So Empty

On Eminem and Late Style

I am as much of the folk as some cynosure of hale Northumbrian stock, some balladeer cupping his ear in the style that is de rigueur but which urges me to mock.

—Geoffrey Hill, The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin (2019)

1.

Study, reader, before going further, this sonic document: a recording of Jerry Lee Lewis performing “Mean Woman Blues”, with the Nashville Teens (of Surrey) backing him up, at the Star Club of Hamburg, on the night of April 5, 1964. Not when Hendrix immolated his guitar in Monterey, not when Ozzy decapitated a bat in Des Moines: never did rock and roll more fully realize its evil potential.

Much could be said about the confluence of circumstances that made this possible. Lewis was already old at 29, a relic of the 1950s, playing a dated and proto-normie boogie-woogie routine in a city that had recently incubated and then delivered into the world his far more lovable successors — the “Liverpudlian mop-tops”, along with all the other diminutive epithets the press came up with for the Beatles, always more suited to newborn zoo animals than to men.

He was, moreover, still in de-facto exile. The scandal of a marriage (to the extent that we can call it that) in 1957 to his own thirteen-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown led the American public to conclude that, because his moral person was beyond the pale, his music was therefore unlistenable. In Europe it is not that morality and aesthetics were decoupled, exactly, but rather that their intertwining led to the opposite conclusion: the Germans wanted to hear him not in spite of the fact that he was a psychotic hillbilly, but because of it, and Jerry Lee knew how to summon all the satanic energy of his life and of his nation to satisfy them. (I am aware that, being from Concordia Parish, Louisiana, and thus from the lowland of the Mississippi Delta, Jerry Lee was not a hillbilly in the narrow geographical sense.)

So in 1964 The Killer is angry and alienated. Soon enough he will disappear, get born again like so many great American musicians do for a time, enter his country phase, become truly old. He surely does not know, at the Star Club, that rock and roll is peaking that very night, but when we remind ourselves that “Mean Woman Blues” is the first song in his short set, even though it sounds for all the world like a crescendo, it is hard to imagine he senses nothing of the shift underway.

As also with so many other American popular musicians, the thing that made Jerry Lee such a towering satanic talent was, precisely, the genetic strand of churchiness. Real rock and roll is never far from a glossolalic Pentecostal revival or a backwoods snake-charming ecstasy, and it is not at all surprising to learn that Jerry Lee’s cousin, with whom he grew up playing church music, is none other than the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, or that his own father had been a preacher, crawling up and down the chapel’s center aisle on his knees, shrieking and flapping about the wages of sin. Like the great Son House, if you give Jerry Lee an opportunity to talk freely, before long he will launch into some half-cocked biblical numerology and other echoes of half-remembered Sunday school traumas. And like the Reverend Al Green, Lewis’s career is a sequence of conversions and lapses and reconversions; and the two musicians also have this in common, that their careers were shaped in significant ways by a licentious, or at least surprisingly sensual, rendition of the gospel staple, “My God Is Real”. What makes them great in secular popular music is that they know this music is satanic, and must periodically repent of it.

In 1988 or so I had the opportunity to see Jerry Lee Lewis in concert, with my mother, at one of the casinos, if I recall correctly, of the Reno-Tahoe vicinity, Harrah’s, perhaps, or John Ascuaga’s Nugget. I declined, as I could not see the point in it. That was not really Jerry Lee Lewis, but a ghost of him, a phantom still haunting our world only because death had neglectfully passed him by. He was then, by my current calculation, 53 years old.

Lateness is itself “a form of exile”, Edward Said wrote in his last book, 2003’s On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain, and attention to an artist’s late-period work often reveals a sense of apartness and anachronism “that abjures mere bourgeois aging” and instead reveals a complex consciousness of one’s own liminality. “If this is going to be your testament best press on with it,” Geoffrey Hill wrote in The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin, also his last work. “Trust that its true being is song.”

Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive, even now, but he is no longer playing concerts. He has outlived everyone from the era, even Little Richard, his one true equal. In a surprisingly engrossing 2014 documentary about Nick Cave, 20,000 Days on Earth, the Bad Seeds’ violinist Warren Ellis describes how moving it was to witness Jerry Lee Lewis’s own late style. At the concert Ellis attended, The Killer, already in his seventies, attempted to mount the piano, as he had often done in his youth. His aching bones prevented him from going all the way, but the attempt itself, Ellis maintained, was a singular demonstration of his greatness. In the same documentary Cave himself offers up similar reflections on one of Nina Simone’s final performances. Having been called on to introduce her at some festival, Cave reports wincing when the grande dame flopped down onto the piano bench looking exhausted before she even began playing, only to find that soon enough, in her natural element, she moved into a mode in which she could simply, categorically, do no wrong.

These examples highlight something important about the aesthetics of popular music performance, which mark it off from the art forms of principal interest to our high-brow friend Edward. Jazz and blues performers generally gain dignity with age, quite apart from any consideration of their technical virtuosity. This might in part be due to historical contingencies — the “rediscovery” of the bluesmen by white ethnomusicologist types such as Alan Lomax in the 1960s, which led to that era’s great revivals and the veneration of otherwise forgotten elders such as Mississippi John Hurt, Sam Сhatmon, or Skip James, seems to have played an important role in the formation of our common presumption that a bluesman is an old man. But in part it is also a reflection of the fact that in popular musical forms, as in the bardic poetic traditions from which they evolve, performance is more a display of accrued cultural power, standing, cred, mojo, than of technical skill, and as such an elder bard’s greatness is measured somewhat in the same way as that of a master craftsman in a workshop, who, at least according to Aristotle, is great not because he works, but because he does not work, and instead only causes the lesser workers to work harder and better by his presence: the closest thing there can be to an Unmoved Mover in this world of mortals.

The inferiority of rock and roll as a popular musical form compared to jazz and blues seems to be demonstrated again and again by the fact that the great majority of old rock-and-rollers would plainly be doing the world a service by retiring; there is nothing more “cringe” than a Scorpions reunion tour, or any other effort to extract lucre from nostalgia by compelling out-of-shape old men to strut around as they did in youth. Rock and roll is proven by such examples to be primarily an age-specific spectacle, to be most paradigmatically defined by its teeny-bopper or bubble-gum subgenres. There are some exceptions, such as the Rolling Stones, but even here most of the praise Jagger and Richards get for their late style seems to be inextricable from their genetic good fortune: in the end we admire them just for staying thin and keeping their full heads of hair.

But the late-style greatness Ellis describes having witnessed in Jerry Lee Lewis seems distinct from this. Jerry Lee’s genius is the genius of just showing up, and indeed, it seems, the uglier and more decrepit he is, the more powerful his presence. I fear I may be committing the no-true-Scotsman fallacy by saying his is therefore a genius that transcends the boundaries of the rock-and-roll genre that made him famous, and places him in a more universal pantheon of artists. Whether or not this is so, it is plain that we are a world away here from the late-period greatness of Beethoven or Thomas Mann. Their enduring genius was wrapped up in their ability to continue doing what they once did, but even more excellently. The Killer’s failed effort to mount the piano, by contrast, testifies to his greatness not because he at least got part way before giving up the effort, but because his failure mirrored his successful mounting of decades before, and reminded us, in its non-happening, of who he was.

Such reminders may sometimes speak to greatness in the art forms that interest Said as well. Maurice Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for Left Hand”, composed for Paul Wittgenstein after the pianist’s right hand was blown off in World War I, does not suffer, artistically speaking, from the missing hand’s absence: the absence is the whole point. But in general in the higher arts, when you can’t do the thing the art form requires, it’s best that you leave it to others who can. In the most dignified popular musical forms, by contrast, greatness is often exemplified by a performer’s declining or failing to do a thing that a lesser performer would either be compelled to do, or get off the stage. Much of Howlin’ Wolf’s considerable gravity, to cite one example, seems wrapped up in his perpetually being about to play his guitar, but always instead launching into another finger-wagging Sprechgesang routine.

