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This Eminem Guy, He’s Alright

June 5, 2009

Much has been made about Eminem’s appearance during Sunday’s MTV Movie Awards, when the rapper famously threw an on-air fit after Sascha Baron Cohen’s outrageous fashion guru descended mostly naked into his lap. Was it real? Was it fabricated?

It certainly played real on-stage. Most of these types of live incidents, currently, reek of pre-rehearsal. American Idol‘s results finale tried to pull off similar stunts several times during the broadcast, and not one of them rang true. And let’s face it: if there are two artists on the landscape right now who are completely adept at defying preconception and convention, it’s Sascha Baron Cohen and Eminem. Cohen’s Borat and Da Ali G Show blurred the line between art/comedy and genuine intrusion in many of the same ways that Eminem’s work blurs the line between real-life anger and fashionably hip-hop rough and tumble.

The truth is, the entire thing was a put-on. Em told Rolling Stone yesterday that he “went back to the hotel room and laughed uncontrollably for three hours.” The two shock auteurs, after meeting in Europe, decided together to pull off “something outrageous” for the awards show, and it worked — the story was everywhere, and no one knew what to make of it.

It was believable because Eminem has certainly had a few live dust-ups over the years. You’ll likely remember the stunning awkwardness during the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards when Eminem interrupted an interview Triumph the Insult Comic Dog held live with Moby about the rapper’s disses, prompting Em to rise from his chair and end the segment by shoving the hand puppet aside. That was real, by all practical accounts. The inexplicable feud between Moby and Eminem was quite real at the time, culminating in the strangest puppetry/techno/rap dustup pop culture has ever seen.

Truthfully, it’s incredibly hard not to dislike Eminem, no matter how hard he tries to make us. You’re never sure what the truth of the guy is: on one hand, he seems to hate everyone, including his own fans. On the other, there’s no getting around the fact that the guy’s hilarious, as evidenced to full effect in the video for his current release “We Made You,” which features Eminem as a Brett Michaels, Rock of Love-style reality show contestant throwing down against Amy Winehouse, Kim Kardashian and Sarah Palin. 

Perhaps the truth behind the 35 year-old superstar is that he’s all of these things. His private battle over the past few years with prescription drugs has recently come to light (his album, Relapse, deals with many of these issues), and his court battles against his mother and ex-wife have been very public indications that Em’s got a few things to be angry about. His music continues to be a delicate mashup of angry cultural rebellion, maliciousness toward naysayers, and sardonic quips about today’s society. And that’s why we love Eminem.

Today’s culture has become used to the media telling us what’s what. We know that The Hills is fake, because journalists have figured it out. We know that reality programming is manipulated, because exposes continue to expose their fissures. We know which celebrities are in trouble, which are crazy, which are devious and which are bed-hopping. A world of nonstop, 24-7 celebrity news keeps us constantly in the loop.

But Eminem has found a way to defy that. To continue to pull the wool over our eyes. And perhaps that’s the thing that both scares us and intrigues us about him. We like our celebrities glamorous, our comedians friendly and our rappers one-dimensional and threatening. And yet Eminem, who is in some way or another every one of these things, is none of these things. His lyrics are tough and violent, yet he prides himself on being a good father. He appears misogynistic and homophobic, yet it’s widely known that Elton John is one of his closest friends. He’s hard to figure out. And outside of the fact that he is legitimately one of the greatest rappers in the ethos right now, he continues to dodge whatever notion you may have of who he is. 

Andy Kaufman chewed the stage (and fans) as lounge lizard Tony Clifton, a deliberately provoking sleazeball who delighted in angering audiences. Salvador Dali fielded interviews in choppy, non sequitur phrases to keep media from knowing his true self. Perhaps Eminem, taking a cue from some of the arts’ most historic enigmas, would like to similarly keep us guessing. He continues to do so, not only as an musician, but as a personality whose borders are fuzzy and hard to distinguish. And as he exists in an environment of all-seeing paparazzi and sound-byte entertainment hosts, therein may lie Eminem’s greatest masterpiece of all.

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