritorialization of contrasting political identities that is symbolically revolutionary to the core, in that “racial boundaries have often divided the poor against each other thus helping, in the end, to sustain society’s racial and economic distinctions. When those boundaries are violated, if only symbolically, so too are the powerful myths and power relations that sustain the status quo” (Watkins 92).

Eminem's' dextrous wit and rebellious persona, which found its sonic manifestation in Dr. Dre's undeniably catchy production circa 2000, was poised to take over hip hop's largest listening constituency to date: disaffected youth, both white and black, and both in the ghetto and suburbia. The subject matter of “White America” expands on this point, when Eminem raps that "The problem is, I speak to suburban kids / Who otherwise woulda never knew these words exist / Whose moms probably woulda never gave two squirts of piss / 'Til I created so much motherfuckin' turbulence!” (Eminem, “White America.”). His broad constituency of listeners would prove to be a potential revolutionary force in light of the reactionary social mechanisms which would come to reterritorialize traditional notions of class, race, and identity in 2001.

In Jay-Z's 2001 album The Blueprint, released on the same Tuesday as the terrorist attacks on September 11, Eminem is featured as a guest artist on the song “Renegade”. In the chorus, Eminem raps with a raspy vehemence that he has “Never been afraid to say what's on my mind at, any given time of day / Cause I'm a RENEGADE! / Never been afraid to talk about anything” (Eminem, “Renegade”). He then articulates his precarious place in the mainstream media as a role model for white adolescents, and a demon to their hypocritical parents, in his first verse:

Since I'm in a position to talk to these kids and they listen
I ain't no politician but I'll kick it with 'em a minute
Cause see they call me a menace; and if the shoe fits I'll wear it
But if it don't, then y'all'll swallow the truth grin and bear it
Now who's the king of these rude ludicrous lucrative lyrics
Who could inherit the title, put the youth in hysterics
Using his music to steer it, sharing his views and his merits
But there's a huge interference

They're saying you shouldn't hear it
Maybe it's hatred I spew, maybe it's food for the spirit
Maybe it's beautiful music I made for you to just cherish
But I'm debated disputed hated and viewed in America
as a motherfucking drug addict - like you didn't experiment?” (Eminem, “Renegade”)

On songs like “Renegade” and “White America,” Eminem played the role as the popular voice of dissent for an audience of disaffected youth, during a historical time when they might have been the least heard and the most powerless. In 2001, simply buying and listening to an Eminem CD was a revolutionary statement against social mechanisms of ideological control: first as a big “fuck you” to the dysfunctional system of parenthood in America, which in Eminem's songs pertain to his own disdain towards his mother; and secondly, as another big “fuck you” towards “Ms. Cheney” and “Tipper Gore,” who represent the right-wing reactionary forces that demonize Eminem and rap music, and that impose censorship on free speech/free ideas in order to quell popular dissent from within the sphere of American empire.

The Eminem Show, the album which features “White America” as its first song, would function in 2002 as a symbolic stage for a cross-racial, inter-class, and inter-generational battle between potential revolutionary “little Hellions, kids feelin rebellious,” and the reactionary powers-that-be, ranging from neoconservative “parents that still listen to Elvis,” all the way up to the United States Senate and the Bush administration itself (Eminem, “Without Me”). The stakes that The Eminem Show set for this battle would include the right to free speech, the courage to form dissenting views against the majority, and the right for youth to refuse conscription in the army, issues which would characterize the affect of terror after September 11.

By evoking the spirit of Tupac on songs like “Til’ I Collapse” (“The criminal cop killing hip hop villain / A minimal swap to cop millions of Pac listeners”) and “Square Dance (“Thug like I'm Pac on my enemies”), Eminem recuperates the gangsta rap tropes of “thug life” and “keeping it real” so as to bolster and legitimize his own rebellious sentiments against the American government and reactionary censorship. In the case of Tupac Shakur, whose complex legacy as a gangsta rapper is closely intertwined with influences from his mother in the Black Panther movement and it’s anti-authoritarian energies, these gangsta rap tropes pertain not only to the blind excesses of capitalist consumption, but also a sense of unerring righteousness towards “authorities in the face of adversity” (Eminem, “Soldier”). According to Dream Hampton's essay ”Hell Raiser,” “There [was] a purity to Tupac's rage. Yes, he [was] dangerously emotional, but righteously so. He [believed] in something and [was] willing to act on it. For him conformity [meant] the death of truth” (Hampton 132). The conformity or ”death of truth” that Eminem fought against in his time was censorship of free speech, and more importantly, the complacence of the American public to the Bush administration and their planned Invasion of Iraq, a public still under the spell of 9/11 and the fear mongering of the right wing media.

