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Delacroix, Sardanapalus



1. Versions of this paper were presented at the Feminist Theory and Music 6 conference at Boise State University in July 2001, at the Southern Chapter meeting of the College Music Society at Union University in February 2002, and at the annual meeting of the Society for American Music at the University of Kentucky in March 2002. I wish to thank all of those who gave me valuable feedback in the stimulating discussions that followed these presentations. I also thank Chad Jones, my graduate student at the University of Tennessee, for his invaluable assistance.

2. Murders by jealous boyfriends/husbands are thematized in Otello, Wozzeck, Carmen, Symphonie Fantastique; rape/killing by authority figures in Salome, Philomel; death after seduction and abandonment or forced marriage in Norma, Lucia di Lammermoor, Faust, Rigoletto, Madama Butterfly; virgin sacrifice in the Rite of Spring; death by TB in La Traviata and La Boheme.

3. While Clément’s critique addressed primarily nineteenth–century opera, some music history sources have projected this violent obsession back into earlier historical periods by dwelling luridly on Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover, apparently with the aim of rationalizing the chromatic excess and morbid tone of his compositions.

4. Many bluegrass murder ballads are adapted from vernacular songs with origins in the British Isles. I call the two rap songs under discussion here “murder ballads” because their premises and narrative content are so similar.

5. I do not wish to argue that the misogyny of gangsta rap is somehow benign. For example, Dr. Dre (Eminem’s producer) not only recorded rap songs that depicted violence against women (for example, the notorious “One Less Bitch”), but also verbally and physically attacked (female) video show host Dee Barnes in retaliation for a perceived insult—see Rose 178–9 and Kelley 145. Significant discussions of violence in gangsta rap appear in Kelley, Rose, and George. Importantly, Rose and others argue that the way that “violence” has been defined and discussed with regard to rap music has tended to ignore forms of institutionalized violence directed at the black urban working class.

6. “Homies,” or “homeboys” are friends and acquaintances from one’s own neighborhood. The sense of place is important in rap music, and Eminem’s black homies—most clearly evidenced by his all-black posse in D12, his other rap act—help to locate his urban Detroit residence. It was Eminem’s performance in one MC battle, the Rap Olympics, that brought him to the attention of Dr. Dre. This event is described in Shaw 81–3. Of the “previous white rappers” I have in mind Vanilla Ice, whose “ghetto credentials” were falsified, and the Beastie Boys: they and others are discussed in White 192–208.

7. See also Samuel.

8. Eminem acknowledges both his privileged status and his comparison to Elvis: on his new CD, The Eminem Show, he raps these lyrics, “I am the worst thing since Elvis Presley … To do black music so selfishly/And use it to get myself wealthy,” and “if I was black, I woulda sold half” (from the track “White America”). These lyrics are quoted in Ex’s Rolling Stone review of The Eminem Show. The rapper echoes this sentiment in interviews: “It’s obvious to me that I sold double the records because I’m white. In my heart I truly believe I have a talent, but at the same time I’m not stupid” (Bozza, “Eminem: The Rolling Stone Interview” 76).

9. See especially Cockrell, Chapter 2 “Blackface in the Streets” 30–61.

10. Lott is describing the ambiguous racial operations of minstrelsy in these passages, not rap or Eminem.

11. Kelley gives a persuasive and nuanced account of the construction of black ghetto masculinity in gangsta rap in “Kickin’ Reality” 136–140, and also makes clear what is at stake in these constructions, given stereotypes of black male criminality and the alarming rates of incarceration of young black men. In her now classic text, Women, Race and Class, Angela Y. Davis addressed some of these stereotypes in the essay, “Rape, Racism, and the Myth of the Black Rapist”: while slave owners’ rape of black women was suppressed in most discussions of the slave economy, false accusations of black men raping white women served the agenda of lynching and impressed on the popular imagination the image of black men as brutal sexual predators. Black feminists have raised objections to the sexual brutality of much gangsta rap not only because it degrades black women, but also because it keeps in circulation these violent stereotypes of black men. See, for example, Peterson-Lewis.

