There are few things more undignified than the twilight of the controversial artist. If your popular renown is rooted in your ability to outrage the tender sensibilities of the general public, then you risk ending up engaged in a sort of constant battle to one-up yourself, to do the next outrageous thing, to go there again and again. As the years pass, you descend into a sort of sad self-parody, dropping contemporary references into your lyrics to prove you’re still relevant, saying ever more unpleasant things to show these upstart kids just who the OG is as far as being an asshole goes.
All of which is to say: Eminem is back in the news because of another nasty lyric about women!
In case you’ve missed the headlines, Eminem’s latest “controversial” lyric goes like this: “I may fight for gay rights, especially if the dyke is more of a knockout than Janay Rice/ Play nice, bitch I’ll punch Lana Del Rey in the face twice like Ray Rice/ In broad daylight/ In plain sight of elevator surveillance/ ‘Til her head is bangin’ on the railin’ / Then celebrate with the Ravens.” Hilarious! Next week: a lyric about how he wants to decapitate Iggy Azalea with a chainsaw! Or something!
The problem Eminem has now — apart from his very obvious problems with women in general, of course — is that his entire brand revolves around his ability to shock. Sure, the names change — for Pamela Anderson substitute Lana Del Rey, for Christina Aguilera substitute Lady Gaga, for his ex-wife Kim substitute… well, no, don’t substitute anyone, because he’s still writing songs about how much he hates her. But the ideas don’t change. They never do.
The game is the same: Eminem just doesn’t give a fuck™, he’s going to keep saying nasty things to offend people because offending people is a fun thing to do if you’re a 14-year-old boy (or a 42-year-old equivalent thereof), and… well, that’s it, really. The problem is that the longer you stick at this stuff, the harder you have to try. The world’s moved on, you know — these days we have fun things like Nazi videos and rape anthems and Kanye fisting girls “like the civil rights sign” to discuss. There’s always a sort of offensiveness arms race to keep up with — stuff that would have outraged our parents gets played on daytime radio, there’s more sex and nudity on TV than ever, and of course, there’s always the good ol’ American unlimited tolerance for horrible violence!
If you’re an artist who just makes art, this is generally a good thing — it means there’s an ever-decreasing chance that some prudish jobsworth will decide to take their censorious scissors to your work. If, however, your work revolves around winding up such jobsworths, you have to try harder and harder and harder. And so it is that Eminem pops up like clockwork every six months or so, with a new lyric that features one or both of his time-honored go-to subjects: violent misogyny and/or homophobia.
He’s self-aware about this, of course — as he pointed out on “Asshole,” from last year’s Marshall Mathers 2 LP, “I came to the world at a time when it was in need of a villain/ An asshole, that role I think I succeed in fulfilling.” Indeed. But does the world still need a villain? Does the world need another dude describing the resentment he feels toward women and the violent fantasies he projects onto them for the fact that they never seem to give him whatever it is that he wants? I mean, in 2014 we have r/redpill for that, right?
But then, if you’re Eminem, what else do you do? You’ve been playing the villain for so long that you’ve forgotten how to do anything else. The frustrating thing, of course, is that it wasn’t always this way — back in the 2000s, there was at least some debate to be had about the extent to which the rage that manifested in Eminem’s lyrics had some sort of artistic purpose. But the interesting aspects of Eminem’s career — the rags-to-riches story, the ongoing reality show of his private life, the idea of airing dark fantasies in music — have long since been overshadowed by his tendency toward poisonous misogyny. And in 2014, that’s really all there is left. As he rapped on “Love Game,” “I have infinite hate in my blood/ It’s mainly because of the game of love.”
Of course, there will always be a hardcore fanbase that giggles along with this stuff and then takes to Internet comment sections (Flavorwire’s included) to argue that Eminem’s lyrics shouldn’t be taken literally, and that anyway it’s a persona, and a joke, and that anyone who disses the great Marshall Mathers is a little bitch-ass faggot, and so on. They’re the same people who think that South Park making oh-so-politically-incorrect jokes about disabled people is the height of edginess, the same people who will tell you that writing anything nasty about their hero is “bias” and it’s all about ethics in journalism, man. And all the while, their hero gets older and more bitter and repetitive, a man for whom there’s nothing left but to rail against gay people and women.