Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

Guest Post: Conor Behan on Eminem’s use of language

Eminem still says “faggot”, should we stand this?

Thu, Oct 17, 2013, 17:02


Yesterday I wrote this post on Eminem’s new tune ‘Rap God’ and a synopsis of my fandom. Over on Twitter, Conor Behan started an interesting conversation about Eminem’s use of homophobic slurs in 2013, so I asked Conor to put his thoughts into a guest post, and he very kindly obliged. 

In a pop music world where shock value is de riguer, it’s easy to forget how much hand wringing Eminem caused during the first few years of his career. Una made a terrific point here yesterday about the kind of anger Eminem tapped into as his star rose, particularly on third album The Marshall Mathers LP (his second major label album release). He was a genuinely controversial figure whose fusion of rap, rock and pop nous gave his aggressive, impressive wordplay an incredibly big audience.

Even as a teen whose taste were more leaning towards bubblegum pop, Eminem’s rise was impossible to escape especially given the success of hits like Stan and The Way I Am. It was equally hard to escape media scrutiny over his lyrics and also hearing my classmates and peers talking about his songs.

Just like Una said yesterday, there was clearly many who felt that he nailed the frustration and need to rattle the chains that is a common teen experience.

But there was also many who just enjoyed his willingness to shock and found his use of swearing, gay slurs and talking about killing women as funny and to be quoted endlessly. Eminem’s use of “faggot” as a causal slur for someone who is seen as just a wimp / loser was definitely something I saw thrown around the schoolyard alongside using it to mark anyone who maybe dared to be gay (Which even in the early 00s still carried a fairly damning response from teenagers in a small town).

In 2013 things have changed in numerous ways, whether it’s how we talk about gay people and marriage equality to rap and pop music itself. Eminem may not be the same kind of angry young man of the early days but he still’s a draw whether he’s selling out Slane or debuting a new album next month.

Lead single Berzerk, produced by Rick Rubin has a Beastie Boys feel and has performed well, even if some of it’s pop culture references feel somewhat off the mark (is anyone really making Kevin Federline jokes in 2013?).

This week’s unveiling of Rap God has had blogs and rap nerds a frenzy for how it seems to lay down the gauntlet for those currently in the game to try and best Eminem (not unlike how Kendrick Lemar’s verse on Big Sean’s Control caused controversy earlier this year).

Una posted the tune here yesterday and it cropped up on plenty of outlets, many impressed with the aggression and rapid-fire delivery on display. Like most of his best output it is a technical marvel, the way he layers barbs over a skittering beat is dizzying as it builds.

Despite most people seeming impressed with a perceived return to form for Eminem there’s also a thread of casual homophobia running through Rap God that makes me feel uncomfortable and also makes you wonder if he couldn’t think of some new insult when supposedly schooling his peers.

The way Eminem throws the word “Faggot” around Rap God is not new for his output or rap in general and certainly I’m not suggesting some Daily Mail style outrage is needed here. But is interesting to see that talking about breaking a table “over the back of a couple of faggots” and a lengthy verse about how “Gay” current rappers dress (“So gay I can barely say it with a straight face looking boy”) are seen as either truly cutting barbs or even worthy of being angry about.

Elsewhere Eminem raps about having to censor a line about the Columbine massacre on The Marshall Mathers LP  (this new album is a sequel to that landmark release) and talks about criticisms of his treatment of women in his work with the line “but if I can’t batter the women how the fuck am I supposed to bake them a cake?” which suggests he’s unlikely to change his views or stop wanting to provoke a reaction.

There was some outcry on blogs like World of Wonder and the Huffington Post but certainly not the kind of shock and awe we’ve seen leveled at everyone from Miley Cyrus to Robin Thicke this year. Perhaps it’s not shocking to hear Eminem spew anger anymore.

This year started with Azealia Banks calling Perez Hilton a “messy faggot” in a Twitter spat she recently admitted lost her an endorsement with MAC cosmetics. The debate around that showed that for many the f-word isn’t necessarily about insulting gays anymore. Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz are amongst of a slew of rappers who talk about their own queer identity and move beyond it in new and exciting ways that have continued to shine in 2013.

There’s plenty of talk about how the hyper homophobic culture that rap and hip-hop is entrenched in is slowly changing. Whether it’s A$AP Rocky’s attempts to be gay friendly (Which this year’s MTV VMAs blunder with out athlete Jason Collins showed is likely more a smart PR move than LGBT solidarity) or Macklemore and Ryan Lewis scoring a smash hit with the LGBT themed Same Love.

In a sense we’ve moved on being just “offended” by certain things and can talk about them in a way that doesn’t expect us to get offended when someone tries to push their buttons. I spent a large chunk of this year DJing at a gay club night called F.A.G. and never once thought we were doing anything damaging. Words can shift and change and have different meanings (and also still hold the same negative connotations for some).

Another thing to consider is just how lazy some of this language is. Eminem is a wordsmith with a staggering amount of talent and his performance on Rap God is undeniably impressive. But his main way of putting his peers in his place is tell them they dress like gay man and act too girly.

Is that really still the ultimate insult to a rap artist when Drake can sell over 600,000 albums in a week with a now almost clichéd level of emotional sincerity? Or when Lil’ Wayne can be seen as one of the biggest rap icons of the last decade all while having a pair of tiny skinny jeans hanging off his arse?

Sure, the f-word may have lost some of it’s sting (although I’d wager there’s still plenty of gay teens who’d happily never hear the word again) as a weapon of harm but maybe it’s time that Eminem went and regained some of his.