12. I don’t intend to imply racism on Eminem’s part; to the contrary, he imagines himself as a force for racial equality. As he opined in an August 2000 interview, “ … nobody wants to talk about the positive shit I’m doing. There’s millions of white kids and black kids coming to the tour, throwing their middle fingers up in the air, and all having the common love—and that’s hip-hop” (DeCurtis, “Eminem Responds” 18). It is not exactly my vision of racial harmony, but I see his point.

13. An exclusively male organization, The Promise Keepers is the fastest growing movement of the Christian right. Their raison d’être is to reverse the corrupting feminization of society beginning with the home, where men are urged to reclaim their rightful place at the head of the household, and their wives are urged to submit to male leadership. The group is bankrolled by such right-wing notables as Jerry Falwell and has ties to organizations like Focus on the Family and Operation Rescue. The membership consists mostly of working-class white men, like Eminem. See The Promise Keepers website, but also the National Organization for Women’s page Although conservatives, by and large, voice disapproval of Eminem’s offensive lyrics, in the conservative U.S. News and World Report, John Leo attributed Eminem’s violence to rebellion against “political correctness” (14). Not to put too fine a point on the cultural diversity of patriarchy in rap music, the Palestinian rap group Shehadin (Martyrs) expresses their moralistic stance in such songs as, “Order Your Wife to Wear a Veil for a Pure Palestine.” See Mitchell 9.

14. The numbers of male victims of intimate partner homicide have dropped sharply during that period (See Tessier).

15. Musicologists are most familiar with these operations due to the work of Catherine Clément and Susan McClary, but feminist literary scholars have shown that the “transgression and punishment” paradigm was the dominant one for literature of the nineteenth century with a female protagonist. See, for example, Blau du Plessis Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-century Women Writers, and Abel, Hirsch, and Langland, eds., The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Both sources are cited by Felski, Beyond Feminist Aesthetics: Feminist Literature and Social Change. Similarly, Mulvey has shown that the spectacle of women’s suffering is a source of visual pleasure in cinema in her germinal text “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

16. Men who have murdered their wives report that the wife’s separation or threat of separation precipitated the murder. See Tjaden and Thoennes 37; these authors cite Daly and Wilson, “Evolutionary Social Psychology and Family Homicide.”

17. Sampled sound effects are common in gangsta raps; more on this in note 19, below.

18. It is Bill Withers’ vocal on this recording, but the hit is attributed to Grover Washington, Jr. “Just the Two of Us” is also a track on Will Smith’s Big Willie Style CD, a sentimental father-and-son number. Some reviews of The Slim Shady LP have suggested that “’97 Bonnie and Clyde” satirizes Smith’s work. See, for example, Thigpen 70.

19. “Ultraviolence” is Prince’s term. In her memoir, Rage to Survive, Etta James also uses “Bonnie and Clyde” to describe herself and her partner during a spree of crime and drug-taking. The exact nature of the relationship between cinema and rap music is beyond the scope of this essay, but it is apparent that some rappers draw on the images of 1970’s “Blaxploitation” films, among a large number of other cultural artifacts, and that many of the raps with narrative content use sound effects to create an analog to cinema, with results that Kelley has called “audio verité” (136). Titles like the Sporty Thievz’s CD Street Cinema are also suggestive.

20. The lyrics for “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde” were written by Mathers with Marky and Jeff Bass; the track was produced by Marky and Jeff Bass.

21. The “two more things” in the trunk are the bodies of the wife’s new husband and stepson. An American Bar Association study found that “victims of violence rarely seek restraining orders as a form of early intervention, but rather as an act of desperation after they have experienced extensive problems.” Sixty percent of women in the ABA study reported that the restraining order was violated within one year of its issue (Tjaden and Thoennes 53, 54 n. 1). Tjaden and Thoennes cite the American Bar Association, Legal Interventions in Family Violence: Research Findings and Policy Implications. Because of their methodology—interviews with living persons—Tjaden and Thoennes do not give statistics for spousal murder.

22. On average, respondents to Tjaden and Thoennes’s study reported multiple spousal abuses over a period of 3.8 or 4.5 years, depending on the type of abuse (rape or physical assault) (39). Victims reported lower rates of rape and physical abuse and higher rates of stalking after having left their intimate partners (Tjaden and Thoennes 37–8).

