Friday, August 6, 2010

The Immortals #82 - Eminem

Brace yourself. Because I'm about to make one of those grand, broad, sweeping comparisons between a relatively "young" media figure and one of the most enduring and popular icons in pop culture history. I'm warning you now that if this is the sort of thing that is as nausea-inducing to you as it usually is to me, then here's your chance to skip it now. Might I recommend a visit to to peruse the grave sites of many terrific artists who were not featured in Rolling Stone's "Immortals" list? Or maybe one of those websites with the funny cats? Because here, thar be discussion of Eminem. Eminem- hip-hop's answer to...

wait for it...

Elvis Presley.

(Yes, because he's white.)


Yeah, it's really that easy. It's, like, All Music Guide easy. So let's get the list out of the way early. Eminem and Elvis are the two highest selling solo artists in their respective genres (not counting 2Pac's sales for the bazillion re-packagings of the same material). Both popularized their genres nearly a decade after their arrival as full-fledged popular phenomena in the "other" America (is it racist to continue the "black people are cool" meme? How about just ahead of the curve then?), and both became the first mega-selling white cultural ambassadors of their respective genres (I'll get to the Beastie Boys and why they're not hip-hop later on down this list).

Both also entered secondary careers as multi-media "threats" who blurred the lines between personal iconography and art, although, for the record, Eminem is a way better actor. And the public issues with substance abuse have been well-documented in the case of both men, as well as their precipitous effect in their declining popularity in eras not far removed from their initial popularity- Elvis because the Comeback Special really only earned him a quicker flight to Vegas residency as rock moved on and people stopped buying his records in favor of newer, more exciting sounds, and Em because 1999 was for-fucking-ever ago and nobody buys CDs of any kind anymore.

Eminem didn't "steal" hip-hop any more than Elvis did rock and roll, but its hard to manage a reason for his inclusion on this list without framing him as some sort of analogue to "The King" (a term used pro forma, believe me). I don't know that anybody was as really influenced by Elvis any more than either the acts he was accused of ripping off or those whom he merely outsold as contemporaries. Sure, he was great for selling the image, but did he add anything so definitively greater than Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, or frankly anybody that also happened to be recording for Sun in 1953? And is there something in "Stan" or "The Real Slim Shady" that's set to ignite a dormant creative spark in some soon-to-be brilliant 'head out there with an unwritten masterpiece that will change everything? I doubt it.

That doesn't mean they're not fun songs, or records like The Marshall Mathers LP don't hold up today. Em is a fine MC, with above average delivery and no worse than average lyricism. And he's from the Midwest. You can really never overstate the benefit of a neutral accent toward one's mainstream appeal. And as a representative of the last golden age of the music video (a form whose relevance fellow NH alumnus Steve and I notably and vastly disagree on) Eminem is a particularly poptent representative of the time and place. Hey, just like Elvis was for television! Look at that! When it rains over-obvious analogies it pours.

Bottom-line: Eminem did for hip-hop the same thing that Elvis did for rock and roll. He brought new heights of popularity to a "dangerous" style of music a good period of time after all the real danger had left it. And because there will never, ever be another 25x platinum-selling rapper, the easy comparison is all we're ever really gonna need to remember him by. That and his records, I guess. But mostly the other thing.

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