"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Accountants for Interscope Records and rapper Eminem weren’t the only ones cheering last week when the star’s new album, “The Marshall Mathers LP,” debuted at No. 1 in blockbuster style. The aggressively demented album, which features the white rapper weaving rapid-fire tales about rape, faggots, bitches, drug overdoses and throat cuttings, sold 1.7 million copies in just seven days, according to SoundScan, becoming the second-biggest-selling debut week in industry history — and certainly the most successful showing by a rapper ever.
Also applauding the sales tally for the new record were the nation’s music critics, who, for the most part, have been wildly enthusiastic about the rapper’s work. “Eminem has not only become the legitimate heir to Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.,” gushed Newsweek, “he’s arguably the most compelling figure in all of pop music.” Fed up with watching boy bands and girl pop posers win over the hearts of consumers, critics welcomed the chance to bond with fans of some tougher sounds.
And with a love as true as theirs, it’s doubtful critics will show Eminem any less affection even after he was charged Tuesday with carrying a concealed weapon and assault with a deadly weapon. Michigan prosecutors say Eminem was spying on his wife late Sunday night in a Hot Rocks Cafe parking lot in Warren, Mich., and pulled a gun on a bartender after seeing him kiss his wife. Eminem faces up to nine years in prison if convicted on both charges.
Eminem, 26, is from Detroit; he has short blond hair and an insolent stare. His rap debut came in the little-noticed form of “Infinite,” which was void of Eminem’s now trademark slurs. It flopped. In ’97 a sample of Eminem’s new, harder sound landed in the hands of Dr. Dre, a founding member of hardcore rap group NWA and mentor of Snoop Dogg. Dre signed Eminem to his Interscope-distributed label; by the time last year’s “The Slim Shady LP” was released, Eminem’s single “My Name Is” was already a blockbuster in the burbs. The album went on to sell 3 million copies and remained near the top of the album charts for the better part of a year.
Bitch I’ma kill you!
You don’t wanna fuck with me
Girls leave — you ain’t nuttin’ but a slut to me
Bitch I’ma kill you!
You better kill me!
I’ma be another rapper dead for poppin’ off at the mouth with shit I shouldn’ta said
But when they kill me — I’m bringin’ the world with me
You ain’t nuttin’ but a girl to me
— “Kill You,” a song about Eminem’s mother
Of course, Eminem has the right to rap about whatever he wants, and if executives at Interscope are comfortable releasing that sort of CD, then the debate ends right there. But should the nation’s tastemakers, the ones supposedly pondering the connection between art and society, align themselves with an artist as blatantly hateful, vengeful and violent as Eminem?
Not only have Eminem’s foul lyrics not sparked a debate among serious music observers, they’ve barely even caused a stir. It’d be as if Bret Easton Ellis wrote the murderous “American Psycho” and no critic questioned his judgment or the book’s content — and those who did pause briefly to consider the book’s moral or social implications simply dismissed the consequences because: A) the story’s only fiction and B) Ellis is a really, really good writer. That’s basically what most music journalists have done as they eagerly explain away Eminem’s psychopathic subject matter.
So afraid are music’s defenders to give an inch in their battle with the Bill Bennett moralists of the world that they’re now championing an artist who raps nearly nonstop on his new slanderous CD about sluts, guts, cocaine and getting “more pussy than them dyke bitches total.”
Of course, the problem with “Marshall Mathers” isn’t simply R-rated lyrics. They’re nothing new, although Eminem has taken them to a new and oddly focused level. Other rap records might create a world of clichid bitches and ho’s to lay down party beats for good times or hold up a mirror to their environment. Some of the better ones (Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Ice-T) even took time out occasionally to reflect on the consequences of their gangsta actions. But Eminem’s not interested in any of that. Instead, the rapper simply delivers 75 minutes of nearly nonstop hate (that is, when he’s not whining about his fame). How hateful? According to GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), the album “contains the most blatantly offensive homophobic lyrics we have ever heard. Ever.”
New Kids on the Block, sucked a lot of dick
Boy-girl groups make me sick
And I can’t wait ’til I catch all you faggots in public
I’ma love it [hahaha]
Talkin’ about I fabricated my past
He’s just aggravated I won’t ejaculate in his ass
— “Marshall Mathers”
No matter, critics love this record. “It’s mean-spirited, profane, shocking — and actually quite entertaining if not taken too seriously,” the Arizona Republic opined. “Guilty pleasures rarely get as good as this,” added CDNow in a record review. “A bona fide masterpiece,” raved VH1.com, adding that Eminem is “possibly the greatest storyteller in all of hip-hop.”
