Music is reflection of self
We just explain it, and then we get our checks in the mail
It’s fucked up, ain’t it? How we can come from practically nothin’
To bein’ able to have any fuckin’ thing that we wanted.
That’s why we sing for these kids who don’t have a thing
Except for a dream and a fuckin’ rap magazine,
Who post pin-up pictures on their walls all day long,
Idolize their favorite rappers and know all their songs.
Or for anyone who’s ever been through shit in their lives
So they sit and they cry at night, wishin’ they’d die,
‘Til they throw on a rap record and they sit and they vibe.
We’re nothin’ to you, but we’re the fuckin’ shit in their eyes.
That’s why we seize the moment, try to freeze it and own it,
Squeeze it and hold it ’cause we consider these minutes golden
And maybe they’ll admit it when we’re gone, just let our spirits
Live on through our lyrics that you hear in our songs.
— Eminem, “Sing for the Moment”
Today, Marshall Mathers turns 52 years old.
Here are some of the things I have written about him:
My sister and I went and saw him and Rihanna in concert, which was a hoot.
The summer of 2020, in the heaviness of lockdown,I wrote a MONSTER post about him, one percolating for YEARS. Eminem helped me get through the first year of quarantine as well as my family tragedy. Writing the piece took me months, was a steadying factor.
This one was fun: on Eminem’s love of Alfred Hitchcock. I pitched it to Film Comment in early 2020, after the release of Em’s Music to be Murdered By – inspired by Hitchcock. Film Comment was intrigued but then they ceased operation because of the pandemic. Finally, I just wrote it.
And there’s been more, here and there. In fact, the third post I ever wrote on this here site way back in 2002 – !!! (my blog turns 21 TOMORROW) was blathering over how I couldn’t wait for 8 Mile to come out. I am nothing if not consistent. That’s why it’s funny to me when new readers who consider me just like them get shocked when I write about him in the way that I do. I can’t help it that you’re new around here. I announced who I was from the jump. I started off by screaming about 8 Mile.
Below is the first real thing I wrote about him, the first time I really “dug in” in 2011. I updated it slightly after Revival came out in 2017. It’s called “Am I too loud for you?” (a quote from his song “Kim”). Context first:
“Kim” was on The Marshall Mathers LP, his second album (well, his third if you count Infinite, back in his Detroit days before he was a star), released in 2000. The Marshall Mathers LP smashed many long-standing records. It was the fastest-selling album in US history – selling a jaw-dropping 1.7 million albums **in one week**. The album is STILL on that list, by the way, at #4, surrounded by the likes of Taylor Swift and Adele, i.e. pop stars. The Marshall Mathers LP – an uncompromising totally socially unacceptable album – is still the #1 fastest-selling hip hop album in history.
I read some dumb-ass recent article called something like “20 Things That Wouldn’t Fly Today”, pulling out “old” movies and songs that would be unacceptable by today’s much more enlightened (supposedly) standards. “Kim” was on the list. Newsflash: If you think “Kim” was “acceptable” in 2000, if you think “Kim” “flew” in 2000, if you think the general public reacted to “Kim” with over-it yawns and “whatever” acceptance, you need to actually do some research because you are wrong. It’s not like you have to dig through ancient parchments for evidence. 2000 wasn’t THAT long ago. The Marshall Mathers LP was treated like a national emergency when it was first released. “Kim” was treated like Defcon One.
“Kim” gets thrown in the face of Eminem fans by people who don’t listen to him but know the bullet-points which they believe will shut down your opposition. “You know he wrote a song about killing his wife??” As though that will make me go, “My God, I had no idea. I will stop listening to him immediately!!”
But my answer is: “Yeah. I do know the song. Here’s what I think about it.”
Am I Too Loud For You?
WARNING: If, by some amazing circumstance, you have never heard “Kim” before: it is completely unsafe for work, frankly psychotic, and contains more triggers than a gun-range.
