Tuesday, June 22, 2010
Will Eminem's "Recovery" Bring On the "Death of Schtick"?
(ORIGINALLY POSTED ON TAN3000; but I'll be getting into this Death of Schtick more so we put it over here also)
On Eminem's "Recovery", Jon Caramanica offers another quality submission for his budding cachet as hip hop's GOAT journalist of the moment. (i extend the props to, one, note that GOAT debates in hip hop are somewhat silly, always of the moment, and, two, to point out that JC Manic's GOAT skills fall under an Obama-esque "The Bridge" rubric, which underscores that while others might be more pointedly pushing hip hop thought forward, the bridge is what allows everyone to get on the same island and build together. Hopefully with a more solid expansive foundation. It's why guys like Gladwell and Klosterman are celebrated as geniuses and then get backlash when everyone is on the island looking for somewhere new to go. There's two different types of pioneers at work here, both doing necessary-but-different work, but i digress...)
I'm still marinating with Eminem's latest work, so I'm just adding a couple extra nuggets/points of entry. But I do agree with Em being "one of the most crucial figures in pop culture in the last 20 years" and even more. So needless to say I'll be revisiting, probably often, but for now:
1. Eminem as genie in a bottle: Caramanica does a great job, and an important one, I think, in putting a bubble/walls around Eminem's early pop supernova success. Those albums, that time, and everything else is a case study in and of itself. Specifically because Eminem is still a freakishly genius manipulator of language and words, yet doesn't carry the same cachet/popularity. So we can discern that an ingredient in his radioactive success from before is no longer present, and has nothing to do with his actual human talents.
2. Slim Shady as one of the great "fictional characters": it might help us reconcile Em's artistry to look at those early albums like a series for a fictional character. Treat them as a "phillip rothian doppelganger gambit", like the latest from Brett Easton Ellis. That might not be a spot on analogy, but mostly I want to avoid these terrible NY Times interviews that feel inappropriate in a bad-meaning-bad way... better to err on the side of the wrong book than completely not appreciate how much of a writer-athlete Em is. (that last link should go to a facebook thread with hip hop bloggers discussing a bad NYTimes interview with em, if not friend/fan Jay Smooth/illdoctrine who should be a regular part of your cultural diet regiment anyways)
3. Eminem as David Foster Wallace:
again i might be reaching for the sake of bold-worthy subheadings, but Caramanica's comment on Em's lyrical displays coming off "as feats of athleticism as much as language" makes me think of DFW. When either of these guys get on a roll, you're more in awe than anything else. And awe is a difficult trick to pull off in the realm of words and ideas. The gap between DFW's internet currency and Em's is what makes me upset per point #2 above, but there's also something to be said for surveying the fallout from that type of focused hyper-intellectual intensity being concentrated in a small aesthetic space. By that I mean: what if DFW had the same brain but was trapped in the body of a poor white rapper trying to make it? His story might look a lot like "8 Mile". I suspect these guys were depressed for the same reasons. (also a good time for a reminder that DFW co-authored a slept on book about rappers that dropped way before its time, i.e. now)
4. Death of Schtick: Em is more actually naked and transparent than he is on, say, the "Marshall Mathers LP". Which raises the point of transparency and authenticity as schtick. Which gets into the last decade of faux-reality shows and confessional memoirs that run shallow. All of Em's "digging in my closet" was kind of real, kind of schtick. But what Em cares about is his work and skill as an emcee, using that for good, and he is owning that now. Which might now steer him to being more of a cult figure as Jon mentions. A Very Good literary-type author level of celebrity-cachet; a guy like Colson Whitehead who has won a Genius Grant but is likely not be a household name for most of America. Talent like this always succeeds in America -which is why we're awesome - but it doesn't always supernova because you often need schtick to sell talent to The Mainstream.
Slim Shady was a well-played schtick act for Em. But I suspect we're in the process of killing schtick off, and I think for the better because shtick is the byproduct of a lazy audience. (another FB comment link there). You add schtick to help people "get it". To make it more product, less art. Which is useful when we're trying to be relatable with subheds and intros for training wheels, but becomes a problem when audiences expect everything, especially art, to be packaged neat and easy and we never learn to ride a bike with only two wheels.
This is how in many places capitalism has shackled down our greatest minds (think Jay-Z's "dumb down for my audience, to double my dollars" and many other quotes). Often our artists and writers and thinkers and people who inspire are indeed smarter/better than us. We shouldn't be afraid of that. Smarter is no longer qualitatively "better" like +1 math; smarter now is more panoramic in perspective. It realizes we all have surpluses and blank spots, especially now via twitter and the ambition of a democratized universally-connected internet we should know that everyone has their moments, and their lanes, etc.. Better for Jay to drop the "cool" schtick and get a blog like the rest of us and engage in a conversation about his ambitions-of-greatness and the rest. He's gonna get knocked around a little when he gets out of his lane, but no one thinks he's not going to remain one of the greatest hip hop lyricists to ever do it. All of those quotes of his should be seen as coded fearful confessions, the likes of which Eminem, as hip hop's first hyper-lyrical Emo-Rapper, does a better job of doing honestly and artfully.
KEEP YOUR SPRING-SUMMER TAN FRESH VIA TAN3000; NOW WITH SLIGHTLY LESS SCHTICK!!!