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THE GRAMMY AWARDS | COMMENTARY

'Stan' Carries the Night

The highly anticipated Eminem-Elton John duet about an obsessed fan lived up to its hype.

February 22, 2001|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Thank goodness Eminem and Elton John gave us something more revealing at the Grammy Awards ceremony Wednesday than Jennifer Lopez's eye-opening dress, last year's chief water cooler topic.

Even though Eminem failed to capture the prestigious best album award, the controversial rapper's appearance with pop icon John brought a touch of activism to an industry showcase where the stakes are normally no higher than fans rooting for their favorite acts.

This may be the first time on the Grammy telecast that a performance has been more awaited than the name of the best album winner.

The show's producers knew they had a good thing. They held the Eminem-John duet until the final moments of the three-hour ceremony--and plugged it during every commercial break.

When the pair finally arrived for their performance of "Stan," a song about an obsessed fan, they lived up to all expectations. It was a show-stopping demonstration of Eminem's rapping and storytelling skills.

For the television audience, Eminem even bowed to prime-time TV sensibilities by softening some of his frequently crude language. But the move didn't strip the song of any of its power. At the end of the number, John, who sang the song's chorus, gave the rapper a hug before raising Eminem's arm in victory.

And this was clearly a moment of victory--even though Steely Dan's "Two Against Nature" won the best album award moments later. The Grammy screening committee was bold enough to nominate Eminem for best album, but the 12,000 Grammy voters reverted to the same timid line that has been typical of the industry award competition for 43 years.

Given the X-rated content in Eminem's music, there was, in retrospect, no way the album was going to get the approval of the Grammy voters. Eminem picked up three Grammys in the rap categories, where only a fraction of the recording academy votes, but "The Marshall Mathers LP" is such a volatile album that it even divided usually accepting critics.

Though easily the most striking album of the year, "Mathers" only finished fourth in the Village Voice's poll of more than 200 U.S. pop critics who chose the best album of 2000. (Steely Dan's album finished No. 19 in the same poll.)

Critics who found Eminem's album too ugly and hateful had said a victory by Eminem for best album would be a stain on the legacy of the Grammys. In truth, the loss by Eminem is a stain.

Pop music is most vital when it challenges prevailing attitudes--most notably in the '60s when civil rights and antiwar crusades were hallmarks of many of the most compelling artists.

Rap has been a forum for pop debate since its arrival in the '80s, frequently addressing issues of police brutality and apathy toward other social issues in enlightening ways. But the music, too, has often had an ugly macho undercurrent, including traces of homophobia.

It's naive to think that anti-gay bias, where it appears, isn't a reflection of deeper rooted social attitudes--especially in a country where adult church groups and youth organizations look at homosexual behavior as a sickness.

Eminem's music in his "Marshall Mathers" album can be seen as an attack on gays when taken out of context--as it frequently has been by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. He talks about killing gays and lesbians, but the character in the album is one disturbed dude who talks about attacking virtually everyone. But Eminem does not present these actions as a recommended code of behavior.

In "Stan," a crazed fan writes to his hero, outlining all the things he does because the character in Eminem's raps does them--from overdosing on downers to killing his pregnant girlfriend. At the end of the song, Eminem tells the fan to calm down, advising that his behavior on the record is just "clownin'." Eminem even suggests Stan get counseling.

Instead of attacking Eminem and John as irresponsible for working together on the show, GLAAD ought to give them an award. The pair brought bigotry out of the closet in pop music.

Eminem's music is dark and frequently ugly, but it's so exaggerated in most places that young people see the humor in it. It's the angry outcry of a person so mad at the world that he loses all sense of reason.

GLAAD distorts the music when it takes certain lines out of context, but the organization's campaign against Eminem will certainly help the cause of tolerance in this country.

The important thing for parents to realize is that Eminem is in the tradition of such revolutionary, cutting-edge pop predecessors as Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Doors, and adults shouldn't look at youngsters who like the music as monsters or deviants. The music is funny and fictional and powerful.

Youngsters need to be counseled in areas of prejudice and my guess is the issue wasn't too high on most parents' agendas--until now. Parents devote all their available time to worrying about such matters as education and drugs and sex. After all this debate on Eminem, many sensitive parents, whose youngsters have bought 8 million copies of the album, might feel the need to add sexual discrimination to their list of concerns.

By going on television with a noted gay artist, Eminem takes the risk of being considered soft in the macho world of rap. At the same time, John braved the arrows of gay activists who called him a traitor for supporting Eminem.

By performing together, both Eminem and John lived up to the challenge of artists. Too bad the academy voters, in failing to give Eminem the best album award, didn't live up to their challenge of honoring true excellence.

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