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  1. “Kim” reprises the same murder under the same circumstances as “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” in a more graphic and viscerally repulsive way. The Marshall Mathers LP carries the realist aesthetic further by using Eminem’s real name and that of his former wife, Kim, in the LP title and the song title, respectively, and the real name of their daughter, Hailie, in the song text. The words of the sung refrain, “I don’t want to go on living in this world without you,” could be an expression of romantic longing … except that they are preceded by the words, “So long, bitch, you did me so wrong.” After several tender moments in which Mathers puts his daughter to bed, the song makes a sonic jump-cut to a scene of rage, verbal abuse and murder (Example 3). With none of the clever conceits of “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” this murder happens before the ears of the listener, the sonic equivalent of a slasher film: sensational, yet banal.26 Mathers ventriloquizes the part of Kim as a terrified, pleading victim, unable to act in her own defense and willing to reconcile with her former spouse in order to save her own life, even after he has murdered her new husband and stepson. By putting words into Kim’s mouth, Mathers exerts complete control over the fantasized interaction—a distinct difference from the “dialogic contestation” Rose and others have identified in some rap music.27 The murder culminates in the repeated, shouted command, “Bleed, bitch, bleed!” and Kim’s gurgling protests as Mathers cuts her throat. As with “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” the final sounds represent the disposal of the body and the murderer’s departure (Example 4).

  2. If The Slim Shady LP portrayed Eminem as a gangster—a common enough representation in rap music—The Marshall Mathers LP portrays him as “poor white trash,” a member of the downtrodden, signaled visually by photos on the back and inside front covers of the liner notes (Figure 2) and on the CD. In these photos Mathers appears in a T-shirt and apron of a food service worker, and he is depicted, literally, picking up the trash. The photo on the actual CD (not depicted here) was shot from above, giving visual emphasis to his low social status.

  3. The cover photos of the CD, although less literal in terms of “trash,” depict Mathers as a poor person: in one version of the cover, he sits on the porch of a weather-worn house, and in the other, he appears to be homeless (Figure 3). The white trash imagery of the CD and realist aesthetic of “Kim” serve to authenticate the song as a “genuine” expression of rage from a member of an oppressed underclass, and the CD’s visual portrayals and often self-pitying texts ask us to sympathize with the murderer rather than with his victims.28 While its real-time, tell-all quality tends to place “Kim” in a camp with the voyeurism of “reality” TV, its ostensibly Lumpenproletariat sympathies suggest some hyperreal version of Berg’s Wozzeck.

    Reality Check

  4. In one sense, the realities of the rapper’s off-stage violence and vexed relationships with women have little bearing on the degree to which these songs participate in a broader economy of violence: the argument of the songs is already familiar to us (“bad” women must be killed), and listeners who share this sentiment relate to the songs, whether or not Eminem claims the sentiment himself. But the details of Eminem’s relationships are frequently cited in ways that seem to justify or explain the vehemence of his woman-hating lyrics. While Mathers and his wife were estranged but still married, he did stalk her and pistol whip a man he believed he saw kissing her, leading to a felony weapons charge for the rapper.29 The similarity of this event to the murder raps bolsters their reality aesthetic, yet the fact that the incident stopped short of murder allows the rapper to claim that the lyrics are not real, that he doesn’t really mean them.

  5. Eminem and his handlers want to have it both ways: on the one hand, we are supposed to understand his lyrics as emanating from his deep-seated emotions and dismal life experiences, and are therefore justified. But on the other hand, we are supposed to read his performances as parody, theater, or deliberate provocations to his critics and not take them seriously: the kids “get the joke,” so why can’t we? (DeCurtis, “Eminem Responds” 18). Either way, authentic or parody, real or unreal, the violent content is rationalized.

  6. Describing the origins of his murder ballads, Eminem explains that he and Kim,
    … weren’t getting along at the time. None of it was to be taken literally … Although at the time, I wanted to fucking do it. My thoughts are so fucking evil when I’m writing shit, if I’m mad at my girl, I’m gonna sit down and write the most misogynistic fucking rhyme in the world. It’s not how I feel in general, it’s how I feel at that moment. Like, say today, earlier, I might think something like, “Coming through the airport sluggish, walking on crutches, hit a pregnant bitch in the stomach with luggage.” (Bozza, “Eminem Blows Up” 72)

    Not only does this account slither around the real/unreal discourse, it suggests that misogyny is a creative response warranted by certain circumstances in an intimate relationship. This type of explanation is accepted at face value by many journalists, but it misrepresents the nature of misogyny: it is not an accessory, like a hat that you can put on or take off depending on your mood; rather, it is a world view that informs choices and interpretations.

