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Sonic Spirituality: Meditations on Eminem’s “Beautiful” and “My Darling”

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Guest writer Marcia Alesan Dawkins’s new book on rapper Eminem, Eminem: The Real Slim Shady is now available. We here at Sounding Out! are thrilled, so for this week’s post we asked Dr. Dawkins to give us a glimpse into a side of the notorious rapper that few may have heard: the intersection between artist and spirituality. This comes just in time too, considering Kanye West’s latest release, Yeezus, not to mention Touré’s recent biography of Prince, I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon (2013), which examines the confluence of celebrity and spirituality for a generation of Prince fans. Without further ado, give it up for Dr. Dawkins! Pump it up pump it up pump it up!   —Liana M Silva-Ford, Managing Editor

Eminem caught my ear a year before The Slim Shady LP hit record stores in 1999, when I came across a single released by Rawkus Records called “5 Star Generals” (1998) on which he made a guest appearance. I would later learn that this was an old track the rapper recorded for cash while he was unsigned and then forgot. Nevertheless, Em’s first lines about sinning boldly, shooting nuns in Bible class, and damning hell itself hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew that lines like his, which were sure to enrage anyone within earshot, would make him (in)famous.

To my surprise, I learned a year later that my 89-year-old Cuban American grandfather, a poet and a reverend, had been listening to Eminem too. This struck me as strange for two reasons. First, my grandfather wasn’t fluent in English. Second, he’d never expressed much interest in rap music other than commenting that he noticed kids rapping in the parks near his house in Hollis, Queens every now and then. Of course, I knew that many of those boom-box-toting kids were now superstars like Run-DMC and LL Cool J, but my Grandfather didn’t.

When I entered the living room to the sound of Slim Shady, my grandfather sat transfixed. After the song ended, I asked him if he knew what he was hearing. Sitting up in his blue La-Z-Boy recliner he said, “I’m listening to some guy who calls himself Eminem. I can tell he’s probably a heathen and I don’t care. I love what he’s doing with his words.” I was shocked. My grandfather went on to tell me that despite the obvious language and experiential barriers that stood between him and Eminem, he was in awe of the way the rapper was using his voice and his words as instruments. What really got me was when my grandfather said that Eminem’s unapologetic tone reminded him of many preachers’ fiery delivery over the years. I could not believe it. Grandpa’s encounter with Eminem was not just sonic.  It was spiritual.

712AHHDkl7L._SL1500_Fifteen years later I am still listening for what my grandfather heard. In the process, my ears have been captivated by Eminem’s sonic spirituality, open to its every sound.  So open, in fact, that I dedicated three chapters in my forthcoming book to understanding how his music can be seen as a dynamic sphere of spiritual activity in terms of guilt-purification-redemption, love-hate, and relationship-awareness.  While paying attention to Eminem’s sonic spirituality began as a personal exercise, it now represents an important part of understanding how spirituality operates culturally and is just like sound: recognizable, uncontainable and elusive.

In other words, I’ve finally understood what my grandfather was trying to tell me — how, rather than simply what, he heard in Eminem’s music.  Here’s the revelation:  sonic spirituality is a listening attitude, a personalized relationship with music that allows us to mark time, experience the intangible, track movement, engage otherness and, in the end, encounter more honest versions of ourselves. Sonic spirituality, then, might be characterized as open instead of closed, exploratory and experimental rather than static.  Eminem’s spiritual themes play out in terms of solidarity with the supernatural, a mistrust of organized religion due to its inherent hypocrisy, a desire for redemption from guilt through purification, and an intense personal battle between love and hate.  Following are two potent examples of what I’ve found in Eminem’s oeuvre from 2009’s Relapse: Refill, examples that showcase the development of his sonic spirituality over the decade since my grandfather first introduced it to me.

In “Beautiful” (2009), Eminem poses a powerful question: What would you think if you saw someone important, like a government official or celebrity, digging around in the trash? The answer: you’d probably think that this kind of behavior was suitable for beggars only and certainly not for yourself or someone very important. But this is exactly what the rapper does in “Beautiful.” He looks for himself, others, and their fallen world or Eden (aka Detroit, Michigan) and finds everyone and everything in the garbage. In this way, “Beautiful” is a lovely parable. As with any parable, its objective is to illustrate a moral or a spiritual lesson using a simple human relation. The lesson in this case is looking for something or someone that has been lost. In Eminem’s parable, there are seven ideas expressed about how to find what we have lost and develop our spiritual selves along the way: loss (the starting point of humanity’s spiritual condition), light (a force created through words), movement (standing in another person’s shoes), discovery (finding what’s lost in low places), salvation (anyone can be redeemed), connection (exchange traditional religion for a new culture of communication with the supernatural), and celebration (that everyone can be made beautiful again).

