Monday, June 28, 2004

Musical Interlude

As a change of pace from the poli-critiques, I thought I would weigh in on life in the world of music. In particular, I would like to take on the Eminem phenomenon. In the middle of yet another insightful post by publius (he's worth checking out on a daily basis if you don't already), he drew an analogy between Eminem and Elvis. The comparison centered around the concept of a white musician utilizing a predominately black music form and bringing it to a wider white audience. I think I understand where publius was going with the analogy, but I still want to address some aspects of the two that are incompatible. First of all, Eminem is not nearly the pioneer that Elvis was. As publius notes:

Elvis sang "black music" and did so in the segregated South in the 1950s. It was incredibly controversial at the time. Even today, people accuse him of "stealing" black music, but I think he was quite courageous. It took some guts to sing that music in Memphis in the early 1950s, and to open that world to white American teens.

He is right about this, but can the same be said about Eminem? First lets put Eminem in historical context. Eminem released his first record, The Slim Shady LP, in 1999. Whereas Elvis was one of the first popular artists to perform rock 'n roll, by 1999 there had already been numerous successful hip hop artists, and hip hop as a genre had already gained international popularity, and had become an accepted fixture in the music industry complete with its own category at the Grammy Awards. Before Eminem there was Run DMC, KRS-1, LL Kool J, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Naughty By Nature, Dr. Dre, Snoop, Tupac, Will Smith, Busta Rhymes, Wu Tang Clan, Notorious B.I.G., Outkast and many many others.

Granted Eminem is one of the few successful Caucasian hip hop artists, he is not the first (think Beastie Boys, 3rd Bass, etc.), and hip hop had already made inroads into the suburban white audience, and indeed the international audience prior to Eminem (Europe, South America, Asia, etc.). Suffice it to say that I don't think that it took "courage" for Eminem to perform hip hop in today's America the same way it took courage for Elvis to perform "black" music in 1950's America, particularly the south. Yes, being white he risked not being taken seriously in a predominately black art form, but that is hardly the same backlash that Elvis incurred for playing "satanic Negro" music across a racist landscape and scandalizing the nation with his hip gyrations.

In fairness to publius, I think I am taking the analogy more literally than he meant it. I don't mean to focus on these minor inconsistencies, but rather use the contrast between Elvis and Eminem to highlight a greater point: that Eminem is by far one of the most overrated musicians around today. As evidence of the herd mentality within music journalism, and journalism in general, it has become an all-too common declaration that, "Eminem is the best MC today." This gross misoverestimation [sic] can be attributed more to the power of group-think than actual rigorous critique.

The competition might be thinner these days than in the recent past, but there are at least two notable MC's that come to mind when the "world's greatest" title is thrown about. There are more, but for the purposes of this discussion I will focus on just two.

First, Mos Def, formerly one half of Black Star (Talib Kweli being the other half). If you listen to one verse from Mos Def it will become apparent that Eminem is out of his league. Yes Eminem is witty, he has pop sensibilities and his sarcastically defiant tone has some merit, but Mos Def is a poet. He can bob and weave in and out of topics like political theory, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and historical events, while tying in pop culture references running the gambit from popular movies, television ads to cartoons and sitcoms, with such ease and facility of expression that would leave Eminem scrambling for a dictionary and a set of encyclopedias. And on top of all that, Mos Def actually has something to say. Instead of picking on obvious and easy targets like boy bands and Britney Spears, Mos Def actually tries to constructively address real issues like race relations, poverty, global politics and social critique. He also displays the, unfortunately, rare ability to describe conditions in impoverished inner city neighborhoods without glorifying the pathologies that are symptomatic of such extreme living conditions. Furthermore, he manages to do it without resorting to cheap and nasty gimmicks like misogyny or homophobia.

Another obvious example is Jay-Z. Although decidedly less substantive than Mos Def, and more prone to give into the temptation to degrade women, Jay-Z's delivery, style and lyrical content is simply on a higher level than Eminem's. Much of Eminem's success can be attributed to the music provided by Dr. Dre, but in this arena Jay-Z can hold his own. Jay-z might also provide a better comparison because he has sold more records than Mos Def and, at least in the field of music, has achieved more popular success and notoriety.

Although there is a fair amount of subjective analysis involved when comparing artists, I think that Eminem owes part of his success to the novelty of his ethnicity in an otherwise homogeneous field. This has elevated his stature above where his skills deserve, but I think he has jumped the shark as a pop icon, and his star will soon fade.

That being said, Eminem has been able to ride the crest of popularity so effectively that he has become a household name, almost worldwide. But as is often the case with music, popularity does not necessarily correlate to quality in direct proportion. In the case of Elvis, his popular appeal did outpace his talent and in this regard the analogy to Eminem is apt. But in terms of contributions to music, Elvis has a legacy and Eminem will have none, and this is why it does Elvis a disservice to mention him in the same sentence as Eminem. History will reveal him as an over-rated artist who relied as much on controversy as skill, and even then the controversies that he stirred up were either the result of the musical equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel (by singling out such pop fluff as the Backstreet Boys) or launching hateful, violence-laced attacks on women and homosexuals (not exactly a brave stand here either).

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