ore than 40 years ago, a white boy from a working-class southern family picked up a guitar and started playing the music of black artists like Chuck Berry. He was enormously successful.
Now, a white boy from a working-class Detroit neighborhood of displaced southerners stands behind a mic and plays the music of black artists like Dr. Dre. And he is more successful than all his predecessors.
The stories of Elvis Presley and Eminem share much in common, but perhaps the most important commonality is the degree of legitimacy both achieved within genres that originated with black artists, and continue to be dominated by them. Eminem and Elvis' stories, although not entirely similar, reflect the complexities of race, class and gender in American music. Trying to distill essence of their popularity brings many issues to light.
In his book, Race, Rock, and Elvis, University of Mississippi ethnomusicologist Michael Bertrand examines the meteoric rise of Elvis Presley in the context of the post-war South. His thesis is that Elvis was able to transcend racial barriers because of his working-class southern background.
Bertrand acknowledges that Presley owed much of his popularity to his whiteness, but he gives ample evidence that, at least in the early part of Presley's career, a large part of black America embraced his music. The reason for that, according to Bertrand, was the shared oppression of blacks and working-class whites in the South.
"African Americans and working class whites, both placed in a lower class, have turned to music as a way to express themselves in a similar way," said Bertrand. "When someone like Presley steals and mimics black music, it's different than if someone from the North does it. Even if these cultures [black and white] haven't wanted to come together, they came together. It's not like he's in blackface."
Likewise, Eminem has achieved a level of acceptance never before afforded a white rapper. Unlike eternal subjects of ridicule like Vanilla Ice and Snow, Eminem garners praise from the most established artists within the hip-hop genre: Dr. Dre, a true icon, made him one of his protégés.
Bertrand's theory of the importance of class in Elvis' ascendance also applies to Eminem. His legitimacy stems in large part from his biography: Raised in the blue-collar Detroit suburb of Warren (called "Warren-tucky" because of it large population of ex-southerners), Eminem lived a troubled childhood that found him in frequent fistfights and ostracized from the white mainstream. Extrapolating Bertrand's ideas to the present, we can observe how the oppression shared by poor whites and blacks-an oppression which leaves its victims feeling voiceless in society-can manifest itself in a common style of music. Eminem is a real rapper because he lived a life that many of his peers in the hip-hop community can relate to.
That poor white people should turn to black music as a means for expressing themselves doesn't surprise Bertrand. "African American culture and music has provided an example for other groups who have been denied political expression," he said.
But by examining another similarity between Eminem and Elvis, we find that the story of Eminem diverges from that of The King. It is obvious that both artists sparked controversy: In the 1950's, many saw Elvis' dancing and dress as sexually provocative, and currently a large segment of the nation derides Eminem's homophobic and misogynist lyrics. The mass appeal of Elvis' manner of dance and dress foreshadowed the shattering of sexual mores in the next decade. Eminem's message, however, is a reactionary backlash against the strides made by women and homosexuals in society.
So why was Elvis so popular? Because he was a working-class white man playing black music and exuding a sexuality that the country so desperately craved.
And why is Eminem so popular? To answer that question, we should begin by looking at the audience buying his CDs. In a recent article, the Los Angeles Times wrote, "According to an oft-cited statistic, as many as 75 percent of rap albums are bought by young white males, most of them suburban." It is probably safe to say that an even larger percentage of Eminem's approximately 12 million albums sold to date have been purchased by white, suburban males. What is it about Eminem that so appeals to these white, suburban males?
In his 1953 book, Principia Politica, Leonard Woolf, author and husband of pioneering novelist Virginia Woolf, wrote, "Among most primitive peoples or savages whom we know, women's work is not merely work which a man does not do, but which he must not under any consideration do, for it would harm his dignity to do it.... The distinction and the standard of value have persisted to our own day." Many would still agree with Woolf that men largely define themselves as "not women." But it is clear that, in recent decades, the gender roles acceptable for women have expanded tremendously-and, as a consequence, those acceptable for men have diminished.
Nowhere is that more true than among adolescents. For a boy, being "not a girl" is an integral step in his acceptance among other boys; being labeled a "pussy" or a "faggot" consigns him to the lowest social strata. Since the action of revealing emotions is limited to girls, boys find themselves gagged by social pressures. As Harvard Medical School psychologist William Pollack, co-author of Real Boys, said in an interview last year with the Boston Phoenix, "Girls may not be sufficiently heard, but boys can't even say anything."
Here we see a similarity between the poor whites and blacks growing up in the 1950's and the adolescent boys of 2001: Society does not allow them to speak. So, like the poor whites and blacks before them, teenage boys turn to music as a form of expression. What sets rap music apart from other types of music is its ability to express artistic emotions while still preserving its emphatic masculinity. It seems almost a human necessity to enjoy art, but writing, dance, painting and drama are largely off-limits to boys, especially ones insecure about their own manhood. Rap music satisfies an intrinsic need for art, and the macho posturing and degrading lyrics about women and homosexuals in some rap lyrics fill the desire for a validation of masculinity.
Eminem himself adds evidence to this claim in the lyrics to the song, "Who Knew," off last year's multiplatinum The Marshall Mathers LP: "I don't do black music, I don't do white music / I make fight music for high school kids." But the truth is that Eminem does do black music, and the high school kids who buy his music are overwhelmingly white.
For years now, these white boys have been the largest group of fans of hardcore rap, a fact puzzling to popular hip-hop artist Common. "I don't understand it," he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "I think it may be that hardcore is an escape for them. It gives them a fantasy of a dangerous world. It gives them something they find exciting, and maybe it scares their parents and they like that."
But as a white male, Eminem is able to connect in a far more familiar way to white boys than black artists do. T'Che Dunlevy of the Montreal Gazette writes, "Eminem has become the hero of young white music fans who want to be down with black culture but don't want to get too close."
Which brings us back to Elvis, whom Bertrand credits with helping to bridge the gap between black America and white America. His success brought out the similarities between the two races, but it also exposed the awful inequities between them. Eminem will certainly cause more people to consider the importance of race in America, but perhaps the discussion he is prompting will go further. Perhaps we might recognize that the same factors that contribute to Eminem's enormous popularity also fuel a rage in teenage boys that retards their emotional growth and leads them to commit awful acts of violence. And maybe when we address these issues, Eminem can don a rhinestone suit and bring the Slim Shady Showcase to a Las Vegas casino.
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