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Re-Use Your Illusion

By: Chuck KlostermanWhy is Axl Rose eating Eminem’s soul?

Here’s the thing about modern teenagers: They like rap. It speaks to them. Rap music (sometimes referred to as “hip-hop” by sociologists) offers today’s youth a sense of urgency and desperation not seen since the “heyday” of late-’70s punk-rock artists like the Clash and Boston. This phenomenon is best illustrated through the work of a popular Caucasian known as Eminem, a man who spent much of 2002 as the unsmiling cover boy for youth-oriented magazines such as Spin, The Face, and The New York Times Magazine. It would seemthat Eminem is a new kind of cultural Minotaur: the irrepressible cad who flouts society’s conventions by candidly critiquing pop culture and sporadically threatening to murder people. It all seems quite innovative.

Yet this is not as you may suspect, true believers. This has been done before. In fact, this has completely been done before, becauseEminem is Axl Rose. And I don’t mean Eminem is like Axl Rose in a metaphorical sense or in a philosophical sense or in an allegoricalsense; Eminem is literally reliving Rose’s career in bizarre, hyper-specific ways. My proof:

  • Both hail from the Midwest and express violent anger toward their mothers (Rose on Guns N’ Roses’ “Bad Obsession,” Eminem on prettymuch every track he’s ever recorded).
  • Both reappropriated their given names for reasons that were simultaneously personal and aesthetic (Rose renamed himself afterdiscovering the identity of his “real” father; Eminem titled his most visceral album after his legal name to make it more “real” tolisteners).
  • Both have been critically reviled as homophobic, yet both seem vaguely obsessed and/or connected with gay culture (Rose once sentflowers to the Pet Shop Boys, who later sang the song “The Night I Fell in Love,” about a Shady-like character). Both artists were alsodefended by Elton John, who performed with each at high-profile awards shows.
  • Both are fixated on burying women in the backyard (Rose in the GN’R song “Used to Love Her,” Eminem in the video for “Cleanin’ OutMy Closet”).
  • Both attacked seemingly innocuous enemies (Axl went after the likes of Vince Neil and Spin founder Bob Guccione Jr.; Em went afterMoby and Chris Kirkpatrick).
  • Both sing about abusing “bitches” they were romantically involved with (Rose on “It’s So Easy,” Slim Shady on “Kim”).
  • Both are diminutive white males who, after discovering weight training, suddenly wanted to appear shirtless in public.

So what do these “coincidences” tell us, beyond suggesting that Eminem soon will disappear into the Sedona desert for ten years beforeemerging with a band featuring some dude wearing a KFC bucket? Perhaps they tell us this: What always survives the evolution of culture,and what tends to be replicated most closely by subsequent generations, is inexplicable–a manifestation of fucked-up alienation.Logic would dictate that commercial success comes from creating a product that people can relate to. But cultural success–the abilityto exist as an idea, years after your tangible work has lost its relevance–derives from embodying a persona that almost nobody canrelate to. Somehow, the marriage of weirdness and bad judgment is its own kind of eternal reality.

Case in point: Justin Timberlake. When J.T. performed in that stupid detective’s hat at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, everyone’sreaction was the same: “Oh, how cute–he wants to be Michael Jackson.” I can’t believe that more people weren’t aghast that someoneactively wants to be Michael Jackson. At this point, Jackson is no different from Howard Hughes: His life’s work has been completelydwarfed by his desire to lie in hyperbaric oxygen chambers and collect the bones of the Elephant Man (not to mention his being accusedof child molestation and calling Sony racist for allowing him to sell only 58 million albums). No rational person views Jackson asanything except a freakish example of why profound celebrity is the worst thing that can happen to anyone. Yet people like Timberlake(and like Eminem) still aspire to that kind of public self-destruction, because that kind of losing is actually how you win. And that’sbecause profound celebrity is always less disposable than art.