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A Context for Eminem’s “Murder Ballads”1

Elizabeth L. Keathley



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  1. The media coverage of rapper Eminem in the days immediately preceding and following the 2001 Grammy awards rehearsed a number of common tropes regarding controversial art forms: is free artistic expression more important than a moral social order? Is there a distinction between individual expression and commercial manipulation? Do portrayals of violence beget more violence? Is rap music indeed “music”? Concerns about vulgar language, homophobia, and the degradation of women arose from a range of voices because The Marshall Mathers LP had been nominated for the prestigious “Album of the Year” award by the members of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. According to C. Michael Greene, then the Grammy organization’s president, the nomination was intended to “recognize [Eminem’s] music and not his message” (All Things Considered). At the time, I found feminist objections to Eminem’s depictions of violence against women particularly salient perhaps because, between the Music History Sequence and the Opera History course I was then teaching, I tallied a depressingly large number of dead women. My gruesome accounting revealed four women murdered by jealous husbands or boyfriends; two killed or raped by authority figures; one ritually sacrificed; and five who died after having been seduced and abandoned or forced to marry against their will—for a body count of twelve dead women in one semester of teaching. And that did not include tuberculosis victims.2

  2. Catherine Clément’s Opera: or, The Undoing of Women has come into and then gone out of fashion, but our canon remains littered with women’s corpses.3 When I attempt to problematize these works for my students, the bodies will not stay buried. For example, when I discuss the social dimensions of Wozzeck, the anti-hero’s oppression at the hands of the Doctor and the Captain, and how he reproduces that oppression by murdering Marie, it is not uncommon for students to remark, “I thought he killed her because she cheated on him,” as though that were a reasonable explanation and even a natural consequence of female infidelity.

  3. Thus, it struck me then, as I will argue here, that the misogynistic violence of Eminem’s rap songs has at least as much to do with the traditions of “whiter” aesthetic forms—opera, cinema, bluegrass murder ballads4—as it does with the conventions of gangsta rap: the very appeal of these rap songs depends on a widespread acceptance of violence against women as a cultural norm. In making this claim I wish both to acknowledge and to amplify Tricia Rose’s observation that “some rappers’ apparent need to craft elaborate and creative stories about the abuse and domination of … women … reflect[s] the deep-seated sexism that pervades the structure of American culture” (15).5 I also wish to suggest that, due to Eminem’s status as a white rapper masquerading within a black genre but supported by a predominantly white recording industry, his murder rap songs simultaneously serve the fantasies of white men and deflect blame for their regressive gender politics onto the putative violence and lawlessness of the black urban culture that engendered hip-hop. bell hooks’ comments on Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice are relevant here: she both condemns the book’s advocacy and celebration of rape and cautions that “we need to remember that it was a white-dominated publishing industry which printed and sold Soul on Ice. While white male patriarchs were pretending to respond to the demands of the feminist movement, they were allowing and even encouraging black males to give voice to violent woman-hating sentiments” (136).

  4. Robin D. G. Kelley has argued that, for many white, middle-class, male teenagers, gangsta rap provides an “imaginary alternative to suburban boredom”: “[T]he ghetto is a place of adventure, unbridled violence, and erotic fantasy,” which these young men consume vicariously and voyeuristically (122). This, claims Kelley, explained the “huge white following” of NWA (Niggaz with Attitude). Unlike some previous white rappers, Eminem’s credentials of “ghetto authenticity” have been established through his urban Detroit upbringing, his black homies, and rise to fame through MC battles—actual head-to-head rapping contests.6 Rap and urban music periodicals (The Source, Vibe, Rap Pages) have consistently held Eminem’s verbal ability in high regard, calling him “a white boy who can hang with the best black talent based on sheer skill” (Coker 162).7 Moreover, it was Dr. Dre of NWA notoriety who provided Eminem’s first recording opportunity, essentially launching his career. Dr. Dre remains Eminem’s chief producer.

