If you want to feel the sensation of your skin crawling, watching Eminem’s unexpected performance of ‘Lose Yourself’ at the Oscars should certainly do the trick. There was something distinctly off about the biggest names in Hollywood singing along to Eminem’s gritty hit. One of the only appropriate reactions came from 77 year old Martin Scorsese. He was sporting the face of someone two and a half hours through ‘The Irishman’, only to discover there are still sixty minutes to go. Much like Scorsese, maybe we’re all getting tired of figures like Eminem, who seems to represent the omnipresence of stars past their prime.
Eminem’s name was in the news recently when lyrics from his new album distastefully referred to the Manchester Arena terror attack in 2017. He has never shied away from edgy opinions in the past, but that attitude feels decidedly uncomfortable nowadays. We have our own controversial social-commentary-spewing superstar in the form of Morrissey. The ex-Smiths frontman has courted rage and fury for his statements on immigration, politics, and Brexit; so much so that artist Verity Longley introduced a range of tote bags sporting the slogan, “Shut up Morrissey,” for when bigmouth inevitably strikes again. Just why do so many artists resort to inciting outrage; is it the prospect of irrelevance and waning fame, or nothing but artistic integrity?
Particularly in music, the nature of consumption by streaming necessarily splinters influence, as anyone can now listen to anything, down their own rabbit-hole of algorithm-inspired exploration. It is easier than ever for an artist to get lost in instant streams, with the small amount of income being starkly contrasted with previous generations. The rapidity with which something can be consumed also dulls its impact: an album listened to and forgotten within 40 minutes, and little lasting sign that that ever took place.
Pop stars no longer have the experience of fame they did in the 20th century, as the idea of pop itself has changed: the defining culture diverged into individualised experiences. While the 60s had the Beatles and ‘Free Love,’ the 2010s and 20s may be known as the years of Netflix and Spotify. This sheds potential light on why Eminem may have to resort to statements of headline-grabbing contentiousness. As evidenced by the reaction, this loudmouthed approach at attention-seeking certainly works; Eminem’s song ‘Lose Yourself’ underwent a 217% increase on streaming sites.
Another alternative for the method to Eminem’s madness is resorting to things that worked before in an attempt to please old fans. We’re in a cultural moment of ‘same old, same old,’ with endless prequels, sequels, and remakes consistently outperforming and suffocating any strands of genuine creativity. Scorsese himself might not be in a position of superiority in this regard; ‘The Irishman’ uses the well-trodden gangster trope and even reaches so far back into the past that it stars digitally “de-aged” versions of De Niro, Pesci, and Pacino. Meanwhile, we’re faced by the terrifying prospect of concerts with holograms of dead musicians like Tupac or Roy Orbison on stage.
One of the trends of the final years of the decade was a flurry of British-pop-rock-musical-films with Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody and Yesterday all coming out in the space of nine months. “I took a walk with my fame down memory lane, never did find my way back” sang Oasis, a rather appropriate reflection of a modern state of nostalgia. Lauryn Hill explained after her long hiatus that ‘I realized that for the sake of the machine, I was being way too compromised’, and it looks as though the machine of pop-culture industries are still compromising artistic individuality for the sake of security. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but an obsession with past trends might stifle creativity. The stratospheric rise of artists like Billie Eilish and Stormzy of course counters this line of argument, but a defining movement is yet to appear, and some would say grime’s time is already up. At the Oscars, instead of performing her monster-hit ‘Bad Guy’, Billie Eilish sang a fifty-five year old Beatles song, and we were treated to an Eminem track from 2002. Undoubtedly, as a result of new forms of media-consumption, there are more opportunities for variation within art but as a consequence there is division, a series of subcultures.
So then what to do, as a musician whose peak years are behind them? Perhaps, it would be better if some hung up their instruments. This would give a chance for a new school to fully develop and their own presence would be maintained eternally in playlists around the world. Walking the line of controversy is often a negative and unpleasant method that manipulates the state of current discourse, and can tarnish one’s reputation. There is the approach of The Rolling Stones; morphing into some-sort of self-tribute act who make little to no attempt at producing anything new. David Bowie’s Blackstar (2016) managed to conquer this issue, creating a fantastic album that was new and experimental. Unfortunately, few artists demonstrate the self-awareness and experimental nature of Bowie, but if more of them could follow his example, the music-world might be a better, more interesting place. Despite everything, Eminem’s performance was social media’s most talked about moment of the night. It overshadowed the genuinely exciting awarding of Best Picture to a deserving Parasite, the first international film to ever hold this title. We should be focusing on the new: the Parasites of this world, rather than the Eminems.