Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Eminem and The Cursing Psalms

by L.S.S

What is the message of Eminem's music? And, what can we learn from this message?

The message is not hard to find. His licentious lyrics reveal a longing for love. Based on his popularity, a lot of people feel the same way and are identifying. This longing for love is distorted, though, and plays itself out in an angry, venomous, bitter rage, ie. he is responding to his abuse and lack of love with sardonic lyrics, and hateful music.

Eminem's music has become a kind of cultural malediction: a call for justice against those who should have loved us, but instead deserted us, a call for cursing against those who should have respected us, but instead abused us.

The Bible has a genre called ‘cursing Psalms.” In it, weak and oppressed people cry out to God for justice. They especially call out for God to avenge injustice, and punish the evil person. If you compare the cursing psalm with the lyrics of Eminem you'll be surprised at the overlap.

An example, Psalm 69:19ff

You (God) know my reproach/...reproaches have broken my heart,/ so that I am in despair./ I looked for pity, but there was none,/and for comforters, but I found none./They gave me poison for food,/and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink./Let their own table before them become a snare;/ and when they are at peace let it become a trap./ Let their eyes be darkened so that they/ cannot see,/ and make their loins tremble continually./ Pour out your indignation upon them,/ and let your burning anger overtake them...

The cry of the psalmist, and Eminem = I have been abused by a wicked person: please someone bring justice.

 Eminem’s lyrics are essentially psalms that call for justice and vengeance for oppressed people: but without the certainty of a just God.

I take Eminem’s music as a cultural cursing psalm. He pronounces curses, particularly on his father and mother, for the absurdity of his childhood, and the lack of love. They are godless cursing Psalms though: in that justice is not left up to God, but Eminem exacts it through his words and threats.

Take the following, from the song Cleaning Out My Closet

Put yourself in my position. Just try to envision witnessin your Mama poppin’ prescription pills in the kitchen/ bitchin that someone’s always going through her purse and shit’s missin. Going through housing systems, victim of Munchausen’s syndrome/ My whole life I was made to believe I was sick when I wasn’t til I grew up, now I blew up. It makes you sick to your stomach doesn’t it.

How does he get justice and revenge? He tells us in the first part of the song, “Mama, Ima make you look so ridiculous now.”

A lot of kids sing these curses right along with Eminem: they can sing along with their hearts. This is ironically similar to the congregation of the Lord singing curses on their enemies. There is a sort of congregation gathered around Eminem, who feel the same pain he does. He is writing the music for cultural cursing raps. He is writing the cursing psalms for a whole generation of people who don't know such psalms are even in the Bible, and certainly don't know that they can rest in God's justice.

Eminem put it like this,
“I look at the way I came up and the things I was around and the places I was raised and shit, and I figure, that shit made me what I am. So if people perceive me to be an ****, the way I live made me an ****, what I been through has made me... (Music 365)."

From Sing for the Moment (0.00-125)

“... that’s why we sing for these kids who don’t have a thing/except for a dream and a rap magazine/ who post pin-up pictures on their walls all day long/ idolize their favorite rappers and know all their songs/ or for anyone who has ever been through stuff in they lives/ til they sit and they cry at night wishin they’d die/ til they throw on a rap record/ and they sit and they vibe/ we are nothin to you/ but we the stuff in they eyes”

C.S. Lewis commented on the cursing Psalms. He was a bit shocked to see the unchecked anger and cries for revenge that he found there, but he also saw that we could learn much my reading these Psalms. I would suggest that we read Eminem’s music in a similar way. I will quote Lewis, but apply his comments to Eminem’s music:

 “I found that these maledictions were in one way extremely interesting. For here we saw a feeling we all know only too well, Resentment, expressing itself with perfect freedom, without disguise, without self-consciousness, without shame – as few but children would express it today. (We are like the Eminem in our tendency) to chew over and over the cud of some injury, to dwell in a kind of self-torture on every circumstance that aggravates it, most of us can recognize something we met in ourselves. We are, after all, blood-brothers to this ferocious, self-pitying, barbaric man…”[1]

If we really listen to these Psalms for awhile, we will get a sinking feeling, “I know what it is like to be hurt like that, and I know what it is like to be angry.”
Lewis goes on,

“It seemed to me that, seeing in Eminem hatred undisguised, I saw also the natural result of injuring a human being. The word natural is here important. This result can be obliterated by grace…but just as the natural result of throwing a lighted match into a pile of shavings is to produce a fire…so the natural result of cheating a man, or “keeping him down” or neglecting him (or of abandoning him, or beating his head against a urinal, etc), is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what Eminem was when he wrote these vindictive lyrics. One may succeed in resisting the temptation; or he may not. If he fails, is he dies spiritually because of his hatred for me, how do I, who provoked that hatred, stand.”[2]

A valuable lesson we can learn from Eminem comes to this: we in positions of power must be careful. Whether parents, or authorities, we have the potential to do great damage to another human being if we abuse them.
“Eminem’s hatreds are the kind of thing that cruelty and injustice, by a sort of natural law, produce. Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence, almost his humanity, as well. Not all the victims go and hang themselves like Mr. Pilgrim, they may live and hate like Eminem.”[3]

If we see Eminem is this way we have a startling commentary on our culture: a warning signal, and a cry for help. So many are singing along with him, and their cry is essentially good (Justice!) even if their realization of that cry is essentially wicked (Revenge!).

“The culture police would have us believe that Eminem is telling kids, “Take drugs, drive drunk, kill, rape, maim,” but actual listening reveals a far more moral, almost poignant message: Parents do your *** job (Paul Slansky, NY Observer).

So, the cry of justice is good, but the realization of that cry in vengeance is wicked. This leaves us looking to a place to turn, and there's no doubt where that place is:

1 Peter 2:23: When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

GOD IS JUST: No accounts are left unsettled (Ecc. 12:13-14)

Eminem, for his part, is not only seeking revenge. He is trying to be a better father. He is trying to reverse the pattern his own father set:

"...thank God, I got a little girl and I am a responsible father, so not a lot of good I’d be to my daughter, layin in the bottom of the mud/ must be in my blood cus I don’t know how I do it/ all I know is that I don’t want to follow in the footsteps of my dad, cus I hate him so bad, the worst fear that I had was growing up to be like his fuckin’ ass/ man if you could understand why I am the way that I am... (From Say Goodbye to Hollywood)."

 “She is the most important thing to me. She is so beautiful and so smart. That is my girl man. Got a tattoo of her when she was 5…I love my little girl. That is the only girl I will ever love again (BBC Interview).”

 So, there is inconsistency in Eminem. He speaks of his love for his daughter, and how he will do anything for her -- how would he feel if someone replayed the lyrics of his date rape song (Guilty Conscience) after they picked up his daughter, and then used those lyrics as a rationale to rape Hailey? He says at the end of The Eminem Show, “I wouldn’t let Hailey listen to me either.” Earlier in the album he says, “If I could only use this power for good, I wouldn’t, not even if I could (Say What You Say).” 

I have to agree with critics that he has some power with words, but I also have to agree with him: he has not, on the whole, used this power for good. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't listen to what he is saying, though. If we listen closely, we will hear a cry eerily similar to the psalmist in the scriptures: a cry for justice.

[1] Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms, in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis. New York: Inspirational Press, 1994: 143.
[2] Ibid, 144.
[3] Ibid, 144.

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