  5. Eminem can and does deliver the lurid goods for the delectation of suburban white boys, and he does it in whiteface, virtually guaranteeing greater access to the money and machinery of the music industry. Reflecting on the commercial advantages of white rappers, Eric Perkins recalled an alleged statement of Sun Records’ Sam Phillips from the early 1950s: “’If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.’ That white man [was] Elvis Presley” (Perkins 36).8

  6. In addition to noting that rap is only the latest genre of black American music to be appropriated by white culture, some critics have drawn parallels between white rappers (“the great white hoax” qtd. in Perkins 35) and blackface minstrelsy: when Al Jolson donned blackface, one critic observed, he became the first Beastie Boy (White 198). Such masquerades may be motivated less by purely musical interests than by a desire to hide behind the guise of another in order to transgress social norms. Dale Cockrell has argued, for example, that some early blackface minstrels protested social conditions while in their “Ethiopian” disguises.9 But other instances suggest that the musical discourse of the “Other” facilitates and justifies fantasies of illicit pleasure, a kind of carnivalesque colonialism: fictive orientalisms, the tango, and jazz have variously served to represent sexual license for the delectation of European or American audiences. Thus, the ghetto is only the most recent port of call for European/American musical tourism.

  7. If the structure of Eminem’s CDs—with their mix of jokes, skits, danceable tunes, satire, self-abasement, and racial and gender impersonation—bears a certain resemblance to a minstrel show, a more significant parallel is minstrelsy’s “mixed erotic economy of celebration and exploitation”: like Eminem’s fans, the blackface minstrels’ audiences were predominantly white and male, and their fascination with and anxiety about minstrelsy, nineteenth–century America’s most popular form of entertainment, were bound up with received notions of black masculinity. For the young white men and boys whose fanship made Eminem’s most recent CD “go platinum” before its release (Richtel C4), the rapper’s sonic “blacking up” is, to use the words of Eric Lott, “less a sign of absolute white power and control than of panic, anxiety, terror, and pleasure” (6).10 Many of Enimen’s first-person tales of drugs, violence, and domination of adversaries represent the urban exotic for the thrill of white boys in their emulation of the language and attitudes of the “real Nigga,” the gangster and the pimp, thus invoking constructions of black masculinity with roots in pernicious stereotypes.11 In the same sleight of race operative in blackface minstrelsy, Eminem, by virtue of his popularity and media attention, has become the most widely recognized emblem of gangsta rap, his homophobia, misogyny, and violence reinforcing stereotypes not about white men, but rather, about black men.12

    A screenshot of Eminem's official website Eminem web site

    Hip-hop Meets Family Melodrama

  8. The two murder raps under discussion here, however, are not set against an exoticized urban landscape of pimps and hoes and do not speak in the tongue of sexual braggadocio; rather, they resemble any other bourgeois melodrama in their presumption of the rightness of the patriarchal, nuclear family. Their suggestion that this caring father has become a murderer only because his immoral wife has pushed him beyond his limits resonates with the moral claims of conservative, father-oriented movements, such as The Promise Keepers.13 In this context, the “whiteness” of the violence is clear: according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, the numbers of black women murdered annually by intimate partners have dropped by half since 1976, but those of white women have been “especially stubborn, varying from 800 to 1000” per year during the same period (see American Bar Association).14

  9. Like bluegrass murder ballads, “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” from The Slim Shady LP and “Kim” from The Marshall Mathers LP concern a murder prompted by sexual jealousy in a monogamous, heterosexual relationship, and they relate the events from the murderer’s point of view. While their small scale and focus on the murder event align them with ballads (as opposed to an opera or a movie, in which the murder is only one of many events, and more than one point of view is apparent), the fact that the songs unfold at the same time as the action, rather than narrating events of the past, more closely resembles those larger-scale dramatic forms.

