Helping Eminem sell records

Does political criticism of the foulmouthed rapper do anything but increase his stature -- and his sales?

Published September 14, 2000 7:21PM (EDT)

Like Eminem needs a sales bump.

Last week, while receiving an MTV Video Music Award for the year's best music clip, rapper Eminem facetiously thanked his critics, noting that every time they complained about his gory lyrics, he sold more records.

His latest album, "The Marshall Mathers LP," rests near the top of the Billboard charts, and has already sold 6.4 million copies, according to SoundScan.

And if what the rapper says is true, sales won't be slowing anytime soon.

Lynne Cheney, the wife of Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney and the former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, singled the white rapper out for ridicule during her testimony Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The committee was mulling a recent Federal Trade Commission report on the marketing of violent entertainment to children.

Cheney, a longtime activist in social conservative circles, told lawmakers, "With this latest outrage, it seems to me the time has come to get very specific, to name names, to say exactly what is wrong, and to ask individuals to be accountable. So here is a name: Marshall Mathers, the rapper otherwise known as Eminem."

Cheney chronicled the extraordinarily misogynistic and violent lyrics that drip from Eminem's latest record.

She also reported that she had made personal pleas to the two women who sit on the board of director of Seagram's, the parent company of Interscope Records, home of Eminem, imploring them to cut ties to the artist who can't stop rapping about killing his mom.

"I have asked [Michele] Hooper and [Marie-Josie] Kravis to ask their fellow board members," Cheney said, "how it is possible to reconcile corporate responsibility with the distribution of lyrics that are socially irresponsible.

"I fully understand your duty to shareholders," I wrote to them, "but can that duty be defined in purely economic terms? Aren't many of your shareholders women, who are demeaned by some of the music you distribute? Aren't many of them parents, who shudder at the debased and violent culture that Seagram is helping create?"

At press time, neither Seagram nor Interscope had any comment regarding Cheney's testimony.

The political crusade against violent and hateful music has ebbed and flowed over the past decade. Tipper Gore, the wife of Al Gore, in 1985 joined with Susan Baker, the wife of then Reagan Treasury Secretary James Baker, to attack violent imagery in heavy metal music.

Heights were hit in the early '90s when social critics like former Secretary of Education William Bennett, along with crusading rap foe C. Delores Tucker, pressured Warner Bros. to sever its ties with hardcore rapper Ice-T in the wake of his song "Cop Killer."

Then in September 1995, in the music industry equivalent of the Boston Red Sox trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, Time Warner sold its share of Interscope Records to the entertainment conglomerate MCA for $200 million, after being pressured about explicit lyrics on Interscope releases.

(MCA, now Seagram's Universal Music, got a deal: Eminem's new album alone has generated more than $60 million in domestic revenue for the company and continues to gross about $4 million a week.)

In 1998, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, now Al Gore's running mate, joined Bennett and Tucker in awarding the "Silver Sewer" to Seagram, for "outrageous contribution to the degradation and coarsening of our culture."

Recently, though, the wars have been surprisingly quiet, despite the fact that mainstream pop music -- including Eminem, rap-rockers Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, or Sisqo, of "Thong Song" fame -- has become increasingly raunchy.

Part of it has been that labels have learned how to stay out of politicians' way. For instance, during the '96 presidential campaign, when GOP candidate Sen. Bob Dole was trying to make pop culture an issue, Time Warner's Atlantic Records was readying the raunchy debut release by rapper L'il Kim (aka the "Queen Bee").

According to officials at the company, the label purposefully postponed the record's release date until Nov. 12, one week after the election, to make sure L'il Kim's "Hard Core" did not become a political lightning rod.

The practice puts the labels and rappers like Eminem, who act defiant on award shows, in the position of self-censoring their work for the more sensitive areas of the country.

Although artists singled out for ridicule by politicians in the past often received strong support from the music business, it's doubtful Eminem or his partners at Interscope will get a loud, vigorous defense within the record community. Don't expect to hear any passionate pleas of support for Eminem uttered from the stage of Radio City Music Hall on Thursday night when Sheryl Crow, Lenny Kravitz, Macy Gray, Don Henley and others perform at a fundraiser for Gore and Lieberman.

As a whole, the industry seems reluctant to support the Eminem phenomenon.

One major label senior vice president said he's increasingly sensitive to "the hate engendered in our children by the likes of Eminem" and is turned off by it. "I staunchly support freedom of speech, of course," he said, "but I am beginning to staunchly support some genuine corporate responsibility by the entertainment companies."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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