I don’t much care for those musical traditions that require you to be good in order to be great, to be competent in order to be a genius. I think the art forms that are open to incompetent geniuses are closer to the bone of human experience, and more revelatory of certain core truths of aesthetics. It is not that competence is not a true desideratum of the popular musical styles I do care about, but only that its relationship to genius is not one of coextensivity. I have spent a good portion of the past year trying to learn how to thumbpick my guitar in the style of the great Merle Travis. The Grand Ole Opry, the Porter Wagoner Show, and Roy Clark hamming it up on Hee Haw constituted an important part of the background television hum of my childhood. I have always avoided writing about the music I care about, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Perhaps I wanted to cultivate an image more like Edward Said’s —worldly, refined, well-tailored— when in fact the mirror shows me to be something much closer to Lester Bangs. But I would like to let my own late-ish style be unashamed. Let the low and sinful things that made me who I am come out and have their late day.

2.

The first time I heard Eminem was in the Spring of 1999. I was listening, as I sometimes did, to New York’s “contemporary hard rock” station, which was, as American commercial music always has been, a racially coded residual class that meant, in effect, “white music”. There one heard Type O Negative, Pavement, Metallica, and a great deal of other bands even more forgettable. And there one heard, too, for lack of any clearer commercial logic dictating where to put it, a peculiar little number called “My Name Is (Slim Shady)”.

For the first few weeks on repeat, without paying close attention I presumed it was a novelty song, perhaps part of some promotional campaign for the station itself. Now the “novelty” category is as fraught as any other in American music, and in the early days of recording it included such aggressively racialized subcategories as “coon music”, the African-American musical comedy routines found on old cylinders, with such hits as Arthur Collins and Byron Harlan’s “Bake Dat Chicken Pie” of 1907 (study, by the way, the incredible cylinder archive of the Alexandria Digital Research Library at UC Santa Barbara, to which I’ve linked here). There is a plain genealogy from such early recordings up through the relatively anodyne “Open the Door, Richard” of the 1940s, and into the unfortunate comedic intermezzos often found on even the great rap albums of the early twenty-first century (e.g., Outkast’s Stankonia of 2000), through which I’ve always tried to fast forward. In another broader sense, “novelty” describes any song that seems to involve too much stunt work to be apprehended purely aesthetically, even if there is tremendous musical talent on display — think for example of Leon Redbone’s affecting and by turns absurd rendition of Bing Crosby’s “Marie”, in which he uses the enormous chambers of his nose to simulate a trumpet solo.

As with country or metal, we know the sound of novelty instantly, even when we can’t say what its properties are, and in 1999 Slim Shady sounded like novelty to me. But as the station kept playing it, my doubts grew. If this is some kind of “morning zoo” promotion, then why is the scoundrel behind it exploring such themes as prescription-pill addiction, or his mother’s inability to breastfeed him and the subsequent coldness this portended in their relationship? It makes no sense.

Over the next few years the character in question would be filled out for me: Slim Shady, id to Eminem’s ego, and Marshall Mathers’ superego. The back story would be filled out too: the trailer park outside Detroit, the cast of minor players — Hailie the beloved daughter, Kim the detested ex, the even more deeply detested mother, the alliances and enmities forged in rap battles, the supreme fealty to Dr. Dre, and a relatively secure footing within a musical culture that had previously offered no full membership to white people.

In this respect Eminem was a novelty in the more general sense of the term. There had of course been white people who rapped before Eminem — already by 1980 even Debbie Harry was rapping, at least in that rudimentary way that rhymes “cars” and “bars” and so on. But the effort to produce white American rappers, for whom rapping is as it were substance rather than accident, had churned up mostly slick packages such as Vanilla Ice, whose whiteness was itself the dumb gimmick latched upon to sell the product, which worked for a while, until Suge Knight hung the poor moussed-up blockhead over a balcony, in connection with some routine criminal matter and not as a critical judgment, strictly speaking, even if it was difficult to interpret the gesture otherwise.

