Katrina Brown studies Womenʼs History and Queer Theory for a living.
I have been thinking a lot about Eminem since his “Imported from Detroit” commercial dropped during the Superbowl. I love him, you see. Not just “love” in the way people “love” songs that make them bob their heads and get up and dance. His music is deeply inspiring to me, for reasons I will expound upon in a moment. I have a playlist of about 15 of his songs from various albums whose lyrics I have memorized. At this point, given how long and consistently Iʼve been listening to these songs, I swear that at least one whole wall of my soul is built out of his words. I cannot hear the beats on “Imported from Detroit” without my stomach flip-flopping from joy. I also harbor a secret fantasy of us being best friends someday!
When I divulge these facts, I am usually asked to defend my position. People ask me how I – an outspoken, unapologetic feminist – can reconcile my adoration of him with all his misogynistic lyrics and the abusive pictures he paints in some of this songs. The truth is, I canʼt really reconcile the two, and I donʼt know if I want to even try. I want to talk about my love of Eminem here, even if it is controversial and irreconcilable, because I can attest that his misogyny isnʼt the whole story of his cultural impact. There is also my story, which speaks to at least one real, concrete life that has changed for the better because of his music. So here it is:
The age of 17 found me in very bad shape, psychologically speaking. I had been cutting myself four to seven times a week for the better part of three years. I had more than flirted with suicide, though had been intercepted before any true attempt. I was on the cusp of falling into an eating disorder. I was close to dropping out of high school and had literally no idea or substantive care regarding where my life was heading. I wanted nothing more than to be dead: I prayed every night for God to uncreate me, to erase my soul from existence because being alive and existing at all didnʼt make the first bit of sense to me. My very being just hurt. I wish I had a David Foster Wallace-sized vocabulary that I could draw on to try to communicate the complexity and depth of that pain, but I donʼt. Hurt is going to have to suffice for now.
Eminem taught me how to say “fuck you,” in a very clear, and pointed way. And under the tutelage of his music I learned the beauty, catharsis and overall productive nature of a well-placed “fuck you.” I saw that he and I had comparable amounts of anger, but his was pointing in a completely different direction than mine was. He taught me how to be angry at something other than myself. A lot of other somethings, actually. When I saw him spitting lyrics and murderous venom at the world around him, it made me realize that I had been turning all my murderous venom on myself – but that that wasnʼt my only option. He made me feel understood and like I had a partner and teammate in my fury and despair. When I started listening to his music, it suddenly felt like I had someone in my corner, cheering me on. The world as he spoke it became so many pointed metaphors about my world. I cannot communicate to you how profound and important that was to me then.
2002 was the year I “discovered” him. It was the year of the movie 8-Mile, which was my first true exposure to his music, as so much of what I had known about him was filtered through my conservative Christian living environment. The lyrics of “Lose Yourself” quickly became my mantra: “No more games, I’ma change what you call rage / Tear this mothafuckin roof off like 2 dogs caged / I was playin in the beginnin, the mood all changed / I been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage…another day of monotony / Has gotten me to the point, I’m like a snail / I’ve got to formulate a plot fore I end up in jail or shot / Success is my only mothafuckin option, failure’s not.”
Songs like “The Way I Am,” in which he speaks about his public role, taught me about a self that exists independently of the self that everyone else puts on you, and his self, in particular,not bowing to what the media made of him in his early years: “So I point one back at ’em, but not the index or pinkie or the ring or the thumb / it’s the one you put up / when you don’t give a fuck, when you won’t just put up / with the bullshit they pull, cause they full of shit too. I thought he was so brave to be able to just say “fuck them, they don’t know me,” and it made me want that attitude for myself.”
