Tuesday, February 23, 2016
February 23, 2016: Rap Readings: Eminem’s “Closet”
[When I wrote a Thanksgiving post on Macklemore, I realized I had never written a full series AmericanStudying rap, one of the most distinctly American, and most complex and contested, musical genres. Well, that changes this week. I’d love to hear your own Rap Readings in comments! And I have to highlight here the work of Dr. Regina Bradley, AKA Red Clay Scholar, the best current scholar of all things rap and hip hop.]
On the private and public sides to persona, art, and the confessional.
I’ve written multiple posts arguing that Sylvia Plath was more than just the author of “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” the controversial, soul-baring autobiographical poems for which she is best known, and I stand by those arguments. But the truth, as I wrote in this post on Plath’s and Mark Doty’s confessional poetry, is that even in those most overtly autobiographical poems of Plath’s it’s very difficult to parse out the relationship between text and identity, to say whether the speaker is Sylvia Plath or “Sylvia Plath,” poet or persona, historical figure or literary creation. “Dying/Is an art, like everything else,” Plath writes in “Lady Lazarus”—and if so, can we say that her literary suicide, foreshadowed and even enacted in poems like that one, is the equivalent of her actual one? Where does the line between persona and person fall, and do texts like these accentuate or blur it?
Such questions have only become more prevalent in our multi- and social media saturated moment, where we hear about artists and their identities and biographies as much (if not indeed in many cases far more) as we hear from them in their published works, and no contemporary artist exemplifies that fact and the ambiguities it can produce more than Eminem. Any artist who releases three albums, in four years, named after three different persona—The Slim Shady LP (1999), The Marshall Mathers LP (2000), and The Eminem Show (2002)—is obviously well aware of, engaged with, and constantly pushing the boundaries of identity and performance. And as a result, it is incredibly difficult, both across the arc of Eminem’s career to date and in any one song or performance, to identify from which persona we’re hearing—much less when and whether we’re getting a more genuine or more constructed or fictional perspective and voice.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Eminem’s “Cleaning Out My Closet” (2002). The song’s verses seem to be among the most confessional of his career, addressing his absentee father, his (allegedly) abusive mother, his evolving relationships to them, his wife, and his young daughter, and many other aspects of his life and identity. But since the song is included on The Eminem Show album, and since Eminem explicitly concludes the second verse with the line “It’s my life, I’d like to welcome y’all to the Eminem Show,” it’s possible to read the verses’ extreme emotions as exaggerated or constructed, part of the particularly combative Eminem persona—a possibility reinforced by the song’s chorus, in which the speaker (Eminem? Marshall? Both? Neither?) apologizes to the same mother whom he has so viciously attacked in the second and third verses. In any case, Eminem, like Plath before him, proves in this complex song, as in many of his best ones, that confession is an art like everything else—and one he does exceptionally well.
Next rap reading tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other rap artists, songs, or analyses you’d share?