Eminem: a 2000 year old controversy

Eloise Davis 8 November 2013

"I will sodomise you and face-f**k you / C**k-sucker Aurelius and catamite Furius.”

Replace the Latin names with those of current hip-hop stars and these lines wouldn’t look out of place in the more explicit sections of Eminem’s new album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2. The rapper has always sparked controversy and his latest LP, particularly the lyrics of the blisteringly fast ‘Rap God’, are no exception. Numerous observers have declared that the end of civilisation is nigh now that the four-lettered words of the Apocalyse have rained down upon our innocent heads.

Now, look back at the start of this article. These words were written by Catullus in 60BC as a poetic response to his critics. It shows that a few expletives won’t cause a rapid descent into socialchaos. Evidence from down the ages suggests that ‘offensive’ often works.

Clearly, just because something’s been done before doesn’t justify it. However, in my opinion, no immediate harm is done by explicit rap music. You can claim that Eminem is perpetuating misogynist and homophobic ideas, but that is looking at the relationship the wrong way round. Negative aspects of working class American life wouldn’t evaporate if Eminem ceased to rap about them, and the fact he highlights these problems is, if anything, a very good thing.

Eminem is above all a satirist: angry, searingly honest and darkly funny. Alter-egos such as Slim Shady epitomise the extremes of rap culture, and are used to expose society’s often hypocritical response. The distance between Eminem himself and his ‘characters’ allows for the creation of multiple layers of irony and social criticism. It’s hard to deny that there’s something clever and thought-provoking about the bulk of his material, especially ‘Stan’.

This isn’t a new dilemma facing the art world. You don’t have to like Eminem, but criticising his music for its controversial language and themes misses its complexity and value. I’d say it makes you a little foolish; Catullus would probably respond in a similar fashion to Marshall Mathers.