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 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 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 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 as much as we hear from them (if not indeed far more), and no contemporary artist exemplifies the ambiguities more than Eminem. Any artist who realizes 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 his career to date and in any one song or performance, to identify from which persona we’re hearing—much less 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 to welcome y’all to the Eminem Show,” it’s possible to read the verses’ extreme emotions as exaggerated or constructed, part of the combative Eminem persona—a possibility reinforced by the song’s chorus, in which the speaker (Eminem? Marshall?) 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 that confession is as an art like everything else—and one he does exceptionally well.
Next ambiguous hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?
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