The Stranger, on Eminem & Elton

From: Lisa Dusseault (
Date: Thu Feb 22 2001 - 11:20:06 PST

This article voices some of my concerns about artistic freedom and the
dangers of radicalism in any direction, so I thought it would be a good
followup to the previous forkposts on Eminem...

Full text:

Eminem Plus Elton Equals Progress
by David Schmader

Let's start by recounting the few unequivocal truths hovering at the center
of what looks to be 2001's premier pop culture 'n' politics maelstrom (at
least until March 25, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
awards a third Best Actor Oscar to Tom Hanks, instantly causing the universe
to explode).

The facts: Last year, rap artist Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP, a
ferociously intense and intricate record, featuring, among many other
things, graphic descriptions of violence against women and the harsh
derision of "faggots." This year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and
Sciences nominated Eminem for four Grammys, including a bid for The Marshall
Mathers LP as Album of the Year. Two weeks ago, the Grammy committee
announced that Eminem would perform live on its televised awards ceremony on
February 21, in a duet with rock legend and outspoken gay rights advocate
Elton John.

Then all hell broke loose.

For many in the gay movement, news of the upcoming Eminem/Elton John duet
was a decisive slap in the face, in a year full of such slaps. The Grammy
board's recognition of Eminem's efforts with multiple nominations seemed
like the cherry on the sundae of shit the gay movement had been required to
eat in regard to Eminem all year--until the arrival of Elton, whose
agreement to perform with homophobia's poster boy du jour sent shock waves
through the gay community and brought gay activists' fury to full boil.

"By agreeing to appear on stage as back-up singer to Eminem, [Elton John is]
spitting on the grave of Matthew Shepard and every other hate crime murder
victim," wrote Robin Tyler and Adam Thayer, in their widely disseminated
"Open Letter to Elton John." The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation
(GLAAD)--who last year honored Elton John with their lifetime achievement
award--declared themselves "appalled" that Elton would be a willing
accomplice to Eminem's "musical hate crimes," and renewed their vow to
protest outside the Grammy ceremony. Cooler-headed critics, such as's Michelangelo Signorile, speculated that Elton John's decision to
perform was nothing but a cynical grab for exposure, pandering to a fan base
previously untouched by his bewigged homosexual charms.

But all agreed that Elton's acceptance of Eminem's offer was a serious
insult--if not a tangible injury--to the gay community. "If you do this,"
wrote Tyler and Thayer in their letter to Elton, "we will consider you a
collaborator in our war against injustice. Do you really want to draw a line
in the sand between you and the community that supported you?" Signorile
offered a more temperate threat: "If John values the role he's been given as
an outspoken leader for gay rights, he has a lot of explaining to do."

So far, Elton's explained little, Eminem's said nothing, and I've been too
busy smacking my forehead to think much about either of them.

That's not true: For the past two weeks, I've listened intensively to
Eminem, particularly The Marshall Mathers LP, which, like millions of
people, I purchased during the flurry of concern that greeted its release.
Instantly repulsed by its surface ugliness and the seemingly single note of
Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers' anger, I shelved the record, primly
dismissing it as another case of controversy over content. Earlier this
month, I revisited Marshall Mathers, and it hit me like a ton of bricks.
Suffice it to say that Eminem's work does what good art should: transport
you with its vision, impress you with its skill, and terrify you with its
implications. And frankly, the wit of the wordplay would make Oscar Wilde
spooge his pantaloons.

As for the gay stuff: How seriously can I take verbal attacks from a man who
literally threatens to kill every one of his listeners during the first 10
seconds of his record? Detractors gripe that such cartoonish threats are
obviously fantasy, while violence against gays remains harsh reality. And
they're right. But this argument leads only to the unanswerable
chicken-and-egg dilemma of an artist's responsibility for his influence on
our culture versus an artist's responsibility to truthfully represent our
culture. This argument will never be settled to anyone's satisfaction.

More troubling for the gay activists' side of this argument is the album
itself. A closer look at Eminem's "gay attacks" reveals nothing so much as a
suburban shock-seeker's use of the word "faggot" as an all-purpose put-down.
For many, this usage is offensive enough. But in regard to Elton John, the
issue isn't that Eminem called the Insane Clown Posse faggots (which he
did), or his critics faggots (which he did), or that scarecrow on the
split-rail fence a faggot (which he did not do). The issue is that Eminem
invited Elton John to sing with him at the Grammys. And Elton John said yes.

Thirteen years ago, at the height of both the AIDS and the
Axl-Rose-is-a-bigot eras, Guns N' Roses signed on to play at an AIDS benefit
in New York City. The uproar from gay activists pushed the band, at the time
the most popular in the world, off the bill. The activists' rationale was
simple: Guns N' Roses are bigots, and we don't want no bigots at our
benefit. Unfortunately lost in this reasoning was the "bigoted" band's offer
to raise a bunch of money and give it to the fight against AIDS.

A similarly stubborn, shortsighted orthodoxy taints the Eminem/Elton affair.
Faced with the confusing scenario of the gay community's Enemy #1 personally
selecting as his duet partner a rock star who happens to be rock's premier
gay spokesmodel, gay activists had a choice: Either reconsider Eminem's
eternal enemy status, or stick to their fundamentalist guns. Sadly, they
chose the latter, defending their scorched-earth rhetoric with gripes about
the duo's lack of explanation. But from the beginning, Eminem has made a
show of letting his actions speak for themselves, and his deliberately
sharing the stage with the faggiest pop star in the galaxy is a significant
gesture. Elton performing with Eminem could have the same impact as Mary
Cheney bringing her girlfriend to the Bush inauguration--one of those
actions-speak-louder-than-words moments.

Elton John knows this. "If I thought he was a hateful bastard, I wouldn't do
it," Elton told the Los Angeles Times, obviously recognizing Eminem for what
I believe he is--an artist who's made a complex career for himself by doing
exactly what he wants to do, whether it's pretending to rape his mother on
record or singing with a homosexual on the Grammys. And if you don't like
it, you can suck his fucking cock.

Like all progress, the pairing of Eminem and Elton is messy, complicated,
and deeply divisive. But, for better or worse, it's groundbreaking. Viewers
of this year's Grammy ceremony will witness the unprecedented scenario of a
homosexual and a homophobe coming together to sing a song in which a young
pregnant woman is locked in the trunk of a car and driven off a bridge.

This is progress.

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