These seven images are evoked by the lyrics and music.  The slow and deliberate beat invites listeners to connect the subject and object; the song and themselves, the song and the rapper.  The release provided as Eminem sings the chorus doesn’t just change the course of the song, but converts the shared loss into an opportunity for discovery, salvation, connection and celebration.  Just as the discovery begins, the drums suddenly increase in volume; the bass and guitar begin to cry out as a background harmony in a major key builds and adds to the intensity.  The sounds remind us even if we choose to shield our eyes, we cannot shield our ears from the plight of our fellows and that this is a call to action, salvation and celebration.  In “Beautiful” Eminem listeners become aware of others’ oppression while remembering that they are no stronger or more beautiful than anyone else.  In this way listeners are engaged not just with the sounds, but also with the spirits of the people who produce them in active relationship.

The experiences and encounters inherent in Eminem’s alternative spiritual portrait, “My Darling” (2009), still emphasize the same spiritual themes I pointed out earlier: personal struggles between light and darkness, finding a purpose in suffering, and seeing a connection between societal and supernatural powers. Only this time, the supernatural power belongs to the Devil. Yet, unlike other songs in which Eminem does battle with the Devil or suffers for his sins through eternal damnation, “My Darling” is about a soul living in hell on earth. In this way, “My Darling” is both a lamentation and a dark parable whose moral complements that of “Beautiful.” Eminem shares this moral in “My Darling” through six ideas about what happens when a person is losing his or her battle with the demons he or she carries inside. These ideas are uncertainty (never being sure about redemption), possession (selling one’s soul), darkness (force maintained by the absence of words), harm (effects of love turning to hate), wholeness (spiritual relationships based on labor and exchange rather than on salvation and forgiveness), and lament (mourning one’s losses of self and loved ones).

As in “Beautiful,” the lyrics and the music evoke spiritual elements. The song is set to a minor key, which communicates penitential lamentation, intimate conversation with the Devil, and echoes with sighs of disappointment, divorce and disillusion.  Possession, darkness and harm are communicated through call and response between Eminem and the Devil, who hears and accepts Eminem’s invitation and appears in his mirror where he whispers seductively for Eminem to draw close.  The increasing intensity and harm of the spiritual exchange between Mathers and the Devil is reflected in their verbal back-and-forth. Their “souls, minds and bodies” are increasingly connected as they exchange more and more words.  And the words become more desperate and cruel.  At the end of the song, Eminem submits.  Listeners come to understand that Eminem and the Devil are one and whole as the Devil’s final solo becomes the pair’s solemn duet.  The two have become one spirit through a relationship of exchange and possession.

"Eminem, Lil Wayne Named ‘Gods Of Rock’ By GQ" by Flickr usermp3waxx.com, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“Eminem, Lil Wayne Named ‘Gods Of Rock’ By GQ” by Flickr usermp3waxx.com, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

The recurrence of spiritual themes in Eminem’s soundscape suggests that music is a way to communicate with the other who is both present and hidden. Sometimes the other is God. Sometimes the other is the Devil. Sometimes the other is other people. Sometimes the other is the other within.  The tones, rhythmic patters, key changes, intensity and release patterns combine with Eminem’s lyrics to create an experience within which listeners can be still, in which their souls can take refuge, and the other can be encountered. However, though sonic spirituality exists in Eminem’s music, and rumors abound regarding his “born again” status, it cannot be argued that Eminem adheres to a particular religion. Rather, the sonic spiritual element suggests that Eminem communicates a genuine awareness of supernatural powers, guilt-redemption-purification and love-hate that allows him to relate to the world at large. In this way Eminem is one of many artists whose pop culture content carries a strong spiritual dimension that is sonic, confirming results of Chris Rojek’s study, entitled “Celebrity and Religion,” which argues that “celebrity culture is secular society’s rejoinder to the decline of religion and magic” (393).

"DJ Hero party - Eminem 2" by Flickr user monsieurlam, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

“DJ Hero party – Eminem 2″ by Flickr user monsieurlam, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0

As “Beautiful” and “My Darling” demonstrate, the spiritual reflections heard in Eminem’s music are not just harmonic, they are also discordant, revealing how conflicted we often are about ourselves and the supernatural. Just as Eminem walks with God in “Beautiful” and dances with the Devil in “My Darling,” audiences listening to his music are able to escape from their own worlds and find temporary refuge in sonic spirituality. This idea didn’t start with Eminem, or with the Judeo-Christian tradition, as many faiths across time and space utilize the power of music to evoke higher powers and acquire spiritual insight through prayers, storytelling, meditation, chanting, mantras, singing, silent vows, etc.  But Eminem has added his own unique touch by using his personas Slim Shady and Marshall Mathers to speak with demonic and godly authority, respectively.  As Peter Ward writes in Gods Behaving Badly, the spiritual power of Eminem’s music for audiences lies in its representations of a “conflicted and complex self clothed in the metaphors of the divine and reflected back to us” (107).  In other words, sonic spirituality is about engaging with something beyond the world around us while grappling with the personas and situations into which we’re immersed.  As the music plays we are challenged to develop a listening heart.

