Aggressively, searingly honest music about struggle
With 161 million views on Youtube and relentless radio play, Eminem and Rihanna’s collaboration “The Monster” is a certified hit. This is not the first time these two megastars have collaborated… they produced the song “Love the Way You Lie” for the album “Recovery” in 2010, a powerful but challenging video about a passionate, abusive relationship between two lovers. Both are controversial figures: Eminem’s lyrics are explicit, often intentionally offensive, and aggressively explore the artist’s struggles with drug abuse. His videos explore the easily ignored topics of domestic abuse, mental illness, and family strife. Rihanna is aggressively sexual in her public image, and wrapped in controversy surrounding an incident with R&B superstar Chris Brown, who assaulted her in 2009.
And herein lies a problem I continue to struggle with when listening to this kind of music… Does the supercharged sexuality, aggression, and occasionally misogyny of artists like Eminem, Chris Brown, and other rap and R&B starts make it inappropriate listening for impressionable children or at-risk youth?
Allow me to provide an initial answer. While Eminem is brutal, testosterone-fueled, offensive, and misogynistic, he is also honest. He doesn’t hide the monster inside him and pretend to be perfect… rather, his music delves deeply into the confusion and struggles of his life. He is a person who has survived and overcome significant struggle, and found success and celebrity for his unbelievable talent at rapping, but the success and accolades he has received do not seem to cool down his fiery heat and internal rage. He has continued to write and rap, through relapse after relapse, and controversy after controversy, and wonders constantly if he is providing a good example for his daughter and his fans. He is conflicted, but in his own way, he is extremely admirable.
The song “Monster” tells his story through figurative imagery. Eminem appears to sit in a psychiatrist’s chair, with Rihanna posing as the doctor. She plays a videotape of several of his videos, including words like DEATH, FAME, and ADDICTION as if to say, is this who you are? Is this who you want to be? The first line of the song is Rihanna’s unmistakable voice singing,
“I’m friends with the monster inside of my head, get along with the voices inside of my head.”
She is talking quite clearly about the experience of mental illness, and the struggle of a person who has wrestled with this indescribable challenge. Most of the video shows Eminem trapped in a caged elevator, moving up toward something that he can’t imagine or predict. In my favorite verse, he raps about whether or not he is providing a good example for children. We see him performing onstage with a pianist who appears to be Elton John, and embracing him post-performance. In the meantime, the lyrics continue…
“I ain’t hear to save the f___in’ children
But if one kid out of 100 million
Who are going through a struggle
Feels it and relates that’s great.”
With “The Monster”, Eminem and Rihanna explore the difficulty and cathartic release of self-knowledge borne in struggle, and for that, I deeply respect him. By the end of the video, his elevator reaches the roof, and he approaches a cage guarded by armed men. Wind sweeps across the rooftop as he approaches it. He steps up, looks inside, and he sees himself, trapped like an animal. It is a gothic and highly cliche piece of visual poetry, but effective.
To me, that is the genius of the song. It plays as a bit cliche, but nonetheless an affirmation to people who are conflicted, near-defeated, spurned, or frustrated, that there is hope for ultimate success. If a young gifted rapper from the basest poverty of 8 Mile in Detroit can ascend to the heights of show business, and perform with the irreplaceable likes of Rihanna and Elton John, then imagine what you can achieve! Eminem is popular not because he is an idealized, flawless picture of success, but because he is constantly and famously conflicted and difficult. He has a dark side, but he must cope with it, and he does. He does not aspire to save us all, but hopes, at the very least, that one conflicted soul out there will carry the inspiration of his example as a reason to keep fighting on.