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POP CULTURE: Slim to None

Why J.D. Salinger should be Eminem’s role model

G. Beato

On the 1999 track "Cum on Everybody," recorded months before MTV turned him into an overnight star, Eminem imagined his reaction to a level of success he had yet to actually achieve: "I go on stage in front of a sellout crowd and yell out loud, 'All y'all get the hell out now/ F--k rap, I'm givin it up y'all.'" Or to put it another way, even when he was a nobody, Eminem hated being famous.


Actual celebrity has done little to change his mind. Throughout his six-year run as the best-selling rapper in history, Eminem has cursed his eminence and hinted at early retirement. He dubbed his last album of new material Encore. His greatest-hits package, out this week, is Curtain Call. Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen, because one of these days, or years, Eminem is definitely going to leave the building.


Just like the troops in Iraq. Indeed, while the idea of premature evacuation remains a popular conceit among today's stars, most seem to take their marching orders from our commander in chief. Cher's Farewell Tour began as a spectacular shock-and-awe swan song but devolved into a quagmire of divadom. Jay-Z declared his mission accomplished and "retired" from rap in 2003; today he occupies other rappers' records on a regular basis, with no exit strategy in sight.


To be fair, Eminem hasn't actually used the R-word. Instead, he told MTV News he was "taking a break" from his own career to produce records for other artists. "I never said [Encore] was my last album," he exclaimed. "I don't know what I'm doing yet. Nothing is definite, you know what I'm sayin'?"


That sounds dangerously like a man with a grandiose double album up his sleeve, but perhaps before he goes that route, Eminem will consider a more intriguing career path, specifically, the one blazed by J.D. Salinger. A half-century ago, Salinger, or rather his slangy, profane doppelganger, Holden Caulfield, was the Eminem of his times, antecedent to Marlon Brando's wild one and James Dean's rebel without a cause, America's Founding F--ked-up Teenager. Within 10 years of Catcher in the Rye's 1951 publication, it had gone platinum three times over—but instead of reveling in the notoriety this brought him, Salinger fled it.


In 1953, he stopped doing interviews. A decade later, he published his last story. Success meant he didn't have to deal with the aspects of the writer's life he had little tolerance for—namely, editors, critics and readers. Instead, he could concentrate on the one aspect he did like—writing. Reportedly he has written thousands of pages, and all of them remain as pristinely uncommodified as Donald Trump's humility.


Fifty years ago, the shameless pursuit of fame had not quite replaced baseball as the national pastime. But even then, few accepted Salinger's actions at face value. A writer with a huge audience and no desire to capitalize on it? It had to be a publicity stunt. Or insanity.


Today, of course, you can't be a rebel until at least one corporation wants to sponsor your next project. The idea of art for art's sake doesn't just seem crazy anymore; it's a sentimental punch line that drunken no-talents bluster when the latest round of rejection letters arrives.


But at a time when artists have devolved into "content creators," slaves to a fickle, disdainful audience, it's also a fairly subversive notion. Thanks to technology, fans can download, remix, mash-up and otherwise mangle any artist's work with the sort of impunity once reserved for editors and producers. But what if an artist such as Eminem—still highly regarded, still in demand—stopped making his work publicly available? What better way to remind people that art, or at least obscenity-laced songs about celebrity asses, has a value beyond what the marketplace puts on it?


And who better to remind people than Eminem? The downside of fame is one of his favorite themes, and if he continues to release new work he will no doubt continue to address it. But if he wants to make a powerful statement about irrelevant critics, media predators and overeager fans who'd like to psychologically cannibalize him? Then, for the rest of his career, he should simply say nothing at all.



For more G. Beato, see his website,
soundbitten.com.

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