The young woman at the checkout counter gave me quite a look when I set down Eminem's "Marshall Mathers" in a pile of CDs that included some Bach and Brahms. Apparently I'm not the type who buys rap artist Eminem's notorious CD, a recording whose level of violence, misogyny, and homophobia cannot be understood unless you hear the music or read the words. It has been nominated for Best Album of the Year in the coming Grammys - the Oscars of the recording industry - which airs Feb. 21.
I had just seen a music journalist who had voted for the nomination defend the CD on television. (Grammy nominations are voted for by music industry professionals.) Although she found many of the lyrics repulsive, she considers Eminem an important artist. "Besides, it sold seven million records," she said. "We had to do something."
Although I'm a classical musician and critic, I've played popular music most of my life. And I listened to Eminem's album with an open mind. I agree with the journalist that Eminem is a real talent, and that the CD is, at some level, edgy and satirical.
His best musical backgrounds are deceptively sparse, creating an hypnotic, surreal effect of compressed rage and violence; the lyrics float above, slashing and shocking the senses with vulgar, homicidal imagery. Eminem's main technique is manipulation and he lets you know it. He taunts gays and lesbians; he says he's going to kill a woman; then, he says he's only kidding.
In one song Eminem fantasizes about cutting his girlfriend's throat. "You have to know what Eminem was going through in his life to understand the context," said the music journalist.
I wonder if a 10-year-old listener can "contextualize."
However cute or artful some adults may consider this music, its effect on children seems to me like a loaded gun (or more accurately a sharpened blade - Eminem's apparent weapon of choice). Who among us will deny that when images like these are pounded into the consciousness of a culture, that the music itself is creating a climate of violence?
While I'm interested in how everyone responds to this madness, I'mspecifically concerned with what classical musicians think. After all, they are my peers, the community with whom I share not only music but values. And those values come from a tradition that considers music a spiritual force in the very fabric of society.
Many of us - indeed some would say all classical musicians - are teachers. We're gratified when some researchers tell us that listening to Mozart is good for babies. If Mozart is beneficial, can other music be damaging? Of course it can. We cannot ignore that the majority of Eminem's sales are to young teenagers.
The musicians I know have always paid attention to issues of prejudice and hate. Are they listening when members of the gay and lesbian community tell us that this recording promotes hate crimes?
Most classical musicians have never heard Eminem's music. I think that all of us have a responsibility to listen. That responsibility seems mandatory for any musician nominated for a Grammy. Playing possum is a cop-out. You don't have to buy the recording - just find a group of kids. They'll have it. At the very least, browse through the lyrics in Eminem's book "Angry Blonde" at the bookstore, or visit his website.
Many claim that opposing this nomination is censorship, and censoring this recording is wrong. I agreewith one part of the argument.Banning a record is censorship, and I oppose that, but giving it a prize is something different. The music journalist wants us to contextualize Eminem's lyrics; I think we should contextualize the award, and what it means if we do not oppose it.
There will be no glory this year in classical music for winning a Grammy. The real prize will go to those nominees who pull out. It's the right thing to do. It's also the smart thing.
In a world where few pay much attention to classical music, the Grammy nomination for Eminem has created a publicist's dream. First one out is big-time news.
Tom Manoff reviews classical music for National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered.'
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society