The new record “may be among the most objectionable albums ever to receive mainstream release, but that does not make it a bad album,” Alona Wartofsky assured us in the Washington Post. “The new album from Eminem is absolutely outrageous. And I mean that in the best possible sense,” cheered Neil McCormick in London’s Daily Telegraph.
‘Cuz if I ever stuck it to any singer in showbiz
It’d be Jennifer Lopez and Puffy you know this!
I’m sorry Puff, but I don’t give a fuck if this chick was my own mother
I still fuck her with no rubber and cum inside her and have a son and a new brother at the same time
— “I’m Back”
Time Out New York thought this incestuous, quasi-rape fantasy about Jennifer Lopez was “sidesplitting.” The Times of London agreed it was “extremely funny.” CDNow insisted, “The man is fearless.” Why? Because he has the courage to insult, among others, pop stars Puff Daddy, Will Smith, Britney Spears and ‘N Sync. Eminem also has things to say about quadriplegic Christopher Reeve. Talk about picking fights you can’t possibly lose.
In a recent cover profile of Eminem for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar magazine, the paper’s longtime music critic, Robert Hilburn, came this close to comparing Eminem with Elvis Presley, a tenuous stretch that won the writer an insightful reply from a reader in Studio City, Calif.: “Let’s see … self-described white trash who raps about mindless violence, misogyny, murder, child abuse — one who proclaims ‘anything is possible as long as you don’t back down’ and then makes whatever lyrical changes are required to conform to retailers’ guidelines of acceptability. Gentlemen, please.”
A few days later, in his review of “Marshall Mathers,” Hilburn, like so many before him, apologized for the rapper in advance: “Eminem is simply exercising his creative impulses — putting on disc all the forbidden thoughts and scandalous scenarios that accompany adolescence and just watching the fallout.” In other words, Eminem’s the John Rocker of hip-pop (calling the slurs like he sees ‘em), and music journalists are his hometown apologists who can see no wrong in their star.
Elsewhere, Newsweek explained away the “Marshall Mathers” hate by noting with approval, “He picks on himself almost as much as he does the people on his enemies list … By flipping his razor-sharp lyrics on himself, Eminem subverts the smirking superiority that plagues mainstream rap, a wily underdog move that lets him get away with more than he could otherwise.” That’s been a popular defense, most often invoked right after ’99′s occasionally jocular “Slim Shady” album. But the truth is that “Marshall Mathers” is far darker and more disturbed than most critics are willing to admit. Which explains why Newsweek didn’t include any new subversive lyrics of Eminem picking on himself. They don’t exist.
Don’t you get it bitch, no one can hear you?
Now shut the fuck up and get what’s comin’ to you
You were supposed to love me [sounds of Kim choking]
NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED!
BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!
— “Kim,” a song about Eminem’s wife
When you get done parsing the critics’ language and logic about how it’s all just satire, or cartoons, or Eminem’s alter ego talking, the bottom line is that they’ve given Eminem a pass. (Ask the Michigan bartender if that was Eminem’s alter ego brandishing a pistol over the weekend.) Regardless of what he raps about, because he’s so dynamic and funny on the mike (which he can be) and his beats are so tight (which they are), his lyrics are irrelevant. Makes you wonder what it would take for music journalists to sit up and take offense. A song or two about lynching bothersome blacks, or gassing a few Jews? Even then, it’d probably be a close call.
One thing is for sure, ever since the release of “The Slim Shady LP” last year, critics have been working overtime trying to soften his gruesome lyrics. In analogy after analogy reviewers have tried to convince readers (and perhaps themselves) that Eminem’s odious tales are simply the latest in the grand tradition of shocking youthful rebellion as championed by the Rolling Stones (Sacramento Bee), Freddy Krueger (Times of London), a Quentin Tarantino film (Los Angeles Times), the wood-chipper scene from “Fargo” (Boston Herald), shock jocks (Washington Post), Rodney Dangerfield (Rolling Stone, Baltimore Sun), the gallows humor of Alice Cooper (Los Angeles Times), “the wink-and-nod allure of horror film violence” (Detroit Free Press), comedian Robert Schimmel (Washington Post), “Scream” and its sequels (Times of London), Redd Foxx and Richard Pryor (MTV’s Kurt Loder), “bombastic wrestling telecasts” (Entertainment Weekly), “South Park,” Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, “Cops” (SonicNet), a Robert Johnson blues classic (Kansas City Star) and the Beatles’ “Run for Your Life” (Kansas City Star).
Really? Who does the following verse most remind you of — Richard Pryor, the Beatles, Robert Johnson or Alice Cooper?
