Sunday, August 16, 2009

Pop Culture and Philosophy vol. 4: Slim Shady, Dawg Philosopher

"Eminem is better than the best," writes BET vp (music and talent) Stephen Hill. "In his own way, he is the best lyricist, alliterator and enunciator there is in hip hop music. In terms of rapping about how other disenfranchised people feel, there is no one better than Eminem."

Much of Eminem's music captures the cynicism with which many such disenfranchised people have begun to view the world. To people who cannot meet what so-called societal elites deem to be the expectations of society, cynicism often emerges as a natural defense mechanism.

Eminem's music deeply embraces that cynicism, and often hands it down as an indictment of these societal expectations.

Despite it's extremely bad rap, cynicism's ancient Greek origins reveal a deeply philosophical nature to true cynicism. Ancient Greek cynics were branded as dog-like kynikos. These were individuals who offended the societal elites of their day by speaking truth to power. The ancient Greeks saw dogs as disobedient, corrupt, and indecent individuals. The implicit accusation against the kynikos was that they were disloyal to Greece.

The kynikos lived to provoke outrage. They often sought to reveal hidden dilemmas within well-accepted traditions and social norms. As such, if the kynikos were traitors to ancient Greece in any form, it was through their philosophical challenges to the mainstream Greek culture of the day. It's because of their philosophical work that the kynikos are also known as dog philosophers.

Diogenes of Sinope has been hailed by many as the prototypical dog philosopher. Diogenes is perhaps most famed for winning the favour of Alexander the Great not by submitting to the great Greek conqueror, but by speaking truth to his power.

Humour was known to be a favoured tactic of the kynikos. It was often their preferred tactic of provoking outrage.

More than 2000 years after Digoenes, Eminem has emerged as the modern-day prototype of a dog philosopher.

Humour has been the strong point of Eminem's music.

When he burst on to the music scene in 1999 with "My Name Is", the message of the song was implicit: that the world is a fucked up place, and that traditional values have done little or nothing to avert this:

The outrageous and (delightfully) obscene content of Eminem's first major release, The Slim Shady LP succeeded in provoking outrage. The criticisms of Eminem's music ranged from GLAAD insisting that the album encouraged hatred and violence against homosexuals to Tipper Gore and Lynne Cheney eventually naming him before a Senate committee.

Eminem responded to these kinds of criticisms with the song "Criminal":

In concert, Eminem donned a prison outfit to embody his indictment of his critics -- because the world has become fucked-up despite the influence of their social values, criminalizing people like Eminem for writing music about how fucked up the world is, and demonizing them for finding humour in it does nothing to solve the problem.

As with Diogenes, the outrage provoked is a symptom. It most certainly is not the cure.

In "White America", Eminem's indictment of American society reaches its most grandiose peak:

In "White America", Eminem makes his response to his critics much more clear: there are serious problems in the world -- in the video, topics such as racism, school violence and teen drug use are addressed -- yet time and energy that could be better used addressing those problems are often being used to attempt to silence those who speak out about these problems.

But like with any good dog philosopher, the ultimate goal for Eminem is not to accrue personal glory, but rather to get the message out. Far from reveling in it, Eminem has often demonstrated a distinct discomfort with his fame -- something Steve Berman mocks in a skit on Eminem's most recent release, Relapse.

Eminem best exhibits his discomfort with this fame in "Toy Soldiers", a song he wrote about people being killed over hip hop:

Eminem clearly recognizes that, for rappers as with dog philosophers, fame can be a catch .22. Being famous clearly makes it easier to disseminate a message. However, at the same time that fame can obscure the message, making it harder to separate the intended message from the controversy, just as some find it difficult to separate hip hop from the violence that has embroiled it over the past 20 years.

Regardless of whatever consequences his fame has had for his message, Eminem has firmly established his bona fides as not only one of the greatest rappers of all time, but as perhaps the greatest dog philosopher -- or dawg philosopher -- hip hop has ever produced.

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