And of course there were the Beastie Boys, whose origin story in post-punk New York was closer to Blondie’s than to that of any true rapper, even if subsequently they made all the right strategic moves to gain some sort of place in the canon: carefully arranged collaborations with Black rappers in a position to use the N-word (thus in one such effort Q-Tip compares himself to “John Holmes, the x-rated n***”; Holmes of course is a white porn star from the 1970s — what is sayable, for whom, and with what effect, being, as ever, an intricate rule-bound game that only inside players will fully know). But in the end for the Beastie Boys rap music remained an affectation. I can recall first hearing Licensed to Ill in 1986, and somehow, on that same occasion, learning that one of the lads had a father named Israel Horovitz, who wrote plays and was friends with Václav Havel. From the point of view of a white American who grew up with Hee Haw on in the background, and who rode to school in the back of a pick-up truck with a Bocephus sticker in the window, driven by a girl whose brother was in the Klan, the conditions under which Ad-Rock had to fight for his right to party were surely more foreign than those faced by, say, a young Eazy-E. To fail to see this is precisely the famous “narcissism of minor differences” identified by Freud, which phrase pretty much encapsulates the entire history of racial strife in the United States from Abolition onward.

The recording industry has ever sought to present country music and “urban” music as polar opposites, the twain of which ne’er shall meet, always covering over the fact that what made urban music urban was the Great Northward Migration of African Americans from the rural South, for whom blues was in its most exemplary form a country blues in the style of Sam Chatmon (study his “Lay Me Down a Pallet on Your Floor”, the song of an itinerant farm-worker), or Mississippi John Hurt (consider his rendition of “Praying on the Old Campground”). And for this reason it is particularly depressing when the industry imposes its gimmicks of white-trash “crossover” rap à la Bubba Sparxxx or, ostensibly from the other direction, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”, as if these were hybridizing naturally incompatible forms rather than acknowledging the common origin of both.

In this respect the properly, organically white-trash rap that began to emerge by the 1990s was inevitable, and not at all an affectation. By now of course there is Mongolian rap about the hardscrabble lives of youths growing up on the outskirts of Ulaan-Bataar, and what Edhem Eldem would call “self-Orientalizing” Tatar rap about the distinct experiences of ethnic Turkic peoples growing up in the post-Soviet space (consider this, from the absolutely divine female Tatar rapper, Tatarka). I take it that Eminem is both a catalyzer and a representative of this universalization of the idiom, neither imposed on us by cynical music-industry managers, as was Vanilla Ice, nor simply trying it on as a style when the punk scene looked dead, as with the Beasties, but as an instance of a newly global sensibility naturally and spontaneously adopted by delinquent youth everywhere. It would after all be strange if somehow this sensibility had spread to Mongolia and Tatarstan, while passing over the inhabitants of American Trump country, who, however much currently prevailing ideology tries to dodge this fact, are still the concitoyens of Black Americans and are wrapped up with them in the same long-term historical dynamics.

Indeed there is today a small but not minuscule genre of white-identitarian MAGA rap, whose most prominent representative is of course the dreary Kid Rock. The market potential of this scene has also been strategically tapped by the secretly Canadian rapper Tom MacDonald, who from an earlier period of Eminem-derivative Alberta horrorcore now comes up with such incisive couplets as “This is for my white trash, the ones the whole world hate / The ones who voted for Trump, got labeled racist but ain’t”.

One might have expected this niche eventually to become home to Marshall Mathers as well. But other than a few over-hyped anti-Trump freestyles before each of the two most recent elections, Eminem has stayed out of overt politics. This has also meant declining to lend his name to the usual progressive causes, or to nod lyrically in the direction of gender egalitarianism (think by contrast of the Beastie Boys’ seemingly compulsive need to assuage the hypothetical worries of typical New York Times readers: “To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / We’ve got nothing but love and respect to the end”; will I be misunderstood if I call this, too, “cringe”?). Eminem hates Trump for his own inscrutable reasons, but probably could have gone either way, if we’re being honest. He is an antiracist, but in a rigorously low-status and unassimilable way.