My little sister’s birthday, she’ll remember me
For a gift I had ten of my boys take her virginity
And bitches know me as a horny-ass freak
Their mother wasn’t raped, I ate her pussy while she was ‘sleep
Pissy-drunk, throwin’ up in the urinal
(“You fuckin’ homo!”)
That’s what I said at my dad’s funeral
— “Amityville” (featuring rapper Bizarre)
MTV, which prides itself on running anti-violence public-service announcements, has embraced Eminem like no rap act in its history. The mighty music channel celebrated the new album’s release with at least four separate Eminem specials. One was a biopic that gently painted Eminem as a wisecracking free spirit who beat the odds and did it all for his daughter. (No, really.) Another featured a sit-down with Loder, who asked Eminem about his gay-bashing, although not in a confrontational way. Instead Loder merely offered up an opportunity for Eminem to make nice. He declined. Instead, he told Loder that when he uses the word “faggot” it doesn’t necessarily mean gay person, it means “sissy” and “asshole.” Oh. “Do I really hate gay people or not? That’s up for you to decide,” said Eminem.
At least his producer and hip-hop guardian Dr. Dre was honest when Loder asked him about the gay-bashing on “The Marshall Mathers LP.” Sneered Dre: “I don’t really care about those kind of people.”
In his Los Angeles Times review, Hilburn deducted half a star from his four-star “Marshall Mathers” review “because of the recurring homophobia.” A nice gesture, although in the big picture it’s rather comical. Why just half a star? And what about the woman hating that drips off the CD? (Eminem seems more interested in killing girls than fucking them.) Doesn’t that constitute a deduction from the morals score card?
Entertainment Weekly tried to have it both ways as well. Declaring “Marshall Mathers” to be “the first great pop record of the 21st century,” EW’s final grade for the album included a D plus for “moral responsibility” and an A minus for “overall artistry,” which of course begs the question of what “artistry” is. And if that’s not a clear indication that lyrical content is no longer relevant to music criticism, what is?
Some bitch asked for my autograph
I called her a whore, spit beer in her face and laughed
I drop bombs like I was in Vietnam
All bitches is ho’s, even my stinkin’-ass mom
— “Under the Influence”
A handful of critics have managed to break free of the Eminem groupthink — and they deserve credit. Christopher John Farley at Time, Renee Graham at the Boston Globe, Chris Vognar at the Dallas Morning News and Oliver Wang at SonicNet called Eminem on his horrendous, hateful lyrics. Yet none of them seemed willing to really pull the trigger and condemn the project outright.
Perhaps they remember what happened to Billboard editor Timothy White last year when he wrote a scathing attack on “The Slim Shady LP,” connecting the dots between the rapper’s misogynistic rants and the rise of spousal abuse. “If you seek to play a leadership role in making money by exploiting the world’s misery, the music industry remains an easy place to start,” White wrote. The reaction? The music press looked at him as if he had three heads, with the deep thinkers at New Times LA so busy calling him names they forgot to actually read his column. (“Timothy White … publicly called for the CD to be banned,” the paper wrote. He did no such thing.) Or look at what happened to Christina Aguilera when she questioned the playground bully:
Shit, Christina Aguilera better switch chairs with me
So I could sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst
And hear ‘em argue over who she gave head to first
— “The Real Slim Shady”
Aguilera, portrayed as a blowup doll in the song’s video, is one of today’s platinum, girl-next-door teen pop singers, Daly is the host of MTV’s hugely popular “Total Request Live” show and Durst is the lead singer of the metal band Limp Bizkit. All agreed the line about her giving them head was untrue. So what set the rapper off? Turns out that last year Aguilera hosted a special on MTV and introduced Eminem’s breakout clip from ’99, “My Name Is.” After the video she told her on-camera friends she’d heard Eminem was married to his longtime girlfriend, Kim (which he was), even though Eminem rapped about murdering her on record (which he did). “Don’t let your guy disrespect you,” Aguilera urged her young viewers. And for that common-sense message she has been slandered in a Top 40 song that MTV can’t stop playing.
Did anybody come to her aid? Hardly. In fact, the Washington Post cheered on Eminem’s attack: “We’re all tired of pop moppets like Spears and Aguilera, and he obliges us by slurring them both.”
(And just in case you care, both Durst and Daly assured MTV News they were not offended by the fact that a new hit song suggested they were getting blow jobs from a famous teen pop singer. Oh, good.)
By defending and celebrating the likes of Eminem while willingly turning a blind eye to his catchy message of hate, music critics continue to cheapen their profession. They’re also lowering the bar to such depths that artists will soon have to crawl to get under it. Don’t think Eminem won’t try.
Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."More Eric Boehlert.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)