Think of it this way, and perhaps Marshall Mathers' (or Eminem's, or Slim Shady's) 25-mil-plus-sold popularity makes more sense to the old farts who stoop to find him repellent. He's the bleached-blond Holden Caulfield, a catcher in the dye job loaded down by "all that David Copperfield kind of crap" who spends his life recounting the "madman stuff" heralded in headlines. With foul mouth and hot temper, he's gunning for the phonies (even if, as he swears, the 9 mm wasn't loaded), and the disaffected and alienated grab hold for the wild ride; after all, it's more fun to hang with the truth-telling troublemaker than the pussy melting into the shadows. Mathers, like Salinger's hero, is never happier than when pissed off; he's drunk on venom, high on hate. And it's a blast, because never is life so much fun than when it's spent in the company of a man who's this close to madness, feigned or full-on. A dude who spends this much time writing in the first person, who polishes the skeletons in his closet in full view of the audience, is the last person you'd ever ignore.
Those who so loathed Eminem first and second time around, when he was still a relative stranger chopping up his old lady and commanding her to "bleed, bitch," might find within The Eminem Show a more reflective Marshall--the daddy coddling his daughter ("Hailie's Song," on which he sings like a backstreet boy), the ex-husband who wishes he hadn't turned out like his own absentee dad ("Even if I hated Kim I grit my teeth and I'd try/To make it work with her at least for Hailie's sake/I maybe made some mistakes but I'm only human"), the son betrayed by a mother's cashing in ("Wasn't it the reason you made that CD for me, Ma?/So you could try to justify the way you treated me, Ma?"). Dig deep, and you'll find beneath burnished surfaces and bang-on melodies he's not so shallow after all. The Eminem Show is rich autobiography, shocking only because not a single word is made up and not a single emotion is faked. Not in decades has a chart-topper so evoked and provoked; at long last, here's a pop star who makes you feel something.
And the music's strong enough to withstand the burden; Eminem, now Dr. Dre's equal partner in production, has wrought the perfect Summer Album, a disc as shiny in song as it is enraged (and, at times, merely bemused) in temperament. It has the groovin-moovin single ("Without Me," about how radio missed him, and it has), the deeply felt funk ("Square Dance," or what passes for a Detroit dosado), the hypnotic harmelodic fury that renders most rappers moot even before they step up to the mike. It's the entirety of the package that makes him important, impossible to ignore, harder still to abhor; he means every word and knows himself, and his place in the culture, better than any outsider could ever pretend to. He knows what makes him pop ("Dre told me to milk this shit for what it's worth...if I fumble a verse, keep going, first take/I make mistakes just keep it, no punches pull, no punches, that's weak shit") and what makes him popular ("Look at my sales/Let's do the math, if I was black I would've sold half"), and knows most of all that he'd be nothing without us and, just maybe, vice versa. Hate him or hate him, how can you not love him?
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