The Slim Shady

Eminem is the first white rapper to achieve stardom and the respect of his peers since the arrival of the Beastie Boys in the mid-‘80s. The outrage and defiance of his music has helped him sell millions of albums and turned him into a major player in the crowded world of rap. His nothing’s sacred mix of sex and violence set against a seductive hip-hop beat has cultural watchdogs asking: Who is this madman, and how can such grisly and grating material be connecting so effectively with today’s young audiences?

Admittedly, Eminem’s music is part of a long tradition of youthful independence and rebellion that has stretched from the sex ‘n’ drugs escapades of the Rolling Stones to the gross-out humor of Ozzy Osborne. The thing about times like these is there have always been times like these. But Eminem and the gangsta rappers are raising bad taste to a whole new level. Some believe they are testing the very limits of our constitutional free speech protection.

As for Eminem, there is probably a good man underneath all that high-pitched, rapid-fire rage. Like the late Kurt Cobain, Mathers reportedly suffered from low self-esteem as a child, and it remains difficult for him to believe that people are really interested in him.

He describes his own background as “white trash.” He never knew his father, had a troubled relationship with his mother, got picked on in school, and lost his best friend, his uncle Ronnie, to suicide. The young Mathers had a love for storytelling and dreamed of being a comic-book artist until he got absorbed with rap. He studied the dictionary to expand his vocabulary to pull off snappy rhymes, and became an avid student of the genre. “I was a smart kid, but I hated school,” he says.

He defends his work by claiming that it helps already disenfranchised young people to respect their individuality. “If people take anything from my music, it should be motivation to know that anything is possible as long as you keep working at it and don’t back down,” he says. “I didn’t have nothin’ going for me … school, home … until I found something I loved, which was music, and that has changed everything.”

Let's hope Eminem changes a bit, and that parents and teachers start making it known that immersion in this kind of entertainment can be hazardous to one’s health.

The solution, of course, is good, concerned, involved parenting; and while there are those who believe that not even the good schools or responsible families can protect their children from our increasingly debased society, the fact remains that strong ships are built in safe harbors, and parents are still the harbormasters. Today’s parents must do everything they can to shield their children from the destructive influences that seep through the TV, radio, video games, print media and Internet. There’s no other way, short of the cloister, to protect our young people from infection by the dangerous toxins swirling about in the popular culture.

Fewer and fewer social commentators these days are suggesting that there is no connection between what people see and hear, and how they behave. Make no mistake, what you see, hear and read directly affects who you are — much moreso that what you eat. Given the ongoing phenomena of school shootings, sexually transmitted diseases and large scale teenage abortions, one wonders why parents continue allowing their children to consume this kind of entertainment. Indeed, it is often unclear who in our society is more lost: the children, or the parents.

Michael D. Resnick, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and director of the National Teen Pregnancy Prevention Research Center, believes many adolescents are gripped by a sense of not being needed, not being connected to adults, to tasks, to anything meaningful other than the raw and relentless pursuit of pleasure. They are driven to extremes of self-destructive behavior by a very real need to belong.

“Parents, families and adults outside the family are fundamentally important to the healthy development of youth,” he explained in a recent Frontline report. “It would seem that some parents in America embrace the myth that once their sons and daughters make it past childhood into adolescence, what they as parents say or do or believe is no longer relevant. [But] what is clear from the national studies of adolescent health is that caring and competent adults who recognize, value and reward pro-social behavior in young people can have a profound effect on what adolescents value and believe, about themselves and the world around them.”

The good news is that our young people’s quest for independence and desire to immerse themselves in the blended identity of a peer group does not automatically consign them to a path of self-destruction. Rather than resignation or despair, parents’ underlying attitude must be one of engagement and optimism. We must always have faith that through self-examination, energy and prayer, we can reach our children and guide their healthy development.

Parents, you would think, would be doing everything within their power to prevent their kids from supporting the potty-mouthed rapper known to his fans as “Slim.”

But Eminem’s audience, and sales, continue to grow. In the year 2000, there was no other music artist who loomed as large and had the critical and popular importance as Eminem. The Recording Academy announced last week that he was among the leading contenders for the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards with four nominations. Also in recent weeks, both Rolling Stone and Spin magazine named him artist of the year.

So what’s going on here? In a time when music lyrics are being blamed for school shootings and other assorted horrors, you would think parents would be guarding their households against an invasion by verbal mayhem artists like Eminem, or his gangsta-rap counterparts Jay-Z, DMX, Sisqo and Dr. Dre, to name a few of the most offensive. Instead, Mathers & Co. are mainstreaming this brand of rap and pioneering a whole new audience.

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