The Eminem Show: Music’s Greatest Ongoing Reality Saga

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There was a moment in the early 2000s when the release of a new Eminem single felt like a bona fide cultural event. Everyone would know the words to tracks like “My Name Is” or “The Real Slim Shady,” but that moment has passed. Sure, there’s a decent number of people who still wait on every new release, a core of diehard fans who’ll invade your comment section and tell you that Em is the greatest rapper in the world if you dare to suggest otherwise. As far as a connection with the general public goes, though, Eminem’s moment has passed. But still the Eminem show goes on — and Mother’s Day brought a new episode, a song and music video titled “Headlights,” intended as an apology to his mom, Debbie.

The experience of one’s moment passing is something that pretty much every artist goes through if they stick around long enough, and there are loads of musicians who’ve kept on keeping on and done very well for themselves, from the likes of David Bowie and the Rolling Stones to Eminem contemporaries like Snoop Dogg and Jay Z. To an extent, it’s natural wastage — no artist gets to retain that degree of connection to the general public for that long, and once it passes, you rarely get it back. The next big new thing comes along, and you’re yesterday’s news. This cycle, along with a perpetual veneration of youth, is what makes the music industry so notorious for chewing up artists and spitting them out.

Eminem hasn’t been spat out: his new album has been reasonably successful, without ever threatening to approach the eight-figure sales of his early records, The Marshall Mathers LP and The Eminem Show. He can still make a hit: “Love the Way You Lie” and “The Monster” both went to #1, and the former went a whopping 11 times platinum. His career has peaked, but it’s not exactly in the doldrums — not in a commercial sense, anyway.

But it’s interesting to think about just why he was so insanely successful at the time he was. He arrived at the beginning of a century when what might in the past have been called “sharing” (or, perhaps, “oversharing”) would become the key concept that united disparate cultural developments: Reality TV. Facebook. Twitter. The Web 2.0 idea of everyone having an opinion. Thought Catalog and alt-lit. Massively popular new trends in conceptual and performance art (followed by, an inevitable exhaustion with the latter coinciding with a number of irritating celebrities’ half-assed embrace of it).

Quite why and how we turned toward this fondness for sharing is a discussion that could fill a whole book. (I’d argue that, as with many things, it comes back to ubiquitous Internet access and the idea that suddenly everyone could have a homepage, a way to broadcast themselves to the world, and the desire that bred for “ordinary” lives as drama.) But whatever your theory, Eminem rode this wave, and, to an extent, he still does. The Marshall Mathers LP was released a biblical 40 days and 40 nights before the US premiere of Big Brother, and its author was the perfect star for the post-millennial world: his music was how he communicated with the world, but his art was his life itself.

The degree to which his private life was laid bare in his art was pretty much unprecedented — sure, there had been celebrities whose every movement was scrutinized, either voluntarily or otherwise, and there had been artists who’d put their private lives straight into their work, but it’s hard to think of a musician whose art seemed both nakedly autobiographical and insanely dramatic. Everyone knew the story: his tempestuous relationship with his on-again off-again wife, Kim, and his similarly fraught relationship with his mother.

And, of course, he was self-aware. The title of The Eminem Show played with the whole idea of Marshall-Mathers-as-reality-show, a show with a revolving cast of characters, most of them played by Mathers himself. He controlled the narrative, deploying various personae to ramp up the drama, his songs holding up a cracked mirror to the drama that was his real life. That’s not to say his songs were in any way fake — you can’t listen to something like “Kim” or “Bonnie and Clyde” without getting shivers — but his records were edited together as artfully as any episode of Big Brother or Survivor, picking out the juicy bits, putting them together to make a narrative.

Eight Mile was the same, a semi-fictionalized retelling of Eminem’s creation myth, a presentation of “real life” as drama. Because, of course, reality TV isn’t really real. It’s entertainment, a Debordian spectacle constructed from a far more mundane series of events. You never see the moments in the Big Brother house where the inmates housemates are hanging out and complaining about how bored they are, or talking about sports, or scratching their asses. Instead, it’s incessant drama. It creates a story where the characters are “real,” but they inhabit a narrative that’s constructed to get as many viewers as possible.

The ongoing Eminem show is essentially the same experience, with the exception that its creator seems more invested in it than any TV producer ever was. And here we are, watching the latest episode (directed by Spike Lee!). We already know the cast: there’s Debbie Mathers, the rapper’s mother, long an unwilling participant in the show. There’s Eminem’s much-loathed father, described here as “a deadbeat dad” who “fucked us both.” There’s little brother Nathan, who featured in the “Without Me” video as a younger version of his brother (along with a faux-Debbie, played by… Eminem). And then there’s Marshall Mathers himself, as damaged and resentful as ever, his apparently limitless anger even bleeding into his apologetic lyrics.

The idea of the video as spectacle is furthered by the fact that the video is shot entirely from a faux-first-person point of view — and finds Eminem’s mother watching her son on TV. The video she’s watching is longtime Eminem collaborator Phillip Atwell’s video for “My Name Is,” the song in which Eminem claims to have “just found out my mom does more dope than I do” (and for which she sued him, claiming $10 million in damages and eventually netting a whole $1,600). That video features a couple of deadbeat parents watching a fictional TV program called The Slim Shady Show. At this point, it starts to get like staring down and endless hall of mirrors. Somewhere in there is reality, whatever that means; the rest of it is the Eminem show, playing itself out on repeat.

No show lasts a decade without getting old, though. The novelty of Eminem’s access-all-areas private life has gone, because everyone overshares these days. And there’s a sort of crushing inevitability about Eminem’s narrative, a sense that he’s tied to a post and walking in circles — most notably, he really needs to find a new form of therapy for his issues with women, because music isn’t fixing them.

If nothing else, “Headlights” is heartening in this respect, because it seems to signal that maybe the show’s finally coming to a close. Only Eminem and his mother know quite how accurately his depiction of her on record reflects reality, but clearly their relationship has been fraught and mutually hurtful over the years. Perhaps we’re moving toward a happy ending.