"Eminem vs. Gen Z" is Just the Latest Media Spectacle in the Manufactured Culture War
Updated: Apr 29
NOTE: This article was written in March 2021.
Controversial rapper Eminem is once again embroiled in a controversy, with his latest track “Tone Deaf” appearing to fire back at a TikTok campaign to “cancel” him that has grown in visibility over the last few weeks.
The campaign itself originated around the rapper’s—whose real name is Marshall Mathers—2009 track “Love the Way You Lie”, a collaboration with pop superstar Rihanna. TikTok-ers singled out the line “If she ever tries to fucking leave again/ I’ma tie her/ To the bed and set this house on fire“ as their objection to the artist. Fans of Em jumped to his defence, decrying “cancel culture” and arguing for his status as an untouchable legend of hip-hop.
The media—from gossip blogs to music publications—unsurprisingly jumped on this story and milked it for all it was worth. As rap beefs go, “Eminem vs. An Entire Generation of Humans” is pretty compelling. Of course, what the media terms “Generation Z” (in cases like this, a bunch of teenagers on TikTok) is not a homogenous hivemind sharing the same opinion. Neither are “millennials”, who Em’s defenders were broadly characterised as. This story has blown up to be not just a debate over an artist’s legacy, but—like avocado toast, side partings, and skinny jeans—an era-defining generational conflict.
Of course, this isn’t the first time Eminem has had run-ins with so-called “cancel culture”—much of his early material referred directly to the well-publicised moral panic over his music. While some of the attacks on him came from the broader political left, due to his explicit lyrical depictions of violence against women and LGBT people, most came from the “family values”-oriented social conservatism of the “boomer” generation. This does suggest some correlation between moral/political values and generations, although it dissolves the myths that “cancel culture” is a recent trend or an invention of the left (which the division-stoking media likes to characterise all of Gen Z as a representation of).
Perhaps there is something to be said about generational differences. Perhaps being caught on the borderline between these two generations myself has caused my fence-sitting, “both sides”-ism on this particular issue. Born in 1995, I’m too young to remember the “heyday” of Eminem as an unstoppable cultural force/public enemy no. 1 around the turn of the century, yet old enough to have been aware of him long before the 2009 single that ignited the current controversy.
In the example of the self-styled Rap God, his repertoire varies from engagingly provocative to genuinely distasteful, and the exact position of the line that separates the two will vary based on the listener’s individual perspectives and experiences.
However, the fact that so much of this content is performed by his persona/alter ego Slim Shady has to be considered—the age-old debate of “does violent media cause real-life violence” comes into play here. Millennials raised on a diet of Grand Theft Auto are well aware that the answer is usually a firm “no”, and this view seems to be mostly shared by Gen Z when it comes to video games, if not music. The provocative persona of Slim Shady is every bit as cartoonish as a GTA character, so claims of his music causing real-life violence would seem to carry a heavy burden of proof.
Although the Slim Shady character isn’t used on “Love the Way You Lie”, it still seems most likely that the words themselves are from the perspective of characters, rather than the real personalities of Eminem and collaborator Rihanna. The fact that the track’s release came shortly after the latter’s highly publicised experience as a victim of domestic violence makes the track’s lyrical content an apparent reference to this exact issue. The track is certainly an odd choice to trigger a “cancellation”, considering the fact that Eminem had previously performed much more explicit and disturbing lines from the perspective of an abuser, and in a way that was both closer to his real-life experiences and more difficult to defend.
Domestic violence and abuse affect over 2 million adults a year in the UK, and are evidently topics that need to be handled very carefully in art. There is a difference between art that unflinchingly exposes ugly and uncomfortable aspects of society and art that presents these topics as cheap titillation. Unlike conservative Middle America’s moral panics and calls for censorship, I think that Gen Z’s criticism is a mostly well-meaning attempt to advocate for the downtrodden rather than to preserve a patriarchal system.
However, I also believe that mistakenly conflating all depictions of violence with the promotion of violence could result in art becoming unnecessarily sanitised and puritanical. Different pieces of art are intended for different contexts—you can enjoy any of Nick Cave’s murder ballads at home without demanding the right to blast them out them at a public memorial service while decrying anyone who objects as a “woke snowflake” trying to “cancel” you.
This nuance is also lost on many of the artists and media figures who come under attack. Eminem’s latest response to attempts to “cancel” him are just as narrow-minded, with his latest track being only marginally less embarrassing than those of rappers like Tom MacDonald whose responses to any criticism merely boil down to a banal “fuck the haters” mentality that is commodified for their own grift.
The Eminem vs. Gen Z beef is just the latest non-event being publicised for clickbait. We have seen this over and over again—a cynical journalist scours Twitter or TikTok to find a half-formed teenage opinion, shares it with an audience of reactionaries desperate for their next dose of daily outrage, and the cycle of outrage starts all over again.
Every side of what could be an enlightening and productive conversation is simply turned into a strawman in a never-ending media spectacle, where people are divided into generational labels and political ideologies that are played off against each other like football teams for the sake of a never-ending conflict that can be endlessly mined for media content. This “culture war” is rarely reported on in an attempt to seriously consider viewpoints and find conclusions or solutions, but instead to be endlessly commodified and recycled. Plenty of money is made for a lot of people, but very little is learned by anyone.
Am I going to enjoy the bouncy bassline and infectious hook of “The Real Slim Shady” next time it comes on at a party? I expect so. Are there also conversations worth having about the normalisation of domestic violence in media, the divisions between satire and glamourisation, and the pedestals we place artists on? Also yes. What is evident, though, is that these discussions are more complex than simply a clash of two distinct generations.
Perhaps we shouldn’t “cancel” these artists, but we shouldn’t cancel these conversations either.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence or abuse, there are plenty of organisations and services that can help you.