I remember seeing Greil Marcus and Anthony DeCurtis, being interviewed on MSNBC on the issue of Eminem's sick-fuck psychodramas and the failure of nerve on the part of rock and pop critics to call him on the sham, and neither was forthcoming with anything particularly intriguing about the matter. Marcus sort of murmured some mysterious, vague things from his Hegelian shroud, while DeCurtis managed to sound like a nervous, nominally liberal parent who's desperate to stay relevant in his kid's lives. Both sounded like they were skirting the issue. Not the same thing as Lester Bangs taking on the "White Noise Supremacists", attacking the incipient racism that he encountered at the edges of a nervy rock culture. Bang's response was articulate, felt, personal, absent with the detached irony that's become the most popular dodge for rock critics and other commentators to take when there's a chance that they might have to actually say something they care about.
I've read Marcus since 1967, I believe, and I feel I do know him, in a way. Well enough to argue about music with, at least. The best book by Marcus, I think, is Lipstick Traces, when of the rare times where the diffuse nature of his wanderings catches up a subject that is a slippery as his point, the secret history of the 20th century. Linking The Sex Pistols with Guy Debord, Dada, and other instances of spontaneous reaction to the kind of psychic repression good old Frommians harp on is a series of masterstrokes from our author: the deferring of a resolution, the withholding of a thesis, served the book well, in theme and spirit; there is as sense of a dialectic occurring: it doesn't hurt that the writing is inspired.
Less useful are In the Fascist Bathroom, clogged, cryptic, terse bits of incomprehensibility that seems to be an attempt to be more gnomic than Christgau at his most involuted, and Dustbin of History, essays that wander around their subjects of rock, books, the arts, with a commentary that talks around the issues rather than to them. The diffuse style, effective in previous work where there was a strong sense of a cluster of ideas being brought together, here just lets the whole thing dangle like laundry tossed over a bedpost.
The issue of Eminem is about the complete absence of an independent rock and pop commentary in the mainstream media that might have allowed some voices to challenge not just the content of the lyrics, but the entire rationale behind them: Marcus and such, from on high, prefer an indirect course in which to discuss the flow of history, or the reappearance of styles and trends within various cultural matrixes when asked about the sometimes Slim Shady: one rarely comes away with any sense that he thinks someone is any good. Saying yay or nay requires someone to make their case with examples, and it also requires the writer to take a principled stand, one way or the other. Principled stands give us real discussions, from which real understanding arises. The point is about the lack of real criticism of the man's work, and whether the supposed disguise works to any degree one can call artistic. The ass-kissing Eminem has gotten from big media reviewers implicitly states that the Life that's depicted is acceptable because it creates the source of dramatic inspiration. Besides handing Em his head for handing his fans flimsy, dime -store grittiness, critics ought to have the courage to say that the life is just plain wrong, bad, murderous, and to challenge the artist to imagine ways to change the world, not wallow in its ugliness. Critics used to discuss justice as something worth striving for, now it's buck-grabbing assholism that's defended under the stagey business of "detached irony". It's bullshit, and someone as smart as Marcus ought to say so.
Thousands of teens do take this at face value, and they deserve a more diverse, less-lock stepping troupe of critics to read. A critic shouldn't challenge to do better work? This lets musicians with the Million Dollar Bullhorn, whether Eminem, Sting, or Bono, to run their mouths without response. The best critics, regardless of their trade they critique, always take the call the artist to the carpet when less-than-best is offered, and certainly, it's well in their scope to yell bullshit when bullshit stinks up a room. better lyric is part of that equation, inextricable. the issue here isn't Eminem's perceived sins, but rather the over-all pass he's been given by big-media reviewers who offer overheated praise in place of real commentary. Rock criticism used to be critical, as in discussing larger contexts the music exists within. Good critics do this. Good critics would have done more digging in their appraisal of Em's offerings in the marketplace, rather than rely on worn-out auteur theories left over from the heyday of film reviewing. You might insist otherwise, but words inform the music and music drives the text, and both can be discussed, critiqued, analyzed--i.e., subjected to the sort of dissection that real criticism attempts -- with no disservice to the form.
The cynical among us would debunk the assertions of writers like Marcus (or Dave Marsh) who remain hung up on rock and roll symbolism and maintain that a loud guitar is a loud guitar, not a tool of patriarchal oppression. Wrong. A loud guitar is a political tool of the left or the right. Woody Guthrie's guitar had the motto "This machine kills fascists" scribbled on it, Elvis's guitar was a symbolic revolt against a previous generation's sexuality, Townsend's power chords made dying young before growing old seem like an option one might consider: all these things are political in the broadest sense in as much as the move of rock and roll is to move people into some kind of state that's transforming: you want an audience to understand their world differently than they did before the music started playing. How well artists succeed at this, whatever their expressed intent, makes for valid, intriguing criticism Besides, what constitutes a music's "validity as music" has lot of things within that hazy phrase to discuss, and certainly bringing a light on the success of rendered political stances within the "role playing" , and considering whether these things actually do anything that works musically is not beyond a critic's job description