At Large

Elvis Has Left the Building

The Secret Service declines to save Eminem from himself.

By 12.10.03

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The Secret Service, believe it or not, showed great wisdom in giving a resounding "s'aright, homes" to the latest provocation from neutered pop star/formerly dangerous rapper Eminem. A track called "We As Americans" got leaked on the Internet featuring the lyrics: "I don't rap for dead presidents/I'd rather see the president dead/It's never been said but I set precedents and the standards and they can't stand it."

"Rather see the president dead"? Why, that…could be perceived as a threat! Certainly, at least as much of a one as drawing an editorial cartoon showing Bush with a gun to his head in emulation of the famous photo of a Vietnamese prisoner being executed, which got the artist, the L.A. Times' generally pro-Bush Michael Ramirez, a visit from the guys with the earpieces. Or making a reference in a bar to a "burning bush" and the possibility of lighting the president on fire -- which got whacked out prophet Richard Humphreys arrested.

Perhaps a certain devil-may-care sense of invincibility has descended on the Secret Service since the grand success of the Thanksgiving Surprise, in which President Bush dared Baghdad and the possibility of dangers greater than those represented by any rapper -- except maybe Beanie Sigel or C Murder. At any rate, despite initial reports that they'd be shining their investigative light on Slim Shady, they eventually decided to just let Eminem be whatever he says he is.

Spokesman John Gill said Tuesday that "The Secret Service has no current plans to open an investigation into this matter." Despite letting the beat drop on this mini-controversy, he stressed that in general "we are concerned about communications that can be interpreted in a manner perhaps not intended by the artist, and the potential peripheral impact that such lyrics can have on other individuals."

The lyric obviously represented no real threat to anyone -- Bush isn't even named, after all. So the Secret Service did the right thing by everyone in letting this slide. Except, possibly, for Eminem himself. Indeed, this aborted controversy might have been the last chance for the phoenix of the Eminem his fans first grew to love to arise from the ashes of his white-hot commercial and critical success as a rapper and actor.

It's the inevitable fate of the successful pop provocateur to be warmly embraced by the establishment and have everything that was interesting about him in the first place first muted and then killed. Elvis Presley is the poster boy for this process. Two now prescient provocateurs predicted Eminem's eventual fate way back in March 2001 and dubbed it "The Elvisification of Marshall Mathers." It was probably already too late for the Eminem the world first grew to know and loathe when he got a Grammy nomination and duetted with Sir Elton John. (It was a trio, technically, if you count the follically-challenged piano-pounder's wig.)

Seeing Elton and Em duet on "Stan" might have wanted to make lovers of songs like "My Name Is" (in which he muses over which Spice Girl he should impregnate), "Guilty Conscience" (in which he advises young men to sexually assault passed-out teen girls), and "Kill You" (in which he fantasizes about raping his mother) cover their ears and scream. But it got worse from there for those who wanted to remember our fresh prince of transgression as he was.

Eminem made a "serious" movie, 8 Mile, in which he was the good influence in his family, doting over his young sister, working hard at both rhymes and in a factory. Far from verbally assaulting "faggots" he leapt to their defense in an unlikely roach coach rap duel. Then the inspirational tune from that movie, "Lose Yourself," won an Oscar.

He was already so far gone that the only thing that could have brought back the Eminem his original fans loved and his enemies loathed was the Secret Service making the wrong move, elevating an overweening punctiliousness in defense of the president over the cause of keeping Eminem in his place.

It has not historically been the case that the president's guards let this sort of popping off by pop star lie. Sixties radical folk/pop singer Phil Ochs had a character (or maybe himself) declare in the song "Pretty Smart on My Part," "Some day later/When I feel a little straighter/We'll assassinate the president/And take over the government." Not so smart on his part, it turned out; already on J. Edgar's radar screen for being a general frightening leftist agitator, he came under even closer scrutiny from then on out. His career, and soon his life, went downhill quickly. (Not that the FBI caused this, but that Hoover was devilishly clever….)

Ochs had the saving grace, for a dangerous American provocateur, of never having gotten too successful. Nothing sterilizes the frightening whiff of danger like the sweet smell of success. The Grammy and the Oscar gave off a powerful radiation that neutered the real Slim Shady. Only the Secret Service had it in their power to revive him, and they chose to let sleeping menaces to public decency lie. The fans may never forgive them.

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About the Author

Brian Doherty is a senior editor at Reason magazine and author of This is Burning Man (Little, Brown).