Eminem gives one of the all-time great acting performances in this blistering screed named for his wife (he loved her so much he married her twice! he hated her so much he divorced her twice! And on it goes).
Here’s what I want to focus on: Consider his performance. It is his performance I want to talk about. I wish we had footage of him in the studio recording it.
Eminem stands alone in the booth in the studio, and – like all great actors – imagines himself into a fictional circumstance, and – this is key – he believes in it so completely it becomes his reality (for the moment, anyway). He believes in it completely – but he the artist is in control of it. He is not actually carrying out the deeds he describes in the song, but his belief is so total that he – the man in the studio – lives it. We can hear it in the performance. And there it is: that’s the job of the actor. There are some A-List actors who haven’t gone as deep in their Oscar-winning roles as Eminem does in “Kim.” It’s one of the most honest love songs ever written/performed.
Eminem created the fantasy of the song when he wrote the lyrics. And, of course, the fantasy far pre-dates the actual writing down of it. The song has the feeling of territory gone over and over and over again … obsessively. Once the performance is up and running, though, the performer is in the zone of it, the dreamspace of the song, and he enacts all aspects of the fantasy. It is the “all aspects” part that makes the song so unique and terrifying, and makes his performance the tour de force that it is.
What do I mean by “all aspects”? He does not leave anything out. He does not ONLY fantasize about violence (which would be self-flattering). He includes other emotional shadings, aspects that would undoubtedly be present in such a situation: insecurity, wild mood swings (“I hate you! I hate you!” – then sobbing uncontrollably – “Oh my God, I love you …”), attempts to stop the runaway train (“Get a grip, Marshall!”), pathos and terror at what he is capable of. Pure panic that his rage has taken him this far. And listen to his breathing, the high-pitched gasps he takes when he needs a breath, he can’t breathe normally, he’s too upset. Have you ever been hysterical? The breathing is one of the first things to go. His breaths are so high-pitched they almost have a tone to them, they’re almost a scream, the adrenaline making his breathing shallow. It’s very scary. He sounds unhinged.
A lot of people fantasize about killing their spouse. Or at least “getting them back BUT GOOD.” This is common, and not all that notable. But not too many people fantasize about cringing with self-loathing and wailing out their self-pitying sense of victimhood. Not too many people choose to show themselves in such an unflattering light.
The fantasy of “Kim” is so vivid that you get the eerie sense that this is actually how such events probably go.
I’ll get concrete:
Listen to how he screams, “You can’t run from me, Kim!”
A million things happen in that moment, but what is crystal-clear is his objective: She must not get away from me. How dare she think she can get away from me? This is actor talk and I’m approaching this song as an acting performance. All good acting has a strong objective. When he screams “You can’t run from me, Kim!”, the fight-or-flight response in me is so enormous I have to strap myself into the chair to endure continuing to listen. I can see the moment before me, her crawling away from him, him erupting after her. The reason I can see it is because of how strongly he plays his objective. He IS his objective.
I return to the image of Eminem the artist standing alone in a studio, earphones on, living in the fantasy world, screaming and sobbing, alive only to the scene before his eyes. The moment is bone-chilling, not because of what he is feeling, but because of what he is DOING. You want her to get away. You know she won’t.
It’s phenomenal acting from him.
Other people writing/performing such a song would have chosen to highlight the rage, because then they would seem like a tough guy, “Look at me getting revenge. Boy, I really showed HER who’s boss.”
Eminem doesn’t go that route. Throughout the course of the song, he sobs, he pleads, he goes snively pathetic (“You think I’m ugly, don’t you?”), he feverishly reminisces, trying to call back the good times, and then he snaps again. The rage does battle with panic-filled loss. At the start of the song, he is already too far gone to come back. We are meeting up with a man at the very End.
In the midst of the emotional maelstrom, Eminem keeps the moments specific: it’s not just one-note screaming (although there are some who may hear it that way. I understand “Kim” is tough to take and some people may choose NOT to “take it.” That is totally up to the individual. I write this for those who choose to “take it”.)