The Eminem Show came out just one month after the “Joint Resolution to Authorize the United States Armed Forces Against Iraq” gained approval in the U.S. Congress in September 2002, and was poised to make a critical statement against it. In “Square Dance,” Eminem channels the aggressive formula of battle rapping that made him famous in the first place, this time pointing his lyrical weapon at his enemies in the media and government, including explicit references against President Bush, and a critique against the motivations behind the Invasion of Iraq pertaining to Saddam’s unconfirmed weapons of mass destruction:

Never been the type to bend or budge

The wrong button to push, no friend of Bush


The Boogie monster of rap, yeah the man's back

With a plan to ambush this Bush administration

Mush the Senate's face in, push this generation

Of kids to stand and fight for the right to say something


Crazy insane, or insane crazy?

When I say Hussein, you say Shady. (Eminem, “Square Dance”)

The Invasion of Iraq would have particular consequences for Eminem's youthful constituency of listeners, including the possibility of being recruited by the military to a fight a war declared under false pretenses, which Eminem himself articulates with a prophetic grace:

Yeah you laugh 'til your motherfuckin' ass gets drafted

While you're at band camp thinkin' that crap can't happen

'Til you fuck around, get an anthrax napkin

Inside a package wrapped in Saran Wrap wrappin'

Open the plastic and then you stand back gaspin'

Fuckin' assassins, hijackin' Amtraks, crashin'

All this terror, America demands action

Next thing you know, you've got Uncle Sam's ass askin'

to join the Army or what you'll do for their Navy

You just a baby, gettin' recruited at eighteen

You're on a plane now, eatin' their food and their baked beans

I'm twenty-eight, they gon ' take you 'fore they take me! (Eminem, “Square Dance”)

Although Eminem's political music has been bombasted by conservative critics as wishful thinking at best, I see his art as encapsulating the particular historical ideologeme of reactionary terror vs. revolutionary rebellion surrounding the image-event of 9/11, and the subsequent Invasion of Iraq in 2003. When Eminem posits himself in “White America” as “The ringleader of this circus of worthless pawns / Sent to lead the march right up to the steps of Congress,” he functions as both a spokesman and ”pseudoidea” for a larger social movement and desiring-machine of “worthless pawns,” who seek to change the oppressive social organization of American life (Eminem, “White America”). These “worthless pawns” represent not only disaffected white youth, but also anyone who can identify with hip hop's rebellious and marginal sentiments, and the need to speak out against social mechanisms in the face of voicelessness.

The song “Mosh” on Eminem's 2004 album, Encore, expands the thematics of “White America” in the form of an animated music video, which serves as a visual manifestation to the ideologeme of rebellion found in his political music. The video posits a “pseudoidea”, or world view, through Eminem's “scathing indictment of President Bush and the war in Iraq,” taken up from the multiple viewpoints of racial profiling, urban poverty, and a war for oil (MTV News). The music video depicts an assemblage of black-hooded citizens from all colors and creeds - disaffected by police brutality, eviction notices, and redeployment notices to Iraq - in protest with Eminem against Congress and the Bush administration, thereby setting the stakes for a “protonarrative” between rebellious citizens and the fear mongering American government. The construction of this ideologeme was designed to plug into the desiring-machine of angry citizens ready to vote against Bush in the election of 2004. The original version of the video depicts Eminem's mosh of followers “assembling to disarm what he calls the real weapon of mass destruction: George W. Bush,” not through senseless anarchy, but by the ballot box. The second version of the video, created after Bush was successfully re-elected in 2004, depicts this same assemblage of followers storming Congress during what looks to be the State of the Union address, in order to protest the Bush administration's neo-liberal propaganda.

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