He is conscious of his place in the history of Black music, as an interloper, as having pulled an Elvis; he is conscious, that is, unlike Elvis himself. But neither is he particularly apologetic about it. He, too, seeks out collaborations with other rappers in a position to use words he cannot. He is solicitous and plainly sincere about his role as guardian and transmitter of tradition. For all the praise his singular quickness receives, an allusion to the eighties girl-rap outfit J. J. Fad just before he launches into his own “supersonic” routine in 2013’s “Rap God” is telling. No one is required to pay respect to J. J. Fad; that comes from a place of love.

In the end though Eminem is a master of bringing everything back to himself, in a way that is itself interpretable racially, under the analytic lens of “privilege”. His work is a Knausgaardian autofiction of struggles that you would think should have subsided by now, with age, with wealth. Yet the narrative centering of his own family dramas, the Jerry Springerian confessionalism, the broken-family drama and distinctly Midwestern patterns of substance abuse: all of these are what gives Eminem’s oeuvre its narrative power. Whatever all that stuff is that makes up a life on 8 Mile Road, it’s the same quality of stuff that makes up a life as related by a rapper from the outskirts of Ulan-Bataar, and among the highest purposes of art is to disconceal unknown qualities to others who have lived otherwise.

Eminem was born in October, 1972, and is thus three months younger than I. We are now the age that Jerry Lee Lewis was in 1983; we are eight years older than John Lennon was when he was shot in 1980. Both of us can probably remember when Elvis died (I can, anyway).

Rock and roll, which entered global consciousness in the mid-1950s, has lost the great majority of its founders, and enough time has gone by to amply confirm the thesis, which we have already considered above, that rock and roll is for the young, and aside from a few exceptions a middle-aged balding schlub on a rock-and-roll reunion tour is as painful a sight as a man in his forties who suffers from the knowledge that his life peaked in his brief season as a high-school quarterback.

What now about rap music? If we date its origin (arbitrarily, as there is never any true Year Zero in popular musical forms) to the summer of the 1977 New York City blackout, then we must say it is only now that we are starting to get our answer. Afrika Bambataa was born in 1957, Grandmaster Flash a year later. There have of course been countless untimely deaths, but the interruption of a life doesn’t reveal anything about its natural arc.

One thing seems certain, though: there will be little grace for Marshall Mathers when he is no longer able to do the rap equivalent of mounting the piano, say, when cognitive decline leaves him unable fluidly to spit bars. (Machine Gun Kelly, in his attempt at a take-down rap against his elder rival, has lyrically noted that Eminem is “almost 50”, and therefore that such cognitive decline is inevitable in the near future.) Eminem’s greatness is anchored to his technical ability, and he has no insurance, in the simple fact of existing, against its loss.

According to our earlier analysis, this counts as some kind of strong evidence that he is not a great artist. His genius, if we can describe it as such, appears to be of the same genus as that of the old coots who used to go on TV and demonstrate their ability to smoke 200 cigarettes at once, or of the itinerant entertainer mentioned in Quintilian’s first-century-CE Institutio oratoria, who can toss a chick pea through the eye of a needle at a great distance. Quintilian describes this feat as an instance of mataiotekhnia, which “imitates art pointlessly, with no intrinsic quality of good or bad”.

This is more my fear than my view, as I admit I am often taken in by Eminem’s mataiotechnics. If there is any real innovation on display in his work, comparable to The Killer’s elimination of the seventh note from his boogie piano rolls, it is surely the syncopated rhyme schemes, inserting rhymes within rhymes at the sub-line level. I recently came across a good example of this technique:

Metabolism is an embolism at our age; not a shot of jism.

In spite of the shared subject matter, this is not Eminem, but, again, the late Oxford Professor of Poetry Geoffrey Hill, author of The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin. For whatever reason, Hill’s last poetic testament before his death in 2016 is written almost entirely in rhymed lines that echo the most familiar patterns of Marshall Mathers’ lyrics. As for example:

Could anomalies in earth’s magnetic field account for the inadequate overall yield of my similes?

