Over the past three years, Gil Rodman has weaved his way through the expletives, plowed through the homophobia and misogyny and looked past the controversy of Eminem’s music, and what he found is this: meaning.
On Wednesday, the USF professor gave a lecture rife with bad words and questionable lyrics meant to drive home his discovery.
He explained from the get-go to an audience of about 60 that his mission was to identify and analyze the way Americans deal with — or ignore — racism.
Eminem, he says, is the most recent pop-culture icon to bring to the forefront of discussion the role race plays in society, and, in Eminem’s case, specifically the role it plays in the rapper’s sales.
So Rodman let Eminem talk, and after passing out lyrics to his song “White America,” he played the song in its entirety for the audience.
“Let’s do the math/If I was black, I would’ve sold half,” he raps. And later, “Surely hip hop was never a problem in Harlem only in Boston, after it bothered the fathers of daughters starting to blossom.”
Eminem has a deep understanding of how his skin color plays a role in his success, Rodman says. In fact, Eminem, in many of his songs, has no problem criticizing himself and his music, which he also does on his hit song “Without Me.”
That sometimes makes Rodman think his work is irrelevant.
“After all, when your research subject can analyze itself perfectly well without you, your own analysis can sometimes feel a bit redundant,” he said.
What Eminem exposes in his music, Rodman says, is a double standard in society. Eminem is not the first musician whose music was laced with violence. Rodman cited songs from John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton and Johnny Cash that all dealt with killing people.
These songs, and the artists for that matter, were never heavily criticized because they used, he said, what is known as the “fictional I.” In other words, when Springsteen sings “From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska, with a sawed-off .410 on my lap/Through to the badlands of Wyoming, I killed everything in my path,” the audience generally understands it is a dramatization.
But not with Eminem and other rappers, Rodman said. Society refuses to believe rappers have the intellectual capacity to sing about purely fantastical, violent situations.
“Why is it so difficult for us to envision Eminem (and other rappers) as someone who might have enough creativity, intelligence and artistry to fashion and perform a convincing fictional persona?” he said. “(It’s) a bias that rests on the misguided notion that some people are simply incapable of certain sorts of higher thinking and artistic creativity.”
Another double standard is while a portion of society believes Eminem symbolizes the demise of youth in society, they fail to recognize or believe the converse — that so-called positive influences produce positive results in American culture.
“No one seems to believe that popular computer games like SimCity will make us a nation of brilliantly creative urban planners, but it’s almost a given that graphically violent games like Mortal Kombat will generate armies of murderous super-predator teens bent on terrorizing our cities,” Rodman said.
John Hardin, a doctoral student and USF instructor, said people should listen to Eminem, because most of what he says — whether pleasant or not — largely reflects a portion of society.
“I think we need to embrace how complicated society is,” Hardin said. “Getting rid of Eminem doesn’t get rid of the problems. You still have Dylan Klebolds that walk into Columbine and shoot people.”
And Rodman thinks maybe society’s biggest problem with the controversial rapper runs much deeper than vulgarity. When some people look at Eminem, he says, sometimes they see a bit of themselves.
Or, in Eminem’s words, Rodman said, “I guess there’s a Slim Shady in all of us. F— it. Let’s all stand up.”