Stuck in a nightmare

We needed Eminem to shatter a stagnant pop culture, says Bob Guccione Jr - but can an iconoclast continue for ever?
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If Eminem didn't exist, we'd have to invent him. And to a degree, we have. The person may be real, but the figure that is Eminem, who is part outlaw, part record-industry saviour, is a mountain-high papier-mâché god tens of millions of hands have helped to build. And what young person, especially a teenager, hasn't at one time felt like they were marooned on another planet, alone in a loveless void, clinging to the gossamers of sanity expressed in a bodiless voice that miraculously understands, consoles and soothes?

All successful pop music is the product of the few people who make it and the millions who pull it to themselves and shape it to their own particular desires. And collectively we needed Eminem to shatter our musical lethargy and to stir the stagnant pond of contemporary pop culture, so much of which is blandly mass-produced to be compatible with corporate sponsorship. But the Redeemer came cloaked in the aura of a devil, with the seductive charisma of an antichrist.

Except for a very few people who know him personally, the rest of us know him only as a projection, as we imagine him from what we hear in his lurid and violent songs or as we see him in his various identities in his videos. We watch him at the MTV awards, slumped in his seat, oddly subdued in a T-shirt and glasses, looking both bored and nervously alert, or spurting and convulsing on stage, stabbing at ghosts and screaming profanities at them. We have a collage image of him from photography: his round face that looks like a nun's when he wears a bandana on his forehead and his sweatshirt-hood up; his fit, tattooed body that makes him look menacing and vulnerable, precocious and already weary.

By all laws of statistical probability, we should never have heard of Marshall Bruce Mathers III. His parents were musicians, loosely and briefly, blessed with just enough talent to perform other people's songs in hotel lobbies across the American Midwest. Their band was ironically named Daddy Warbucks, after the character in the musical Annie who adopts and looks after the titular orphan, a stroke of beneficence Marshall must have wished for throughout his entire childhood. They married when Debbie was 15 and her husband, whose name is generally not known or at least not spoken, was 22. Within two years Marshall was born, and soon afterward the couple split up. Marshall's father, whom he never knew, moved to California. As a teenager, Marshall tried to contact him, but his letters were returned unread. When Marshall metamorphosed from his white-trash chrysalis into the multimillionaire, platinum-selling rap star Eminem, his father apparently tried to reconnect, which Eminem rebuffed.

Eminem grabs you. There's an abrasiveness and urgency in his voice that's disturbing and pleasurable, like scratching yourself. He swirls language around in his mouth and spits it out in elegant streams, like a demented wine-taster who can't stop himself.

It's trite to say that an artist exploded, but in Eminem's case it's eerily appropriate, not just to describe his transformation from broke, dissed, white rap-wannabe to the biggest musical star on Earth but also the jarring way he tore like shrapnel into the soft flesh of America's smug self-image. In 1997, after finishing second at the Rap Olympics in Los Angeles, his demo tape, The Slim Shady EP, found its way to Dr Dre, the don of rap producers, who signed him. He worked on several Dre projects before a year later releasing his major label debut, the Dre-produced Slim Shady LP. It became the biggest-selling rap record ever at the time.

Even by hip hop's jaded standards, Eminem's raps were misogynistic, violent and homophobic. Surprisingly, they weren't racist, perhaps because he may see himself as a black man who has no problems with white people. But he filled that space with what must be a hip-hop first: on "Kill You", he cheerfully sings about raping his mother.

As if the invention of Eminem hadn't been enough to exorcise the wretched reality of his life, Marshall Mathers' alter ego had created an alter ego, Slim Shady, his true dark side. Eminem thought of him, fittingly enough, on the toilet, and argued it was Shady, his fictional doppelganger, who hated gays, wanted to drug and rape an underage girl and urged a cuckold to kill his unfaithful wife and her lover, while verbally bitch-slapping Dre for being hesitant.

Gay activist groups and church groups called for his music to be pulled from stores and banned from airplay, and for him not to be allowed to perform at the Grammys or the MTV Awards. The result of this furore was predictable: more sales of the CD and exponential expansion of his fame. His follow-up release, The Marshall Mathers LP, sold 18 million copies worldwide and was nominated for the Record of the Year Grammy. It didn't win - the slightly less controversial Steely Dan did - but Eminem won Best Solo Rap Performance and Best Rap Album and, in an attempt to defuse his homophobic stigma, he performed his hit "Stan" with Elton John at the awards ceremony.

The Eminem Show, released in 2002, further fuelled the fires of outrage impotently burning at the foot of the monolith Eminem had become. The album covered his incredibly turbulent year in which he was twice arrested on gun and assault charges (he was given suspended sentences), was sued by his mother (the case was settled for $1,600) and divorced his wife. It's a brilliant album and the oral record of his car crash of a life at the time. On one track, he murders his wife and has his daughter help him dispose of the body. His real daughter, Hailie, sings her part on the track. In an impromptu take-your-daughter-to-work day, Eminem snuck her into the studio, telling her mother he was taking her to Chuck E Cheese, a fast-food chain restaurant.

Normally, rap stars have magnesium-flare-like careers, suddenly lit, quickly over. This is because a) there are no love songs and b) most rap is in some way or other the music of revolutions, and revolutions are either won or lost; they don't go on for ever. Rappers flame out as if gunned down in one of their own cop-killer fantasies. Sadly, they then become fashion designers.

Eminem is a mischievous whirling dervish, wrestling real and imagined demons side by side. We can't witness the struggle but we see the effects, like watching someone having a nightmare. He has acknowledged that he can't rap for ever and has said he eventually wants to be an impresario like Dre. He has hinted that he'd be open to acting again. He has given no indication that he has any interest in starting a clothing line.

At least he's showing no signs of mellowing: as he releases his fourth album, Encore, he's already embroiled in a catfight with Michael Jackson, having depicted him as a paedophile in the album's first single and video "Just Lose It", and a political battle with President Bush, unflatteringly portrayed in "Mosh", another video the Republicans didn't want aired. Or maybe he's just stuck in his nightmare, still twisting in his sleep, locked in an impossible battle for his soul with the dark forces that drive him, while we watch, riveted.