But the sorts that made the deepest impact were lyrics that made me feel like fighting back against all the shit would get me to a better place in life overall: “I’m a show you what, you gonna feel my rush / you dont feel it then it must be too real to touch / feel to touch, i’m about to tear shit up / goosebumps, yeah i’m make your hair sit up / yeah sit up, i’m a tell you who I be / I’m make you hate me cause you aint me…I just got to beat this clock / fuck this clock, i’m make them eat this watch / don’t believe me watch, i’m a win this race / and i’m a come back and rub my shit in your face / bitch I found my niche, you gonna hear my voice / till you sick of it you aint gonna have a choice / if I gotta scream till I have half a lung / if I have half a chance I grab it rabbit run.”
I realized that if my life continued as it was going, I wouldnʼt be around long enough to develop or deliver my own personal “fuck you” to the world around me. If I dropped out of high-school like I was planning to, and kept cutting myself, and kept starving myself, and followed through on killing myself I would, in essence, be letting my “enemies” win. All these self-destructive acts were me capitulating and agreeing with the belief that I should never have existed in the first place because of what a pathetic, hated, disgusting and worthless creature I was. My 17 year-old self decided that, if these things were truly what God and most everyone else in the world thought of me (and I really believed that this was the truth), then the most effective way to say “fuck you,” would be to stick around and do some damage to the fabric of everyone elseʼs existence.
The externalization of my anger took me in a completely different direction. I stayed in high school. I showed up at a teen crisis center and demanded counseling and anonymity. It took a few years, but I eventually learned how to live without cutting myself; by age 22 you wouldnʼt have known how deeply anorexic I had been. At 19 I decided that suicide was not an option for me anymore. The constant weighing of if I was “supposed” to kill myself or not was exhausting, and I found I could live with the feelings more if I took the “choice” of the matter off the table. At this point, I donʼt think Iʼve even begun “doing damage to everyone elseʼs existence,” but I feel like Iʼm finally healthy enough to start thinking about how to do that in good, productive and feminist-oriented ways rather than destructive ones.
But Iʼm not here to crow about how amazing I am, or to prescribe Eminem to everyone who feels hopeless. Eminem probably wonʼt work for everyone. I honestly donʼt think Iʼm that amazing, and I have had an unquantifiable amount of help along the way. But large amounts of anger does crazy things to people. Everyone knows that when one is full of red-hot rage they can accomplish some unbelievable and unreal feats.
Now you know a little bit of where I am coming from when I tell you that I love Eminem and I hope you will believe me when I tell you that I cannot appreciate the breath in my lungs right now without attributing the fact of its existence, at least in part, to Eminem being a stubborn, controversial, angry ass of a person and a damn good artist.
I think the tension of my relationship to Em is an important tension to illuminate; it brings us to an oft-ignored observation I have made of what it means to be feminist or politically and socially conscious in this world. The world is not split into pure Good Guys and Bad Guys. I know that people try to draw lines like that, but those lines strike me as artificial and forcefully imposed to try to make ourselves feel better or more secure about who we are and where we find ourselves in our lives. I donʼt believe in pure Good Guys and Bad Guys at all. I think we are all just “guys,” for better or worse (forgive the gendered colloquialism), stuck in a world and in lives that teach us all kinds of gross and inaccurate things about the value of ourselves and those around us. Those things that we learn are the rules by which we live; it just so happens that most of those rules are fucked up, and result on some level in abuse, oppression and exploitation.
I don’t think that any of us are exempt from this particular tragedy of existence. However, it is true that some people have more power and influence and thus the negative effects of their fucked up rules are way bigger than those that some of us “little” people live by. Eminem is probably one of those people, and his words and collusion with oppressive ideas and forces do deserve critique. I donʼt want my love of him to let me excuse him or “let him off easy” or when it comes to misogyny and oppression. As a feminist I have made a commitment to critical inquiry and analysis of the world around me. I will not exempt Em from that, and I donʼt think anyone else should either. I just want to make sure that the positive, inspirational and brilliant aspects of his work get a little feminist ink and that he knows – should he ever read this – that at least one feminist in the world is much, much obliged to him.