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, horrifying, awful, and contains more triggers than a gun-range.
Eminem gives one of the all-time great acting performances in this blistering screed named after his two-time (and two-timing) wife, “Kim”. Consider the creation of this song: He stands alone in the studio, and – like all great actors – imagines himself into a fictional circumstance, and – and this is key – he believes in it 100%. He’s not acting. He’s living it out. There it is: that’s the job of the actor. There are some A-List actors who haven’t gone as far as MM does here. It’s one of the most honest love songs ever written/performed. And with that comment, many people recoil from me in disgust. (‘Sokay. I’m used to it.)
Eminem creates the fantasy and then throws himself into all aspects of the fantasy, which is what makes the song unique and terrifying. He does not leave anything out. He does not only fantasize about anger and violence (which would be self-congratulatory, making him look righteous and tough), but he also fantasizes about other emotional elements that would also be present in such a situation, elements like adrenaline and insecurity, wild mood swings (“I hate you! I swear to God, I hate you!” – starting to sob – “Oh my God, I love you …”), attempts to stop the event (“Get a grip, Marshall!”), pathos and terror. “Kim” feels, actually, like: this is how such a horrible event often goes. That’s why it makes for such unbearable listening.
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: Don’t let her get away from me. When he screams like that, I see that moment unfurling before me, her crawling away, him erupting after her, and the reason I can see it is because of the strength of his belief in the objective. And again: he the artist is standing alone in a studio, living it out, and it’s as real to him as if it were actually happening in the moment. All good acting has a strong objective as its engine. That’s why the moment is so bone-chilling: not because of what he is feeling, but because of his OBJECTIVE. You want her to get away. You know she won’t. It’s phenomenal acting.
Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then they would seem like a tough guy, he’s getting imaginary revenge, he’s really “showing her”, isn’t he.
Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he pulls himself together again, he goes snively pathetic (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then snaps again. The rage fights with 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. 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. The roar of a helpless beaten man. Asserting himself, but totally impotent. Again: this is how such things often go … in real life. He also plays his wife Kim in the song, he plays her screaming for her life, begging for mercy, giving the performance a psychotic glee that is completely deranged.
There’s never been anything else like this performance.
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. Take it up with the PTA.”) 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. I suppose. Anger at women has been the source of a lot of great art. (The same goes for every ugly emotion.) I wouldn’t want to be MARRIED to August Strindberg, but I love his plays. Besides, “Kim” is not free-floating unspecified MRA rage. It is rage and hurt at one very specific woman: Kim Mathers. “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO MEEEEEEEEE?” screams Marshall. It’s HER he has the beef with. (Eminem long ago renounced the song. He rarely tours, but when he does, he never performs “Kim.” He and Kim get along fine now, rather incredible considering …. this song.)
The song is a fantasy. Last time I checked Kim Mathers is still walking among the living. 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 a wish-fulfillment song. If it were only about wish-fulfillment it would involve more self-righteousness, a little bit more “Watch how I showed this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what is happening in “Kim” at all.
Eminem is interested in how this would go if it were actually to happen. 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 and creative work. “What If” doesn’t just lead to pretty sunsets and Happily Ever After. “What If” leads you into the darkness, too.
And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into the personal, the traumatic, his whiny yet dangerous sense of victimization, his complete and utter instability as a man, his course-corrections back to ugly rage because the pain is too much, his childish begging/pleading … why why why would you do this to me? Whyyy would you do this to meeeee?
The song insists that I go where he goes. It is a prison for the listener. You are put in a tiny dark box with this screaming lunatic, 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.