By now we're used to bizarre TV stunts, but rapper Eminem - denounced for his antigay lyrics - and gay crusader Elton John on the same stage? Performing together?
When Michael Greene, president of the recording academy, teased in an interview that the Grammy awards show (CBS, Feb. 21, 8 p.m.) might include "a major shocker," he apparently wasn't kidding.
This pop-culture equivalent of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement is yet another eruption in the ongoing tempest surrounding Eminem's "The Marshall Mathers LP," which sold 8 million copies and grabbed four Grammy nominations - including Album of the Year - from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS).
The disc, which also topped many critics' year-end best-album lists, contains disturbing lyrics that glorify violence against women - including Eminem's wife and mother - and homosexuals. Incensed women's and gay-rights advocates say he should not be lauded for such material, regardless of his popularity or musical talent. The hip-hop artist has been nominated in four categories: for the prestigious Album of the Year, the Best Rap Album of the Year, the Best Rap Solo Performance, and the Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group.
The controversy surrounding Eminem and the Grammys began when the nominations were announced last month. The Family Violence Prevention Fund undertook a "No to Eminem" letter-writing campaign. And the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), along with dozens of other protest groups, plan a Rally Against Hate at Los Angeles's Staples Center before the CBS telecast.
Music-business cynics, meanwhile, regard the nomination as proof of NARAS both bowing to commercialism and making a lame grasp at being "hip" after years of embarrassing gaffes. It may be a no-win situation for NARAS voters: If Eminem wins, they will get more grief; if he loses, they'll be pummeled for wimping out.
NARAS president and CEO Greene concedes that Eminem's lyrics concern him, but argues, "We have to view the extremities of art, whether it's 'Marshall Mathers' or [artists Andres] Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe or whatever."
Says GLAAD spokesman Scott Seomin: "Eminem himself has stated that he would never use the 'N' word out of respect for African-Americans, yet both Interscope [his record label] and Eminem find it acceptable to use [a slang epithet for a male homosexual] 13 times.... Why is there a lower standard for the acceptability of antigay speech?" Eminem claims he is referring to "sissies," not gay men.
Eminem's lyrics "could easily lead to violence against gays and lesbians, a group that's already victimized by hate crimes," Mr. Seomin says.
Eminem, whose real name is Marshall Mathers, claims the vile lyrics come not from him but his fictitious alter-ego on the album, the character "Slim Shady."
This tongue-in-cheek attitude is evident to many observers - to a point.
"I totally get that he's being ironic," Seomin says, "but a 15-year-old adolescent kid who's just forming his opinions about a lot of things in this world, including what he thinks of gays and lesbians, probably doesn't understand what irony is, much less able to recognize it."
Counters NARAS president Greene: "I've got three sons, 21, 17, and 15. And when this record first came out many months ago, we talked about it, and they just laughed at me. They said, 'Dad, this is theater.... Look behind his middle finger, and you'll see a glint in his eye which basically is, 'I gotcha. I [ticked] you off.' "
Music journalist and NARAS voter Gary Graff says Eminem "knowingly and gratuitously" pushes the limits in his songs. But Mr. Graff also concedes "he is a clever wordsmith, regardless of whether you like the words he's using."
"He's expressing a character. And whether a character is hateful or not doesn't determine the quality of what he's doing," says singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur (see profile, page 17). "And the quality is just ... undeniable.
Other critics are wrestling with their consciences. Writer Anthony DeCurtis calls Eminem's work "fresh and exciting," but also wrote on Rollingstone.com that Eminem isn't getting his Album of the Year Grammy vote because Mr. DeCurtis cannot sanction "the gay-bashing and misogyny that is so deeply at the heart of that record."
This week Eminem agreed to plead guilty to a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Sentencing is April 10, and he faces up to five years in prison. He was charged after an altercation last June outside a Detroit-area nightclub.
"I think that Elton John, I think he gets it," the AP reported Eminem as saying backstage at a concert last month, referring to the Grammy controversy. "Because the kids ... they are taking my music for what it's worth, you know what I mean? They're taking it with a ... grain of salt."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society