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Andrews on Whiteness and EMINEM in 8-Mile, 2008

Friday, December 19th, 2008 | News, Reviews | 2 Comments
Andrews on Whiteness and EMINEM in 8-Mile, 2008

Salutations my peoples, as some of you will already know, we are developing a fuller site with a ‘community area’ being created. This area will have a fullish set of resources from where to learn, see, play, collaborate with other appreciators and educators of music, art, and our slice of culture. One of the additions that we will be lucky enough to have is from an American man named Vernon Andrews whom I met back at Canterbury University while I was studying there in the early 2000’s. I was studying Law and Finance myself, so you can imagine my surprise when I heard that there was a new guy taking a class under the banner of ‘American Studies’ called ‘Hip Hop Culture’…

I was like “what the F**K?”

so my accounting (or maybe it was statistics) studies suffered a little because even though I wasn’t enrolled in this course, I was sure enough sitting in that class with all of the other kids, and I could tell that I wasn’t alone in this by the number of people who were chilling out in the lecture hall stairways and standing areas.

So Vernon has kindly agreed to contribute some materials for the site when it is developed which can help those who wish to trace some of the roots and deeper meanings of this culture. I’m really looking forward to this area being uploaded and people being able to check out the amazing work he has put together over some time, and I am really happy to present a first piece as an introduction to what you can expect in the future…

The following exert is: Andrews on Whiteness and EMINEM in 8-Mile, 2008

While there have been key white figures in the history of producing, managing, marketing and rapping – witness the Beastie Boys, Vanilla Ice, 3rd Base, House of Pain and other “popular acts”, in addition to the many “underground acts” – no white artist has had quite the same effect on hip-hop and popular culture as Eminem. EMINEM (in all caps here, but not to follow) has managed – and been managed – to have staying power.

Eminem has teamed with Dr. Dre, or more appropriately, Dre has “discovered” Eminem, and together they have made millions. Indeed, Eminem has gone on himself to “discover” other acts such as 50 Cent. Eminem is now a “brand” as they say these days (don’t get me started on the All Blacks) and has successfully marketed himself to a broad international audience. Anger fuels his staying power, in addition to clever rhymes, “taking the piss” out of himself, and always reflecting on his whiteness and “outsider” status as, in his own words, “trailer trash.” In addition to being white, he also dies his hair blond – just in case we might have any doubt about his Caucasianess.

Eminem also has the ability to reach – to identify with — a broad swatch of middle-class America that other rappers might be “too black” for. In this sense, Eminem has almost become like the typical rock-and-roll rebel white youth can identify with without being considered a “wanna-be” (black). He has a white mother, a white father and a white outlook on the country. This is not to take anything away from his affiliation with the poor, with his association with blackness or with his skill as a rapper. But he has the ability to relate to angry white youth in a way African Americans can not.

One problem – some might say the biggest problem – white youth have in suburbia is not only fitting-in in high school, but also family dramas. I have long held that most contemporary American films lead to one theme – Family. More to the point, the re-unification of broken families (look at any disaster film and you will get the point, “where’s little Jimmy?” “We’ve got to save little Amy!” “Honey, I am coming to get you – I love you!” are common refrains that can be seen in 99% of disaster movies, and at least 80% of all other films. Don’t get me started…). In this sense, Eminem has latched on to this subterranean angst in America (American Beauty won the academy award because it perfectly encapsulated the imperfection of families in beautiful suburbs; Desperate Housewives is running with the plot) and used it to his advantage. He sings often about little “Haley,” his break-up with his ex-girlfriend (and getting back together, and breaking up again), and his love/hate relationship with his mother. Name an African American rapper who speaks as much about family dramas?

This is not a criticism. Rather it is a reflection on the differing themes of artists that might have to do with location, race, class and social dramas. After all, it would ring hollow to many if Eminem were to wax on forever about being harassed by the cops, denied jobs, and having family members on crack. Just like the Tui ads, people would say, “Yeah, right.” He does, however, touch upon the number one suburban socially acceptable dysfunction – alcoholism (via his mom). In noting this problem he is tapping into an identifiable and easily recognizable problem for white youth to relate to. And I should say it is not only about suburban whites; Eminem relates to poor whites also. If I was a poor white guy of 17 years, I’d think Eminem was a good rebellious figure for me to attach my image to without being considered a “sell-out” or “whack.”

8-Mile

In the film “8-Mile,” Eminem is shown “pre-Dre” in his early days of trailer-park living and being bullied by black rappers who whites can easily tag as “racist” for harping on the young Marshal Mathers’ whiteness. This must present at least a little cognitive dissonance for young whites who have been raised to be opposed to racism – and now seeing their new hero attacked because of, well, his race. The film, I believe, attempts to neutralize this by presenting “good blacks” – Eminem’s friends and associates who are “down” with him. The net effect, I believe, is the feeling that the protagonist has had to overcome many hurdles to achieve in the tough world or rapping, and not the least of his hurdles is that he is bullied and beaten-up. Any young male is very familiar with this theme – suburb or not – as it is a fear all youth between 10 and 18 must negotiate in adolescence. Taking a beating and – at the same time – protecting your family from any harm (he ushers his sister into the house and away from danger) is, once again, the age-old theme coming forth.

In addition, another theme of the film is to answer the unspoken question: “Why should I care about a white rapper? Who is this guy?” In this sense, the film is a stroke of genius. We feel (before the film) that rap music is by the poor, the black, the male, and the downtrodden. That represents the “authentic.” Many of our readings this semester have reflected this theme, in addition to our discussions in class. So how does Eminem authenticate himself? How does he prove he is not just the next Vanilla Ice – posing and faking and in it for the short-term cash (nothing wrong with that, by the way). He gets a beat-down, works in a factory, picks-up the hot woman, lives poorly, hangs out with black folks (and for good measure, another white guy), gets nervous before going on-stage (and thus is human and not super-cool), broods like James Dean (1950s film star known for his quietness and staring off into space), and – here it is – becomes blacker and more authentic than the black guy he’s rapping against!

This is the focal point of the film – the final rap battle. Herein we see the plot building and coming to the fore – we know that Eminem will be dissed as a shallow white boy in the final battle – so why not go ahead, Eminem says, and diss myself – taking all of the ammunition away from my opponent? This is an old debate trick we leaned back in my undergraduate days.

If you are to debate on a key issue in competition, then figure out your weakest points – and your opposition’s weakest – and use them in your own speech! It is called “stealing thunder.” If I know your strongest weapon I will try to take that away from you. Once your enemy does this, they have won a psychological battle. Eminem thus “outs” his rival as being from the suburbs, middle-class, from a two-parent home and a private school and with a white-boy’s name and with, basically, no real authenticity. Indeed, Eminem goes on to paint himself as poor, white, trailer-trash from the bad part of town and thus, really, more authentic than many black rappers who consider themselves “down.” Genius, pure and simple. Academy award, big bank, big career. Of course, one has to have the lyrics to back up all this on-screen drama, but I think he pulls it off well.

You can check out more hip hop culture from Vern when we upload the site in early 2009

…bs

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