The popularity of Eminem’s music supports the conclusion that his brand of sonic spirituality is set to the same rhythm as the hearts of fans that buy and listen to his messages. But his work can also speak to those who consider themselves spiritually committed, even if that commitment is often not manifested in traditional religious activities. In this way the dynamic nature of sonic spirituality manifests as a way of listening that allows for communication and communion through music and language.  If the above is true, then we can take Eminem’s claim, expressed via tweet, that “music has the power to heal” as a spiritual declaration.  And we can also take a fan’s response to this tweet as an Amen:  “All Eminem songs has [sic] a spiritual connection… you have to have the ear to find that for yourself.”

Featured Image: “Slim Shady” by Flickr user Walt Jabasco, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Marcia Alesan Dawkins, PhD is an award-winning writer, speaker, educator, and lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  She is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor UP, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013). 

Marcia writes about racial passing, mixed race identities, media, popular culture, religion and politics for a variety of high-profile publications.  She earned her PhD in communication from USC Annenberg, her master’s degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and her bachelor’s degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova.  Contact:  www.marciadawkins.com


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The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show and the Soundtrack of Desire

Victoria's secret show 2008

"Victoria's Secret Show 2008" by flickr user cattias.photos under Creative Commons license

As a consumer, you’ve experienced desire: that longing for someone, that appetite for something more, that expectation of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from getting what you want.  Whether what you want ranges from an ideal body type, to a cool technological gadget, to fashionable clothes or new cars, someone beautiful is out there selling it to you—beautifully.  If you’re like me then you’ve found yourself suddenly and inexplicably under the influence of desire, only later trying to understand where your money went.   If you’re a lot like me then you’ll eventually realize that desire has this effect because of the way it looks and, perhaps more importantly, because of the way it sounds.

One of the more interesting snippets of what desire looks and sounds like right now is The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (VSFS), which aired on November 29th and rebroadcast on December 15th.  Rappers and rock stars serenade the audience while Victoria’s Secret Angels don Swarovski crystal-encrusted lingerie and angel wings.   The visual and aural cornucopias echo ideas of abundance and break down the boundary between public and private spaces by implying a type of intimacy—Victoria wants to share her secret fantasies (privately) with just us (in public).   The intimacy implied is totally illusive, which makes it all the more desirable.

This illusiveness starts with the models, who enact intimacy and embody silence as the sound of desire.  The VSFS’s onstage choreography fixes women squarely in the visual domain and undercuts their credibility in the sonic domain.  Instead of raising their voices for self-empowerment while on the air the VSFS suggests that women should push up their breasts and show as much cleavage as possible, playing to audiences as seen and not heard.

Bernd Schmitt, David Rogers, and Karen Vrotsos explain what’s behind the VSFS’s strategy of strategic silence in their book, There’s No Business That’s Not Show Business: Marketing in an Experience Culture:

Since 1995 Victoria’s Secret has gone from imitating marketing ideas of true luxury retailers to becoming the model for some of those retailers…  Every step of this dramatic progression has been pure show business—pushing the boundaries of fashion and taste, engaging (and sometimes enraging audiences) and transforming the industry into re-imagining itself. Like a teenager wearing her first Wonderbra.

Through a maelstrom of controversies and publicity over the lack of women’s voices represented in the fashion shows, the VSFS was re-imagined in the early 2000s and took on a (post-)feminist message of empowerment.  Here’s the idea:  VSFS models are “superheroines” because they brandish their assets on their own terms on the catwalk, in an emancipatory celebration. Silent, desired objects are glorified as consumers are bewitched.

The show facilitates desire by creating additional intimacy for consumers, incorporating an “All Access” website replete with revealing video clips and exclusive photos, biographical videos about the models.  The actual broadcast now also airs backstage interviews in which models share their private thoughts about why the VSFS is more than a pornographic commercial or a fantastic rejection of old-school stereotypical bra-burning feminism.  For example, during the show one model commented that she’s “living the American Dream.”  Another said that she feels senses of accomplishment and growth because “It’s every girl’s dream to walk in VSFS…   the minute I stood on the runway I felt like I became a woman.”  Yet another model encouraged young female audience members to aspire to participating in a future VSFS, pronouncing that “someone that’s watching this will be an angel.”

