EVERY GENERATION has its 8 Mile, the widely acclaimed new movie by rap star Eminem.
Mine was Purple Rain, a 1984 movie starring Prince in a thinly fictionalized version of himself. Before that, there were, among others, the Beatles (Help!) and Elvis (Love Me Tender). Hollywood knows how to make money off the latest youth culture phenom, whoever he (or, in Madonna's Desperately Seeking Susan, she) is.
As with Prince, the Beatles, and Elvis, one of the major goals of Eminem's movie from the corporate side—we're talking product here, not art—is to legitimate the young star in the eyes of outraged adults. From Sinatra to Elvis to Prince, the outrage was over sex. But nowadays, it seems impossible to push public sexuality to any kind of level that would outrage us (please, don't test that). Instead, Eminem added a new twist: public outrage over not sex, but the violent homophobia and especially misogyny in his music. Eminem's raps about wanting to kill "fags and lezzes" and beating or killing women from his mother to his girl "friend" aren't isolated missteps; his virulent anger is one of the defining qualities that rocketed him to superstardom.
8 Mile's plot is identical to Purple Rain: Young musician character in a grungy upper Midwest city first fails and then succeeds in musical battle against a hated rival musician. At least Eminem didn't hire Morris Day and the Time.
Along the way, the back story not only portrays the Prince/Eminem character as likable, but the antithesis of what they're notorious for; Purple Rain took pains to show Prince's innocent courtship. Such scenes served to reassure new audiences, familiar only with Prince's reputation, that he really didn't spend all day every day doing the beastie with whatever warm flesh was nearby. And, of course, it reassured us that said warm flesh really found him quite attractive. (And Purple Rain's babe—the forgettable Appollonia—wasn't exactly cast for her singing ability, either.)
In 8 Mile, similarly, we learn that Eminem really is a nice guy. He defends a gay friend from taunting; his behavior with women is exemplary. He even suffers nobly with a crazy mother—suggesting, not too subtly, not only where the rage in Eminem's music might come from but also that it might be justified. Eminem insists that his misogynistic, homophobic lyrics are stories and characters, and that he doesn't really feel that way; 8 Mile is, among other things, his case for that claim. Its theme song would probably start, "I never meant to hurt nobody . . . ," except that Prince already did it in Purple Rain's title song.
As it happens, both pop music and the musicians themselves are more salable when they are believed "authentic." We very much want to believe both Eminem's lyrics and his on-screen character, but at least one cannot be true—either the music he made as a struggling, unknown musician, or the movie character he portrays now that he's an industry unto himself.
I wrote, sang, and played in bands for years, and what I and almost every other unknown musician I knew did was to start by writing about what we felt and knew best, and to work out from there. But in the end, intent doesn't matter; what matters is what hundreds of millions of teens and young adults are hearing, memorizing, and reciting and dancing, partying, and, er, romancing to. To that end, no matter how good the music and its craftsmanship (and Eminem is a very, very good songwriter), nothing redeems the consistently hateful images in Eminem's music. Nothing.
It's hard to imagine a movie like 8 Mile could be made about a music act like, say, Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine were they popular enough to warrant a movie. It's not enough to be notorious or outrageous; you must be notorious or outrageous in such a way as to be useful to people with far more money and power than you have. Madison Avenue loved sex, even as Elvis-era moralists fumed. Rage or PE couldn't get the 8 Mile treatment if they wanted it. Fighting the power isn't useful to power; killing fags and hoes, on the other hand, works just fine.
Pop culture is a tricky balance between validating things people already feel and relate to and selling, selling, selling. Plenty of young men—and more than a few women—relate to Eminem's lyrics. But unless they, and the slick image polishing of 8 Mile, are challenged, his lyrics will continue to do a disturbing amount of selling—and teaching.