A re-post for Marshall Mathers’ birthday, which is today. So psyched I finally got to see him perform.
WARNING: If, by some amazing circumstance, you have never heard “Kim” before, please know that it is completely unsafe for work, frankly psychotic, brutal from beginning to end, containing more triggers than a police force’s gun-range. Not for the faint-hearted.
Eminem gives one of the great (what do I call it? vocal performances? No. I see it as an acting performance, end-stop) acting performances of all time in his blistering screed named after his wife, “Kim”. It’s one of the most honest love songs ever written/performed.
Eminem creates the fantasy and then throws himself into all aspects of it, which is what makes the song unique and terrifying. He does not just fantasize about anger and violence (which would make him look tough, it would be self-congratulatory), but other emotional elements that would also be present in such a situation, elements like grief and adrenaline and insecurity, the wild mood swings (“I hate you! I swear to God, I hate you!” (starting to sob) “Oh my God, I love you …”). “Kim” feels, actually, like this is how such events often go. That’s why it’s so tough to listen to.
Listen to how he screams, “You can’t run from me, Kim!” A million things are going on in that moment. But more than the emotion, what I hear is his objective. I see that moment unfurling before me, because of the strength of his belief in that objective. All good acting has an objective as its engine. That’s why that moment is so bone-chilling: not because of what he is feeling, but because of what his OBJECTIVE is. Eminem is creating that, all by himself, in a studio before a microphone. It’s phenomenal acting.
Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then you seem like a tough guy, you’re getting imaginary revenge, you’re really “showing her”, aren’t you.
Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he pulls himself together again, he shows a pathetic side (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then snaps again. The rage hides a panic-filled sorrow.
In the midst of the emotional maelstrom, he keeps it specific, it’s not just one-note constant screaming. There’s a lot of subtlety in what he is doing (believe it or not!). The way he yells at the other car on the highway, for example, is completely different from how he yells at his wife. What he does with his voice there is perfectly evocative of free-floating road rage. Again: this is how such things often go … in real life. He also plays his wife Kim in the song, screaming for her life, giving the entire performance a psychotic glee that is difficult to escape.
There’s never been anything else like this performance. (Thank God, some people would say.)
I think what many people mostly remember about “Kim” is the rage (and, perhaps, how “inappropriate” the song is in the first place. I know it’s rude but my response to that is, seriously, “Whatever.”) There is a hell of a lot more going on in the song than rage, or anger at women, or whatever else. People call it misogynistic. Don’t start with me. Or you can start, go ahead, but you better have something more substantial to say than “It’s a misogynistic song.” Also, it is important to remember: Kim Mathers is still alive and well.
The song is a fantasy. Fantasies aren’t just unicorns and rainbows. Fantasies are often ugly and pathetic, which is why we hesitate to share them. We will be judged for our inner lives, our private dreamspaces. A lot of great art involves the artist attempting to live out a personal fantasy. And if you’re GONNA live out a fantasy, you might as well REALLY live it, in all its complexity, like MM does here. Who wants to fantasize about sobbing “I love you, God, I love you …” at your wife as you careen your car along a highway? Why would you willingly put yourself into a position where you imagine yourself in such circumstances and then decide to share it? Well, that’s art. That’s Eminem. That’s what it’s about. This is not just a wish-fulfillment song. If it were only about wish-fulfillment it would involve a little bit more self-righteousness, a little bit more “Watch how I show this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what is happening in “Kim” at all.
Eminem is interested in how this would go if he were to actually do it. It’s a work of imagination, a perfect example of Stanislavsky’s “magic What if”. What IF this were true, what IF something like this happened … Asking “what if” is the start of all imaginative work. And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into the personal, the traumatic, his pathos and sense of whiny victimization, his course-corrections of ugly rage, his begging/pleading … why why why would you do this to me? Whyyy would you do this to meeeee?
I can’t listen to “Kim” that much because the song insists that I go where he goes. The song leaves you in a tiny box with nowhere to escape. Cramped, trapped, forced to listen to this man lose his fucking mind.
Is “Kim” sick? Yes. Is it deranged? Yes.
It is also a work of art.