A Manufactured Proto-Troll? An Eminem Retrospective
I was a big Eminem fan back in the day. I was around ten or eleven when My Name Is came on the radio and blew my immature mind. His songs started out as the funny, bad things that parents and teachers and every damn adult with an opinion and at least one orifice from which to express it didn’t want us listening to. As I grew, as did my appreciation for his skills as a rapper. By the time I was rapping myself, as a young white teen with severe chronic depression and a handful of traumas, but a good family, homelife, and a Quaker school education, he was one of a handful of idols, even more so when 8 Mile* came out. In the couple of decades since then, as I found other rappers I liked more and much more varied music to like, I came to like and care about Eminem less. I still respect his ability, perhaps even more than when I was younger, and enjoy some of his songs, but there are things about him which, as an adult, bother me.
It didn’t bother me as a kid, or I excused, the fucked up things he said, whether that was promoting senseless violence, encouraging the rape of an intoxicated underage girl, bashing people for their sexual or gender orientation or disability or any other instance of punching down at marginalized groups, because I liked the music and I liked him. I’d argue that they were just songs, words, jokes, nothing to get upset about.
Being more educated, and made more cynical by age and experience, I am aware of how he was marketed, how a persona was crafted and sold. It’s not surprising, and it wasn’t a mistake, that Eminem appealed to me as a young kid. He was meant to. The first phrase on My Name Is is “Hi, kids!” He was literally addressing us. Many of his lyrics were dramatizations of his childhood, often from the perspective of him as a child. By the time we all knew who he was, Eminem was in his mid-twenties, with a wife and child and years of life experiences that happened after leaving school. He, Dr Dre, the label executives, and the marketing team behind Eminem’s shoot to stardom knew what they were doing. He vociferously responded to the backlash, spitting bars and sometimes whole songs about how he didn’t want attention, or for kids to listen to him, or to be a role model, or be in any position to take responsibility for what he said or did or people’s reactions to it. In retrospect, it was all clearly calculated. The fact that Eminem rarely if ever can be seen smiling, and acts like he’s either been pissed off or bored for the more than two decades that he’s been in the public eye is an aspect of a constructed persona. Everything about his public image was intentional.
Listening to Eminem’s pre-Slim Shady songs, namely the tracks on Infinite, you hear a very different rapper and person. The album wasn’t free of violence or misogyny or other provocative qualities that he became known for, and there were early inklings of the Slim Shady character, but there was more nuance, variety, and moments of emotional honesty. Infinite’s critical and sales figure failures led Eminem into fully adopting the Slim Shady persona, essentially that of a feckless asshole only capable of expressing or inciting anger, in a sometimes humorous tone. Some, including perhaps Eminem himself, would say that this shift was him being more honest. I think it’s more accurate to say unfiltered, and intentionally “controversial.” It was a career move. It was manufactured controversy for its own sake, not to accomplish anything other than gaining attention and profit.
Not only that, it’s a pattern of behavior that has become more familiar and widespread in online culture. It’s the behavior of trolls or edgelords, to say things that are intentionally offensive in order to provoke a reaction, then write the inflammatory statements off as a joke and those who’ve been offended as having no sense of humor. People in positions of privilege, particularly those of my generation and the generations immediately preceding and following it, learned, with Eminem as an example, that we could say threatening and derogatory things about individual people and demographic groups under the guise of being humorous and not really meaning it and have our behavior not only permitted, but we could be rewarded for it. Eminem was not the only public figure ever to do this, and I don’t believe he did so out of malice, unless personal enrichment with a general apathy for the results of one’s actions can be called malicious, but he did it so successfully that he set a model for both billionaire edgelords and common shit-class trolls which has evolved into the toxic mess corrupting current discourse.
*8 Mile is a racist movie. I loved that movie, and would probably still enjoy it, but it is. It’s racist in the same way that Rocky is racist. Not overtly, but in its subtext. A white man struggles through a lower-class workaday life, is bullied and harassed by a group of Black men with more apparent power and privilege than him, is dismissed and belittled for trying to escape his circumstances in a Black-dominated field (except for his one Black friend who keeps saying how great he is, despite us not hearing him display real talent until the movie’s climax), and his moment of triumph comes when he stands up to, embarrasses, and emasculates a formerly strong and confident Black man. In the past, I would have dismissed much of that, said that it’s just a story about a guy, mirroring Eminem’s unique life experience, and that the racial elements were unimportant. But, in the end, the message of the movie is: this white guy can rap better than all the Black guys; he proves his superiority over them in their own cultural art form.