Or again:

That we are employed as human shields in overriding force-fields by those who guide them towards the untenable sanctities of abiding things, our so-called citadels of words?

Or yet again:

Newton was a type of gnostic, I suspect; one of a one-man sect.
His theology was less Logos than complex acrostic with the power to vex.
For so it goes.

And now, Eminem, from 2000’s “Drug Ballad”:

You’re beginning to think women are swimmin’ in pink linen
Again in the sink
Then in a couple of minutes that bottle of Guinness is finished

Or again, from 2019’s “Lucky You”:

I’m asleep at the wheel again
As I peak into thinkin’ about an evil intent
Of another beat, I’ma kill again
’Cause even if I gotta end up eatin’ a pill again
Even ketamine or methamphetamine
With the minithin, it better be at least 70 to 300 milligram
And I might as well ‘cause I’ma end up bein’ a villain again.
Levels to this shit I got an elevator.

And so on. I don’t mean to overstress this point. Hill’s range of subjects —the Holocaust, the mysteries of Christianity, gnosticism, death— is vastly more interesting than Em’s. There is no real comparison. What’s more, I acknowledge there is always something painfully forced about rap lyrics presented, in written form, as poetry. What we are in fact seeing is only a trace of something that in its proper artistic expression is intrinsically oral. To this extent the textual form is a sort of translation, akin to what my friend Jerry Rothenberg has attempted to do in graphical representations of Navajo ritual dances. There is something tiresome in the extreme, therefore, about attempts to pass off rather banal rhymed couplets from, say, Jay-Z, as if they were doing the same thing, and had the same eternal power on the printed page, as William Blake. But this is to be expected of a culture in which the same Jay-Z has only to mention Picasso in order to be permitted to act as if he is thereby inscribing himself in the history of modern art.

The syncopations and the complex stress patterns don’t exhaust Eminem’s list of tricks. I’m often impressed by his ability to impersonate other voices, to embody a whole range of characters within just a few lines, to imitate mediocre rappers who lose their momentum, Soundcloud mumble rappers who, from his elder-statesmanly point of view, don’t seem to even want to be any good. The song-level impersonations are of a pair with the album-level personae, and with the often cornball insinuations of some sort of multiple-personality disorder.

In the end these are all likely Eminem’s careful modulation of the same innate pressure in American popular musical performance that pushed Jerry Lee Lewis into his country phase, that made even Bob Dylan into a born-again Christian for a while, and Kid Rock into a MAGA-head. Even more effectively than The Killer himself, Eminem figured out how to incorporate the white-trash psycho bit, ready to snap at any moment, into his art, rather than simply letting it slip through willy-nilly, too powerful to be fully contained. So far, it is this careful modulation, together with successful traduction of the universal dimensions of Black American musical tradition, never lapsing into mere imitation of that tradition but always speaking to the particularities of his own experience, as well as the non-onset of early Alzheimer’s, that keep Eminem in the game.

What’s missing, of course, is the gnosis. Eminem doesn’t know anything, except “reality”, in the low sense to which a person pays honor when they claim to be “keeping it real”. He thus bypasses that whole inheritance in rap music from the Afrofuturism of a Sun Ra, as well as all of the myth-building archaicism packed into the ideal of “knowledge” as understood by KRS-One and so many others of the old school. He’s kind of dumb.

Jerry Lee Lewis is for his part dumb as a rock. But again, you can still hear the church in him, and when he is permitted to talk he quickly launches into the language of the evangelical preacher, which is in the end, too, a strain of gnosticism. Without religion, most of the American legacy that is left to Eminem to channel is violence and terror. He’s very good at this, and eminently worthy of critical attention. Whether it’s a gripping enough vision of life to retain our attention and to launch him into the trans-genre pantheon of American artists, once his mataiotechnical power fades, remains, for me, a matter of grave doubt.

This is the first in a likely three-part series on American popular music. It took me a hell of a long time to write this, and I would be delighted to gain some new subscribers as a result!