2010 In The Rearview, Part V: What It Feels Like
WHO IS THE MYSTERIOUS STRANGER? WHAT WILL HAPPEN WHEN SECRETS ARE REVEALED AND BETRAYALS UNLEASHED? YOU DON’T DARE MISS OUR NEXT ISSUE! NOTHING, AND WE MEAN NOTHING, WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!
“I laid hands on her.”
Five words, borrowing the sacred language of Pentecostal healing or Catholic ordination in order to disguise the ugliest act in the pop charts all year. Can we all just take a moment to let our jaws hang open at the fact that a song about domestic abuse — that didn’t make light of it, that didn’t excuse it, that didn’t make it part of a narrative about the guy being a badass or the woman being weak or deserving it, that stared hard at it, unblinking, unsmiling, and told the fucking truth in a genre, in a world, where that’s the last thing that sells — was the number one song in the country for a season? Yes, it’s still problematic; the relationship of Rihanna’s self-immolating chorus to the verses is unclear (is she the woman? is she his conscience? is she just a vehicle for a hook?), but it’s not a tract, it’s a psychological portrait, as Eminem points out from the first line. Shit gets messy out here in life.
(The usual caveat: you have every right not to give a shit about an abuser, to refuse to let him try to weasel his way into legitimizing his actions. For me this falls under There Are No Monsters, Only People portraiture, but your alarm system may be more fine-tuned.)
Gaga panted and roared, in her megacamp fashion, for a bad romance, but Eminem, who knows something about the subject, strips away the sci-fi playacting and chic art-school poses and is left with raw, ugly emotions and scars twisted over scars. The giddy, almost playful misogyny and cartoon hyperbole of his old Kim rants are nowhere to be found here; this is SRS BNZ with a capital everything (as highlighted by the leaden thud of the solitary joke: “window pain”), and he plays neither victim nor villain, walking us through the hothouse garden paths of the mind of a guy who believes himself to be decent but fucks everything up anyway. He can’t stop himself; the anger, the jealousy, the rage takes hold and everything blossoms into white and red and purpling bruises the morning after.
Not that it matters, but it’s not a song I can see myself in — I’m far too repressed to ever let my body get ahead of my mind like that. (Which doesn’t mean I can’t be cruel, just emotionally rather than physically.) But I certainly recognize the man Eminem’s playing — whether it’s a self-portrait or not is entirely irrelevant to my interest in the song — in people I know intimately, love unconditionally, and sometimes fear.
If it weren’t so ridiculous to call anything a millionaire entertainer does brave, I’d call this the bravest move Eminem’s pulled since “Stan” — but instead I’ll settle for calling it bravura. On my hundredth or so listen a couple days ago, I suddenly pulled up short and had to rewind: the second half of the first verse contains seven trisyllabic rhymes (go again/so insane/going great/Lois Lane/so ashamed/know his name/low again) before skidding to a bumpy stop with “know my (own) strength,” not counting internal and off-rhymes. In the second and third verses, though, as emotions heighten and articulation gets abandoned, he steps back from such showoff patterning until at the end, he’s practically punching the listener with sawed-off iambs, each stressed word a blow. And then at last he launches himself into unforgiving space, breaks the meter, and the words tumble out in paranoiac horror: “If she ever tries to fucking leave again I’m a tie her to the bed and set this house on fire.” It ain’t funny any more, and he’s letting us know, finally, that it never was. It’s a death wish far bleaker, because far truer, than anything Drake or Gaga could manage in their cute little horrorshows, and perhaps only someone with Eminem’s years of experience could have managed it without blinking.
His is the oldest voice we’ve come across in this brief survey, and rightly so: chart pop is by and large a young person’s game. (Without Rihanna’s horrifyingly merciful tones in the chorus — is this the least inhuman she’s ever sounded? — the song would be intolerable.) But his younger self, nimble and provocative where he now bellows platitudes, couldn’t have taken anything seriously enough for the gut-punch of moral horror in “Love The Way You Lie” to take effect. I don’t know if it’s his greatest work to date, but it’s undoubtedly a towering achievement in the pop landscape of 2010.
Next: Young Forever