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Guest Editorial

Tuesday, July 9, 2002

The ABC's of Eminem

If you want to understand America, it has been said, you need to understand baseball. Here's a lesser-known corollary: If you want to understand American teenagers, you need to understand pop music.

So I am studying the phenomenon of Eminem.

The rapper's most recent album reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart within hours of hitting the stores. Coinciding with the album's release, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Chronicle and every other mainstream media outlet have prominently featured the 28-year-old star, whose two previous albums of largely misogynistic, violent and homophobic lyrics have sold 30 million copies.

One reviewer called him "one of the most important artists in contemporary music." Another characterized him as "the most compelling music icon of his generation." Yet another, perhaps a tiny bit swept up in the buzz, wrote, "Ignore him at your peril."

I have regarded Eminem in much the way I do the face-distorting sour candy called Warheads my son and his friends consume. I don't understand the attraction, given the horrid taste, but there it is. I am not interested in figuring out if Eminem is good or bad as a vocalist, or good or bad as a social commentator. I only want to know why kids like him. Does the music appeal to them because they are simmering with the same virulent anger and violence as he is?

I posed the question to an expert on the relationship between teens and music. He has heard the question many times before over several decades.

"Parents get upset because they don't remember their own rebellions through music," says Donald Roberts, the Stanford communications professor who is co-author of the 1998 book, "It's Not Only Rock and Roll: Popular Music in the Lives of Adolescents."

"Music is central to adolescent identity. And adolescence is about making sure adults know, 'We're not like you.' Pop music is a safe and comfortable way to be out on the edge and be different."

I'd like to say that teens in the '70s listened to Alice Cooper and Kiss because we thought they were brilliant musical artists. Mostly, though, it was for the looks of disgust and fear on our parents' faces. We made sure they understood that Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a real bat that spurted real blood.

For my parents, who came of age with the Platters and Chubby Checker, not to mention actual bobby socks, reacting to their children's musical tastes required great restraint, mostly in not beating us to death for turning into the profound deviants we unmistakably were despite years of catechism and Sunday roasts.

Every generation's teenagers gravitate to the kind of music that reflects the very sins their parents have spent their lives lecturing against. Eminem is tailor-made for the children of socially sensitive, diversity-embracing, politically correct parents. What could be more appalling to this generation of parents than hearing their teenagers use racial slurs and hate-filled slang in singing along with their favorite CD?

And what could be more satisfying to the teens?

This doesn't mean parents ought to accept the abhorrent lyrics with an understanding shrug any more than our parents accepted ours.

"A mother can say, 'Look, I'm female. Your sister is female. He's talking about us when he says those hateful things about women,'" Roberts says. "Your child will say it's just a song, and they'll continue to listen. But they'll never hear it exactly the same again."

If Eminem's popularity sheds any light on today's teenagers it is this: They are more like us than they ever want to know.

Joan Ryan writes a weekly column on family issues.