Love at first expletive for Em and the lads

Eminem | Manchester Arena
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The Independent Culture

Getting straight to the point, Eminem is an electrifying performer - a truly mesmeric presence on stage who can play a cavernous arena with the same intimate intensity that a glam thrash group like the New York Dolls would have played a lower East Side cellar. More mischievous than menacing, he minces and prowls along the length of the stage, each foot-fall choreographed with balletic precision to keep in time with the dandified swearing which holds his whole delivery together. In many ways, he comes across like a classic American vaudevillian entertainer - think Jerry Lewis or Groucho Marx - only swapping the bullet-point of the wisecrack for a scatter-gun rap which affirms him as the latest embodiment of nihilism.

Getting straight to the point, Eminem is an electrifying performer - a truly mesmeric presence on stage who can play a cavernous arena with the same intimate intensity that a glam thrash group like the New York Dolls would have played a lower East Side cellar. More mischievous than menacing, he minces and prowls along the length of the stage, each foot-fall choreographed with balletic precision to keep in time with the dandified swearing which holds his whole delivery together. In many ways, he comes across like a classic American vaudevillian entertainer - think Jerry Lewis or Groucho Marx - only swapping the bullet-point of the wisecrack for a scatter-gun rap which affirms him as the latest embodiment of nihilism.

From the very beginning, Eminem, his group of five black rappers, D 12, and his special guests X-zibit seemed to get on very well with Manchester; on both sides, in fact, it was love at first expletive. Somewhere en route, Eminem et al had got wind of the fact that Manchester is a poorer city than London, a former industrial centre (like Eminem's home town of Detroit), and this singled out the capacity crowd - who were almost entirely white, and predominantly male - for the highest compliment X-zibit could pay: "We've been round the whole of Europe, and we hear things. Like this is the real ghetto; like Manchester is the motherf--kin' 'hood."

The day before Eminem's sell-out show at the Manchester Evening News Arena, rumours about "the bad boy of rap" had been ricocheting around the city like bullets off the concourse of a Salford service station. Rumour number one had the homophobic star staying in the Malmaison hotel - perilously close to the "gay village" district of the city. Rumour number two had Eminem actually spotted in Canal Street (where all the gay bars are) before Rumour number three (which turned out to be a fact) had him checking out of Malmaison before he'd even arrived. But it all added fizz to the occasion, and the point was - as the Manchester Evening News bulletin billboard displayed in flashing orange letters: "Extra security drafted in for Eminem show."

While we hate Eminem for his misogyny and homophobia, he is a truly disruptive presence in the format-dominated world of corporate controlled, branded popular culture. On the day that Pepsi Cola announced that they're paying Britney Spears $65 million to plug their product, there's an official Eminem t-shirt on sale at his concert bearing the simple statement: "Britney Swallows". The fact that Posh and Becks, the ultimate neo-conservative couple, stalked out of his Manchester concert (not failing to give a few interviews as to why) simply pointed up the way in which the sheer scale of Eminem's notoriety is managing to puncture the self-satisfaction of a culture fixated on vacuous celebrity.

In this much, Eminem takes his place - in terms of his ability to shock - more as a Johnny Rotten than a Marilyn Manson. At the climax of the show, to the nursery rhyme Gothic backing track to "My Name Is..." Eminem's line, "There's a million more who dress like me, talk like me and jus' don't give a f--k like me" has the same power - as a rallying cry - that you heard at a Sex Pistols concert in Rotten's drawn-out snarl, "And we don't care..."

Having won the crowd over before he set foot on the stage, Eminem's entrance was built up through the showing of a slasher-style movie, in which two kids are attempting to break into a house. The house turns out to be Eminem's house, and suddenly, wham, there's the man himself - a hillbilly weirdo in denim dungarees and face mask, standing on the porch of a real shotgun shack (rebuilt on the stage) and wielding a chainsaw. "This is the house on the cover of my album," he announced, "this is the house I lived in when I was 13-years-old. So I thought, f--k it, I'll bring my house to Manchester..."

Inside the house are D-12, the five formidable rappers who circle and weave around Eminem like the rout of Comus, dressed in killer tops with skulls and crossbones on them, trousers so baggy they barely stay up, and in one case bright yellow firefighting boots. Once again, there is a whiff of pure punk: the point where style rides the back curve of the ridiculous, and thus achieves a whole new sense of glamour.

From this point on, 15,000 people were caught up by the sheer force of Eminem's personality - or is it his persona? A massively accomplished writer, Eminem's performance played with characters based on himself, in a way which had a deeply moral centre: in virtually every song you were placed in a moral dilemma, from a pantomime of hatred about his mother's stash of drink to a question and answer session with the crowd about why, "as a drug addict" he felt at home with them. In this much, should you admire the verve and artistry of his delivery, and regard his revolting statements about gays and women as somehow necessary aspects of his mission to oppose social order?

In a scene which could have been straight out of Alice Cooper's Killer tour of 30 years ago, Eminem puts himself in the electric chair; ultimately the psychology of his performance seems to demand that he becomes his own executioner. When Cooper did it, the execution was pure pantomime, but when Eminem pulls the switch you could find yourself thinking of the sexually ambiguous hillbilly killers at the heart of Capote's In Cold Blood.

Throughout the show, based on his Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem's attitude comes across as a determined nihilism towards a life which has been loaded against him. At one point in the show, he announced that his "lawyers backstage" had told him that if he made any reference on stage to his pending (and much publicised) court case in the US, relating to an assault charge, then anything he said could be used against him. "So I just wanna say, I pistol-whipped this motherf--ker, right?"

Reported as having attempted suicide, and to be a self-cutter, Eminem might almost be trying to get himself imprisoned - some act of self-punishment designed to punish the mother he supposedly hates. But when the crowd throw up a mighty cheer at his apparent confession, you are left to wonder whether this is a real hate rally, and therefore deeply ugly, or an act of identification with a star who his simply saying "everything sucks" to a vast group of people who agree with him. In rock and pop, this is a venerable tradition. Soon, there's a crowd sing-a-long, conducted by Eminem: "If you don't give a f--k like I don't give a f--k, then make some motherf--kin' noise."

As Eminem has become a news story, he has also, clearly, become a guru to his fans. He comes across as a Dylan of the Dark Side, a poet in the Rimbaudian sense of not giving a f--k if people compare him to Dylan or Rimbaud. As a genuine wrecker of civilisation, he'll probably be no more successful than the Who were in 1964 or the Sex Pistols in 1976. But he is a genius as a performer, and a thorn in the side of an increasingly flabby music scene.

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