23. The most recent statistics demonstrate that stalking is more prevalent than previously thought and that more women than men are stalked by intimates; they “suggest that intimate partner stalking is a serious criminal justice problem” (Tjaden and Thoennes iii). For information on domestic violence, including stalking, see: National Center for Women and Policing; Domestic Violence Information Center, Feminist Majority Foundation; and

24. Creepily, Hailie Mathers’ real voice is heard in “’97 Bonnie and Clyde,” and she is the child in the CD photographs, including one inside the CD booklet where she looks forlornly into the trunk (Bozza, “Eminem Blows Up” 42–47).

25. “Eminem,” is, obviously, a stage name, derived from the initials of “Marshall Mathers,” the rapper’s given name. “Slim Shady” is a criminal character who appears frequently as the narrative “I” in Eminem’s raps. This triad of personae is one way that Mathers is able to distance himself from the content of his raps since, ostensibly, Slim Shady “does” things that Eminem “wouldn’t do,” and “Eminem” “does” things that Marshall Mathers “wouldn’t do.” The distinctions among these personae are part of the defense of Eminem’s work, as Michael Greene has maintained: “The kids laugh at us—they know what this is—it’s theater” (as opposed to reality) (qtd. in Holland 102). The distinctions among these personae blur, however: Mathers has a large “Slim Shady” tattoo on his upper left arm, and he, like many rappers, has been arrested for gun-related violence in apparent imitation of his own musical fantasies.

26. Eminem plays up the slasher film analogy with sometime concert props (a hockey mask and a chainsaw), and there were plans to market an Eminem action figure in the same garb (Brown 35–38).

27. Rose discusses extensively the “dialogism” of rap’s gender politics in Chapter Five of Black Noise. Krims also makes mention of this process in Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity 121. I do not mean to suggest that the rap songs under discussion here are in any way unique instances in their control of the fantasy.

28. Nearly every track on The Marshall Mathers LP contains some element of self-pity, from Mathers’ upbringing to oppression by the recording industry, to the pressures of celebrity. Examples include “Kill You,” “Stan,” “Who Knew,” “Steve Berman,” “The Way I Am,” “The Real Slim Shady,” “I’m Back,” “Marshall Mathers,” and on and on and on. While some may regard this as self-parody—and I would agree that Eminem’s willingness to hold himself up to parody is something that distinguishes him from most other rappers—the message that bad things happened to him, and that he is (therefore) not accountable for the consequences of his own words comes across quite clearly.

29. Eminem is presently on probation for two weapons charges from 2000 (one was the stalking incident). Both his mother and his ex-wife have sued him for defamation, and his wife attempted suicide before filing for divorce. These events are summarized, somewhat prejudicially, in Bozza, “Eminem: The Rolling Stone Interview.” More gossipy in tone, but more sympathetic to Kim, is the account in Gliatto 139ff.

30. The editor’s addition in the square brackets is from Rolling Stone, not from me.

31. This media blitz included a weekend devoted to “Em TV” on MTV. The Slim Shady LP sold over three million copies (triple platinum), and The Marshall Mathers LP shot to number one on the Billboard charts in its first week with 1.8 million.

32. “Girl” is also used as an insult on Devil’s Night in the song “Girls,” where Eminem disses Limp Bizkit’s Fred Durst.

33. “Steve Berman,” with Steve Berman, The Marshall Mathers LP. Similar skits with Steve Berman appear on Eminem’s album with his posse D12, Devil’s Night and The Eminem Show. In the latter skit, Berman is shot.

34. Greene has recently resigned. According to Neil Strauss of the New York Times, he announced his resignation at a 27 April 2002 “meeting of the academy’s board … called to discuss the organization’s investigation of a sexual harassment lawsuit against Mr. Greene” (E1).

35. Several critics have commented on the barely concealed homoeroticism of this song, particularly Stan’s line “We should be together.” See Kim. The Pet Shop Boys’ “The Night I Fell in Love” (Sanctuary, 2002) quotes that line in the context of “a gay youth’s fantasy tryst with a hip-hop performer.” See Chin 63.

36. I suspect that this willingness to be disrespected has a great deal to do with the well-documented decline in self-esteem of teenage girls. See Orenstein, School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem, and the Confidence Gap, written under the auspices of the American Association of University Women.

37. See, for example, Tori Amos’s interview with Will Hermes.

38. See, for example, Tori Amos’s interview with Deborah Baer.


Eminem's "Murder Ballads"

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