  10. In both songs, the victim is the protagonist’s estranged wife, and the precipitating event is her remarriage to another man, construed by the protagonist as infidelity and setting up the transgression-and-punishment paradigm that informs so much nineteenth–century opera and literature.15 The “realist” aesthetic of the songs suggests an alignment with film noir, as does their implication that it is the woman’s act of independence that wreaks disaster: “[Putting] self-interest over devotion to a man,” according to film historian Janey Place, “is often the original sin of the film noir woman” (Kaplan 2–3; Place 47). While the murderer’s revenge for this failure of wifely devotion comprises the written narrative of both raps, the unwritten narrative—the act that the protagonist avenges—is the wife’s initiative to remove herself and her daughter from an abusive relationship.16

  11. In both “Kim” and “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” the feckless wife is contrasted to the innocent baby daughter, a pre-sexual and therefore pre-dangerous female, on whom the murderer lavishes affection in chilling juxtaposition to the slaying. In addition to their narrative similarities, the two songs have similar structures: both use sound effects to portray location and action (car doors slamming, dragging the wife’s body through the bushes, passing traffic); both use rapped lyrics for the verses, where the narrative is told; and both have a sung refrain that ironically reworks romantic tropes.17

  12. The song title “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” refers to the father and daughter, now outlaws, who remain after the wife has been murdered, and the song’s refrain, “just the two of us,” which takes its lyric from Grover Washington Jr.’s 1980 romantic ballad, is transposed to the father/daughter dyad.18 Reference to the glamorous criminal couple Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker is not unique in the genre of gansta rap: Yo-Yo and Ice Cube cut two tracks under that name (“The Bonnie and Clyde Theme” from You Better Ask Somebody and “Bonnie and Clyde II” from Total Control), followed by Jay-Z and Foxy Brown’s “Bonnie and Clyde Part II” (Chyna Doll), which Jay-Z also recorded with Beyonce Knowles of Destiny’s Child, among others. Notably, these other rap songs on the Bonnie and Clyde trope are duets with two adults interacting as equal partners, a distinct difference from “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” where “Clyde’s” peer has been extinguished and replaced by a clearly subordinate child. Of course, all of the Bonnie and Clyde raps invoke Arthur Penn’s popular 1967 movie of the same name, “the most explicitly violent film that had yet been made” (Prince 9), and generally credited with ushering in the American cinematic norm of “ultraviolence.”19

  13. As “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” opens, the murder has already taken place, and father and daughter go to dump the wife’s body. The circumstances of the murder are revealed gradually through the father’s reassuring prattle to the child, expressed partly as baby talk, partly as that rationalization parents use to keep children from fretting, such as, “don’t worry about that boo-boo on mama’s neck; it don’t hurt,” after the murderer has slashed her throat.20 I find this song both horrifying and compelling. Eminem’s jesting tone and smooth rapping style, the danceable rhythmic groove, the dark humor of the lyric and clever narrative twists engage me even as I recoil from what the words signify: “Say good-bye to Mommy … no more fighting with Dad … no more restraining order … We’re gonna build a sand castle and junk, but first help Dad take two more things out [of] the trunk” (Example 1).

  14. The wife silenced, only the murderer’s point of view is presented: “Mommy was being mean to Dad and made him real, real mad. But I still feel sorry I put her on time out.” But the suppressed narrative—the woman’s perspective—can be gleaned from brief verbal cues (like “restraining order”) and from this tale’s similarity to a real-life scenario that occurs with depressing frequency: stalked by her former spouse, the wife had been granted a restraining order against him to no avail, for the stalker murdered her, her new husband, and her step-son (Example 2).21 Even further in the narrative background is a history of violent and controlling behavior during the marriage: according to the National Violence Against Women Survey, stalkers do not typically begin these behaviors after the relationship has ended; rather, the stalking behavior is merely an extension of the relationship, one that the victim generally leaves only after having suffering protracted abuse.22 Acquaintance with the alarming frequency of spousal abuse, stalking, and spousal murder creates a strong cognitive dissonance between the song’s humorous affect and the gravity of its implications.23

  15. The scenario of this song is depicted on the cover of The Slim Shady LP (Figure 1).24 In the foreground, a woman’s legs and bare feet protrude from the trunk of a car, and in the middle ground, father and daughter stand together at a pier from which the woman’s body will be dumped. Since this LP is named for Eminem’s gangster persona, Slim Shady, we might assume that Slim is the protagonist of this song.25

Eminem's "Murder Ballads"

Finn and Cobussen:
Creativity and Ethics


Opera: Salome

Film: Fatal Attraction

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