Eminem, the best-selling solo rap artist in history, has created a firestorm of controversy for himself since his debut CD in 1999, as his obscenity-laced lyrics promoted violence, misogyny, and homophobia. His lyrics about fantasies of killing his ex-wife and his mother are among his most controversial. He has also backed up his tough-guy image with a few brushes with the law, and a raw, in-your-face personality that comes across in all of his media appearances. Entertainment Weekly (November 8) called him "possibly the most hated young white man in America."
Eminem has acknowledged that his image was in the sewer a few years ago: "Media, when I first came out, really portrayed me as just a vicious, vile, evil person" (Dateline NBC, November 17).
Apparently, that was then, and this is now. CNN (November 8) reported, "Lately, it seems much of the controversy has faded. Now it's awards and accolades. He's crossed over into The New York Times, the LA Times, even The Wall Street Journal."
Meet the new Eminem, who is rapidly gaining a much larger and more mainstream following with the release of Universal Studios' 8 Mile, a semi-autobiographical film about growing up in the toughest, poorest, most dangerous streets of Detroit.
8 Mile, named for the street that divides two neighborhoods in Detroit - traditionally also a racial divide - was released on November 8, and things suddenly changed for the 30-year-old rapper. The movie is a smash hit, as it "grossed a stunning $54 million in its opening weekend, and has gotten him all sorts of respectful attention. Suddenly, he's one of Hollywood's biggest attractions." (The New York Times, November 17.)
So what's different now? Has America embraced the Eminem persona and values? Has Eminem himself changed? Or has he just changed his image? In the coverage analyzed by Media Watch, more than half of the reporting said that the movie had (only slightly) toned down Eminem's persona in a conscious effort to appeal to a wider audience. The Boston Herald (November 8) wrote that director Curtis Hanson "concedes he wanted to do some image-polishing here," while Newsweek (November 11) observed that Eminem's character is "pointedly gay-friendly."
There were frequent comparisons of Eminem with a young Elvis Presley, both of whom were despised by parents as a threat to mainstream American culture through their championing of a primarily black style of music, as well as their crossover from music to film.
Finally, a number of reports were genuinely impressed with Eminem's acting ability. In Time's November 11 review of the film, part of its headline read, "Yes, he can act." Of course, several reviews acknowledged that since he was more or less reenacting his life from five years ago, the role wasn't seen as much of a stretch for him.
With the success of 8 Mile, its soundtrack, and Eminem's latest album, the rapper's image makeover appears to have been quite the success. Reviews indicated that the movie is still pretty gritty, and there were very few indications that Eminem has sold out. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (November 14) labeled it "a master seminar in how to move toward the mainstream without alienating your core audience." This can be seen as especially impressive when your core audience is fickle teens.
With Eminem's successful crossover into the mainstream, be prepared to read and hear much more about him in the future.