There’s a lot of subtlety in what he does. For example: The way he yells at the other car on the highway. “FUCK YOU, ASSHOLE.” The screaming there is completely different from how he yells at his wife. What he does with his voice when he screams at the other car is perfectly evocative of road rage. The roar of a helpless impotent man. (Eminem also plays his wife in the song, a 100% psycho choice.)
There’s never been anything else like this song.
People call the song misogynistic. Sure? Anger at women has been the source of a lot of art. The same goes for every ugly emotion. However, “Kim” is in no way shape or form free-floating MRA-type rage. Eminem has some of those songs too but “Kim” is not one of them. “Kim” is an expression of rage at one very specific woman: Kim Mathers (a woman who is still, last time I checked, walking around topside). Eminem is a one-woman man. He is still writing songs about her. The anguished “Bad Husband”, off 2017’s Revival features the lines:
I’m sorry, Kim,
More than you could ever comprehend.
Leavin’ you was fuckin’ harder than
Sawing off a fuckin’ body limb.
In “Going Through Changes”, off 2010’s Recovery, the top-selling album worldwide that year – he says to his three daughters:
I still love your mother, that’ll never change
Think about her every day, we just could never get it together, hey
Wish there was a better way for me to say it
But I swear on everything, I’ll do anything for her on any day.
So it’s important to keep in mind that this relationship is a long story. Eminem wrote “Kim” in 1998. They got married in 1999. Sooo … to her this song wasn’t a deal-breaker. I’m not saying that’s healthy, I’m just saying that’s what happened. Kim still haunts his material, to the point where you want to go, “Dude. It was 20 years ago.” He married her twice after all. When Eminem scream-wails, “HOW COULD YOU DO THIS TO MEEEEEEEEE?”, it is personal. His beef is with HER. (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. Fantasies aren’t just unicorns and rainbows and everyone being lovely to one another. 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 and nightmare-scapes. There are fine lines in all of this, and grey areas, as well as black-and-white areas. I don’t want to be married to August Strindberg, and I do not want him in charge of any legislation having to do with women’s rights, but Miss Julie is still a good play, one of the most undistilled expressions of toxic misogyny in the canon. There it is. He MEANS that shit. You may not LIKE Eminem’s view of his wife – who the hell does? – but he has the right to express it. He doesn’t have the right to actually kill her, but he DIDN’T actually kill her. I err on the side of freedom of speech in matters of art. You don’t have to listen to it, and you don’t have to support Eminem. You can express your disagreement in op-ed columns. All of this is completely your right. And it’s my right to provide this counter. A lot of great art involves the artist attempting to live out some personal fantasy, express what is in the deepest recesses of his/her mind. And if you’re GONNA live out a fantasy, you might as well REALLY live it, in all its complexity, like Eminem does here. Who wants to fantasize about sobbing “I love you, God, I love you …” as you careen down a highway? Why would you willingly imagine yourself in such an unflattering light and then decide to share it? Well, that’s art. That’s what it’s about. That’s what Eminem does. This is not a wish-fulfillment song. If it were about wish-fulfillment it would involve self-righteousness, more “Watch how I showed this bitch who’s boss.” That is NOT what happens in “Kim” at all. (Incidentally, “97 Bonnie and Clyde” makes “Kim” look tame by comparison.)
“Kim” is a work of monstrous and brutal imagination, a perfect example of Stanislavsky’s magic “What If”. “What IF” something like this happened? What would I do IF the circumstances allowed it? 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. The brothers Grimm knew that. “What If” leads you into the darkness, too.
And so Eminem’s imagination takes him into darkness, trauma, cruelty, expanding his dangerous sense of victimization, his complete emotional instability, his course-corrections back to 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 I go where he goes. The song is a prison for the listener. You are put in a tiny dark box with a screaming lunatic, and there is nowhere to escape. The experience is one of feeling cramped, trapped, forced to listen to a man lose his fucking mind.
Is “Kim” sick? Yes.
Is it deranged? Totally.
It is also a work of art.