One week in March my sixth grade class took a field trip to the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium. Two important things happened on this trip. First, my classmate Eddy G. fell head-first into the stingray pond and thus head-first into the nebula of middle school social exile into which he would descend deeper and deeper with each passing year. Second, on the bus back from Cabrillo Leon Safra – the coolest kid in sixth grade if not the entire Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy – introduced me to Eminem.
A few months before Eddy fell into the pond, I’d overheard my parents discussing Eminem one night in the kitchen, both of them wondering how a fellow musician and friend of my father’s who had recently played bass on my father’s album and was now working with Dr. Dre co-producing Eminem’s records, justified being an accomplice in the production of music so morally objectionable.
That was all I knew of Eminem the afternoon when Leon Safra let me listen to a copy of the Marshal Mathers LP on his Sony Discman (a move which bumped me up a good two notches on the ladder of middle school coolness because it was Leon Safra’s Discman). I’d never actually heard Eminem’s music before. I pressed play on the Discman and listened to the album’s introductory track. Before even a single musical note was played, a bureaucratic sounding voice opened with, “This is another public service announcement brought to you in part by Slim Shady.” After the intro began the track “Kill You” with Eminem breaking out into song over a twisted chord progression and a bass heavy beat that would soon come to define an entire era of rap music, “When I was just a baby boy my mother used to tell me these crazy things / She used to tell me my daddy was an evil man / She used to tell me he hated me.” I come from a very loving and functional family, yet for a reasons inexplicable insofar as I can only describe them as wholly visceral, I related to that song – to that entire album – on a very deep level. Eminem was speaking to me.
A year later, I spent the summer working as a serf for Paul Young’s Sports Camp for Boys. I got paid $50 for an entire month of lugging ice around and chasing after misbehaving Jews ages 6-11. Once in a while Paul would bless me with park bathroom duty wherein I was able to sit outside the public restrooms and listen to the then just released “Eminem Show,” every so often making sure no young Jews had fallen pray to a hoodlum or worse, soiled themselves (the Eddy G.’s of the camp were soiling themselves daily.) One morning before camp my mother stumbled upon the pirated copy of “The Eminem Show” in my backpack. I have no doubt that what followed was my parents discussing the appropriate parental course of action in a series of late night conversations. On one hand, they weren’t enamored with the idea of their son (a few months shy of his bar mitzvah, mind you) listening to lyrics so utterly profane. But on the other hand perhaps coming from a family so entrenched in rock music (a genre once labeled as “devil’s music” by the morality police) it would seem hypocritical, if not entirely counterproductive, to forbid him Eminem.
My parents made their decision. A few days later on the drive to camp my father suggested we listen to Eminem together in the car. My father and I would continue listening to whatever it was that was in my Discman, and later my iPod. On the day I got my license, my father said he was going to miss listening to music with me in the car. That first time driving myself to school I realized we both would.
In high school I grew out of Eminem. I’d moved onto indie rock, sixties rock, backpacker rap, the “Garden State” soundtrack; all genres I’d felt made girls more inclined to make out with me in the back of my Corolla (oh, high school). Still, last year when Eminem released his sixth studio album “Recovery” I went out and bought a copy.
The album is good. Eminem is a master of language and the spoken word, and the production, while in no way groundbreaking, is utterly appealing. Yet, listening to the album I realized something was missing. That day on the ride back from Cabrillo, sitting with Leon Safra in the back of the bus, basking in his coolness, Eminem sounded so dangerous, his anger; so thrilling and wholly relatable. And for whatever reason, even a young Jewish boy who came from a nurturing family and attended a school that took him on yearly aquarium trips could relate to that anger. For a while I wondered if perhaps the violent rage of “gangsta rap” spoke specifically to the white Jewish male who’d spent years believing nothing could be worse than living with the threat of pogroms and bayoneted babies, only to have this belief crushed, along with every other belief. But then of course, Eminem was the top-selling artist of the last decade. His music, his anger, spoke to millions of people, of all races, religions, origins. All these people were able to make Eminem’s rage their own.
Eminem is a strong contender to win “Album of the Year” at the 53rd Grammy Awards on Feb. 13. If Eminem does win in this category, it will mark the point in time when the mainstream will have finally accepted him. All that rage and raw fury I felt and made my own that afternoon on the bus will become a relic of a specific moment in the history of music, like the lost glamour of jazz or the dangerous allure of early rock. His status as the twisted voice of America’s warped shoulder angel, the circus mirror image of pop-stardom and crazed post-9/11 paranoia, will be a thing of the past. And it is with that in mind that I hope he loses. In fact, I might even root for Lady Gaga.
Isaac Himmelman is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.