Despite this backstage commentary much goes unsaid. Noticeably absent from the models’ remarks is any mention of how the opportunity to speak their minds is presented only to sell more merchandise that is not certified fair-trade.  Then there’s the total silence around the privileging of light skin and thinness and their relations to higher levels of “erotic capital” in mainstream popular culture.  Out of 10 models in the 2011 show, 3 appeared to be women of color (Asian-American and African-American or mixed race) and only 1 appeared to be a darker-skinned woman of color. No women of color contributed to VSFS’s on-air backstage footage. And, adding insult to representational injury, the women of color are hypersexualized even as they are muted. What’s more is that all models appeared to be under the size of the actual US female consumer (sizes 10-12), suggesting that most real women are still not considered the target audience for VSFS and thereby suffer a profound lack of agency in voicing images of desire for themselves.

The absence, and silence, of average women and women of color in desire industries has been noted by sociologist Siobhan Brooks in Unequal Desires:  Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry. Brooks writes,

“Many feminists argue that women cannot assert agency within sexual economies; their belief is that women are victimized and/or controlled by heterosexual male desire that is not in the best interest of women.  On the other side of the debate… contemporary feminists have focused on sexual agency and the empowerment of women within sexual economies as an expansion of women’s control of their bodies.  However, within the debate… there remains a theoretical void in examining US-based racial and sexual hierarchies present within desire industries, and how these hierarchies mirror existing forms of racial stratification in US institutions.”

This racial stratification is stitched into the very soundtrack of the VSFS, which loudly reinforces women’s silence as the sound of desire. The VSFS soundtrack nourishes desire through presenting what Deanna Sellnow and Timothy Sellnow, in their article “The Illusion of Life Rhetorical Perspective: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Music as Communication”, call an “illusion of life—a dynamic interaction between virtual experience (lyrics) and virtual time (music).”   Racial, gender and class differences produced virtual experience. Lyrics expressed these differences through some form of heterosexual, aspirational and consumptive desire—from getting one’s ideal sexual partner, to traveling to exotic locales, and enjoying celebrities’ exciting and extravagant lives. The pop and rap songs offered fast tempos, driving rhythms, loud dynamics and full instrumentation, representing intensity and power.

The VSFS’s performers show the gendered dimension of that “illusion of life.” Kanye West’s version of masculinity was on display as he flirted with each model strutting down the runway, making his voice the only one heard as models appeared. His famous line from “Stronger” (“I need you right now”), when coupled with the women’s silent sauntering, sounded as relevant as it was politically incorrect.

Maroon 5’s performance of “Moves Like Jagger” also addressed the theme of desire, especially when lead singer Adam Levine planted a kiss on the cheek of his girlfriend Anne Vyalitsyna (as she remained silent). Jay-Z and West’s show stopping performance of “Niggas in Paris,” in which the duo performed without any models on stage, highlighted the rappers’  “untouchable” status as rap gods and throne-dwellers. The live audience responded more emphatically to this male-only performance than it did to any other segment of the show.

Nicki Minaj was the only female to appear on stage in the role of non-model, performing “Super Bass” with a hint of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two.” Though her performance can be read as a subtle critique of the lack of authentic audience agency and absence of a womanist standpoint in VSFS, it sounded no less male-centered than any of the other performers’.  For instance, the first line of “Super Bass” is directed at a male audience driven by consumption, “This one is for the boys with the booming system.”  In this respect Minaj could be seen as The Female Voice of VSFS, as her rapping about self-image and relationships with men is consistent with sanctioned topic areas for women in general.

However, and in keeping with the show’s theme of women’s silence as the sound of desire, Minaj’s performance does offer a quiet critique of hegemonic images of desire and desirability. Unlike the male performers Minaj always stayed behind the models and in the background. Consequently, Minaj’s short stature, colored wig, thicker figure, sneakers, outlandish outfit, and darker skin were presented in sharp contrast with the tall, high-heeled, thin, lighter-skinned, scantily clad, and perfectly coiffed models who she stalked as they came down the runway. A scan through tweets posted as the show aired confirms that audiences got Minaj’s message even if they eventually turned it against themselves, revealing that desire can sometimes be displeasing and painfully restrictive.  Take the following tweet from viewer @kelcicoffey: “Going on a diet after watching #VSFashionShow tonight XD.”

Though Minaj’s soundless critique speaks volumes, the VSFS soundscape ultimately seals the edges on a spectacle brimming with hegemonic impressions and sensations of desire.  The end product is an illusion of life that is mostly white, nearly naked, always feminized and conspicuously silent.

***

Marcia Alesan Dawkins is an award-winning writer, speaker, educator and visiting scholar at Brown University.  She is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor UP, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013). 

Marcia writes about racial passing, mixed race identities, media, popular culture, religion and politics for a variety of high-profile publications.  She earned her PhD in communication from USC Annenberg, her master’s degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and her bachelor’s degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova.  Contact:  www.marciadawkins.com

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