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Eminem, art, and the literal interpretation of lyrics

Every now and then I go flicking through my music collection and listen to something I’ve not listened to in a while. One of the most common artists to get revisited is Eminem. I love him. Always have. I can remember singing along to ‘My Name Is’ while driving home on the school bus. When The Marshall Mathers LP was released, I had to beg my mother to buy it for me – Australia tends to be very strict with things like age advisories. It was the first ‘explicit content’ album I managed to get my hands on (I did previously own Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, but it only says ‘fuck’ once, so I hardly think that counts).

I admit that after 8 Mile (which I loved, by the way), I stopped following his career and output as closely as I once had. I tended to know the big singles, but didn’t buy the albums. Recently, however, I’ve gone back and explored his back catalogue (I love you Spotify Premium!). There has been so much Eminem playing in my house recently that I think my boyfriend is completely sick of it. Unfortunately for him, I’ve discovered just how much I’ve missed having Eminem in my life over the last year or two and now I just can’t get enough.

Eminem-RapListening to his latest album, The Marshall Mathers LP 2, I have noticed a theme in his lyrics (not exactly something hidden – more that I had never bothered to actually really listen to what he was saying): literal misinterpretation of his lyrics and intent. There’s a general frustration present on all his albums since The Slim Shady LP discussing the general public’s seeming willful misunderstanding of him, his message, and what he is trying to achieve with his music. Some might say that maybe he needs to get a new topic for his rapping rants, but I say the man’s got a point.

Eminem works with multiple rapping ‘personas’. Slim Shady is the most famous (and most often used) –  a character who loved violence and drugs, singing about rape, murder, self-harm, mental illness, etc. He uses this persona as a kind of shock tactic – it allows him to be as bitter and angry as he wants, throwing light on all kinds of injustice in the world. Over the years, he has done this again and again, and pointed out each time that he is *not* condoning violence or misogyny, drug taking, or self-harm. He is using art to explore issues relevant to the time, just as any other artist might do. So why does everyone insist on taking Eminem literally?

What is art?

This is a question for the philosophers. What makes art? I love the Red Dwarf episode, ‘Legion’ where Rimmer is trying to impress Legion with his artistic eye and mistakenly calls out a light switch as abstract art. But the point is this: sometimes what is given the label of ‘art’ and what isn’t seems altogether arbitrary. I might think that 50 Shades of Grey is a pile of crap, but it is a novel. So is it art? As much as it pains me to say so, yes, I think it is. It isn’t good art, but it is art.

eminem-rap-god-video-adwiinWhen we get into the realm of ‘autobiographical’ or ‘semi-autobiographical’ content, the question of art gets even blurrier. Is a reflection on an event that happened art? Does it depend on the way that information is presented? If so, where’s the line? Is it art if I write an article account of my day out at a theme park? What if I wrote it in the form of villanelle? What if I wrote a song about it?

And what is art allowed to say and do? Isn’t art in existence to allow people to explore issues, ideas, trains of thought. You can write about something as an exploration of what it might be like without ever intending to do it – otherwise, Stephen King would be the most horrific, terrifying serial killer to have ever lived. If King, or any other horror or mystery writer were to be interpreted as wishing to do the things they have their villains do… well, firstly that would be ludicrous, and secondly, why wouldn’t they be behind bars already? So why, then, when Eminem makes a passing reference to killing the US president in a song does the CIA respond by investigating it as a serious threat to national security? Did they do the same to the makers of Air Force One or White House Down or any other ridiculously overblown American action film? So why do it to Eminem?

Rap music is art. Whether you are a fan of the musical genre or not.

The literal and the literary

Literary techniques are the toolkits of any writer, be they journalists, poets, novelists, bloggers, publicists, songwriters, or advertising execs. Rhetorical and figurative language are some of the most important aspects of that toolkit, including: metaphor, simile, metonymy, synecdoche, personification, irony, hyperbole, litotes, and periphrasis – among others. A sub-feature of figurative language is that of ‘figures of sound’, mostly concerning repeated sounds, such as alliteration, assonance, consonance (Note: These lists are taken from the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms).


These figures of speech are used to help the artist or writer make a point. For instance, I might say that tonight I’m going to drink the bar out of alcohol. This is not something anyone should take literally – my point would be that I was planning on going out and drinking a lot. Ok, so I realize we are getting a bit bogged down in full on literary criticism now which might be a bit much for something that started off simply talking about the injustice of people taking Eminem’s lyrics literally, so how I about I get back on track…

The point of this is: in creating art (using words/language), artists use figurative language to explore their ideas. Figurative language means just that – figurative. NOT literal. When Eminem raps about killing someone, for instance, he is not saying that he is actually going to go out and kill them. In a number of his songs, he calls out the fact that he is being figurative and that his work shouldn’t be taken literally. And he apparently needs to keep repeating it until you morons get it through your thick skulls!

Just_Lose_ItIn ‘Just lose it’, Eminem raps, ‘that’s not a stab at Michael / That’s just a metaphor / I’m just psycho’. Long before that, in ‘Stan’, Eminem acts out the raved rantings of a crazed fan: ‘But what’s this shit you said about you like to cut your wrists too? / I say that shit just clowning dogg, / c’mon – how fucked up is you?’ On the same album, in ‘Who Knew’, he calls out the hypocrisy of parents blaming their kids bad behavior on him and ends the final verse with the perfect encapsulation of this feeling: ‘I just said it – I ain’t know if you’d do it or not.’ From The Eminem Show, ‘Sing for the Moment’ contains one of my favourite lines about this hypocrisy: ‘hey say music can alter moods and talk to you / Well can it load a gun up for you , and cock it too / Well if it can, then the next time you assault a dude / Just tell the judge it was my fault and I’ll get sued.’

Fifteen years after The Slim Shady LP was first released, Eminem is still talking about how people need to stop taking him literally. Some might say that he should stop being such a provocative rapper, that he should learn to stop saying things that could cause such controversy. I disagree, Eminem continues to push boundaries, and so he should. It’s art. He is using figurative language to explore the bullshit in this world and he has ever right to – hell, he needs to – for the benefit of everyone.

Courting controversy

Eminem isn’t the first artist to cause such controversy. Plenty of novels in the literary canon have caused similar outrages. But do you really think that Nabakov’s Lolita is an argument *for* pedophilia simply because the narrator and protagonist is a pedophile? And what about the Harry Potter series? Schools and governments all over the world tried to ban it for inciting witchcraft. Seriously?! Use your brain people. Just because Eminem is using rap to explore ideas does not make them literal – rap has just as much artistic merit as a novel, or sculpture, or poem. Let artists explore this world. It’s the only way we will ever expand our minds.


About Megan Leigh

Writer and editor of Pop Verse. Co-host of Breaking the Glass Slipper. My special interests include publishing, creative writing, and geekery.


  1. Great post! You hit the nail on the head.

  2. Amen!! If anyone doubts Eminem as an artist or “poet” with an amazing ability to use figurative and metaphorical language, well then, they need to read the lyrics to “Cinderella Man” from his Recovery album. Amazing piece of art! I still like to listen to it over and over to figure out what it all means.

  3. P.S. He also uses plenty of allegory–especially in Relapse. Lots of classic good vs. evil; God vs. the devil.

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