  7. Eminem’s world view, as it emerges in interviews, is largely consistent with the one represented in his murder ballads. He regards his behavior in the stalking incident as normal, manly, perhaps even heroic:
    I didn’t do anything different than any other person would have done that night [when he caught Kim kissing another man]. Some people would have done more than me, but I don’t know of a man on this fuckin’ earth that would have done less … . (Bozza, “Eminem: The Rolling Stone Interview” 72)30
    And even after his divorce, he expresses consternation about his former spouse’s sexual behavior:
    There’s a few things that are going to be tough to deal with … Kim is pregnant. I have no idea who the father is. I just know she’s due any day. So Hailie is going to have a baby sister. It’s going to be tough the day she asks me why her baby sister can’t come over. I’ve tried to keep her sheltered from those issues. (Bozza, “Eminem: The Rolling Stone Interview” 75)
  8. As in the murder raps, Eminem positions himself as the good parent, Kim’s moral superior, aligned with the daughter against the insufficient mother. The world view expressed here assumes patriarchal privilege, privilege that undergirds misogyny, but that runs so deep in our culture that it often passes without notice. Their responses to his concert performances suggest that Eminem’s audiences share a similar world view. For example, one tour featured a segment in which Eminem acted out not spousal murder, but sexual domination on “Kim,” represented by an inflatable sex doll he insulted, sexually abused, then turned over to the audience for more abuse:
    [A]t a concert in Portland, Oregon, Eminem told the crowd, “I know a lot of you might have heard or seen something about me and my wife having marital problems. But that s— is not true. All is good between me and my wife. In fact, she’s here tonight. Where’s Kim?” He then pulled out an inflatable sex doll, simulated an act of oral sex and tossed it to the crowd, which batted “Kim” around like a beach ball. (Gliatto 23)
    While this doll is not the “real” Kim, it is her effigy, and the rapper’s indictment of her infidelity incites collective, symbolic violence against her: the scenario has less to do with beach blanket movies than it does with Old Testament stonings of accused adulteresses.

    Misogyny for Fun and Profit

  9. When journalists and fans take up the question of whether or not Eminem means what he says in his songs, they overlook a significant fact: neither of these murder ballads is an unmediated creation of a single individual. The lyrics of “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” were co-written with Marky and Jeff Bass, and both songs passed through the usual chain of production, promotion, and distribution.

  10. It strikes me as odd to have remade the same subject into a new, more repugnant song, which compels me to wonder whether the decision to include “Kim” on The Marshall Mathers LP was influenced by record company executives with the objective of making Eminem’s second CD more sensational than the first. I suspect this for several reasons: first, it is a commonplace of recording industry wisdom that the second or “sophomore” album—a descriptor applicable here for so many reasons—often fails to live up to the popularity and profits of a successful debut. In the case of The Marshall Mathers LP, millions of dollars were poured into its production and promotion, apparently as insurance against sophomore failure (All Things Considered).31 Moreover, the general tone of The Marshall Mathers LP is more violent and sexist than The Slim Shady LP: rape is threatened or portrayed in three different songs, and women’s devalued status is particularly explicit in the refrain of the rap “Kill You”: “bitch, you ain’t nothing but a girl to me.”32 The postlude disclaimer, “Just playing, ladies; you know I love you,” does not undo the song’s vehemence and degradation.

  11. As Tricia Rose has observed, “Rappers’ speech acts are … heavily shaped by music industry demands, sanctions, and standards” (101–103). The Marshall Mathers LP gestures toward this control from above in an interlude that simulates a conversation between Mathers and a record company representative, Steve Berman. Berman derides the rapper, calls his work “shit” and complains that he can’t sell it. “Do you know why Dr. Dre’s record was so successful? He’s rapping about big screen TVs, blunts, 40s, and bitches. You’re rapping about homosexuals and Vicodan.”33 During this “conversation,” the rapper is repeatedly interrupted and silenced. While such staged disputes do not represent actual conversations or accurately depict power relationships in the recording industry, they do contradict, even if fancifully, recording industry cant portraying Eminem as a creative artist exercising free expression in his raps: the likelihood that his “message” does not meet the approval of higher-ups is not very great. The skit also suggests, in accord with Tricia Rose’s claims, that sexism, although not all-pervasive among rappers, is part of the corporate culture of the recording industry (16).

  12. A September 2001 news item about C. Michael Greene brings this issue into focus: According to the L.A. Times staff writer, an accusation of physical and sexual abuse by Greene against a NARAS employee was only “the latest in a string of harassment and discrimination complaints against Greene, several of which have been settled out of court,” and one of which led Rudolph Giuliani to ban the Grammy Awards in New York City after Greene allegedly threatened the life of one of the mayor’s female deputies (Philips C1). In spite of paying settlements and severance packages to the victims of Greene’s alleged harassment and discrimination, the NARAS board chose to retain Greene until recently, suggesting that they attributed little significance to this alleged behavior. Thus, Greene’s claim that NARAS nominated The Marshall Mathers LP for the Album of the Year Award to “recognize Eminem’s music but not his message,” is cynical and self-serving (All Things Considered).34

  13. Personally abusive behavior aside, entertainment executives feel little compunction about churning out violent products based on misogynistic formulas when it means plumping the bottom line. For example, Susan Faludi has traced the genesis of the 1987 film Fatal Attraction from its origins as a short subject in which a married man is responsible for damaging both his marriage and the single woman he selfishly uses, to its final form as a tale of female sexual excess, of a predatory (and statistically anomalous) female stalker. A series of rewrites intended to shift blame from the male star (Michael Douglas) to the single woman (Glen Close) and production decisions informed chiefly by box office considerations culminated in an ending designed to please test audiences: the evil Other Woman is murdered by the Good Wife, often to cheering theater audiences (Faludi 116–135). And of course violence against women remains “good box office” in American opera houses as well: my favorite Puccini opera, La Fanciulla del West, about a brazen California cowgirl who successfully defends her outlaw man from the authorities, is seldom performed in this country, but Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and La Bohème, both of which feature the death of the heroine, are perennial crowd pleasers.

Eminem's "Murder Ballads"

Finn and Cobussen:
Creativity and Ethics


Delacroix, Sardanapalus

Film: Metropolis

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