By JANET MASLIN
Published: October 30, 2003
Writing seriously about pop idols requires a delicate balancing act, one that positions the author safely on the continuum between fogy and fan. The writer must sound intelligently admiring rather than merely star-struck. The peregrinations must range beyond mere thumb-sucking repetition of the obvious.
Yet the supernova’s heat had better come through, or else why read about him? So a book that compares Eminem’s Slim Shady persona to Shakespeare’s Puck must also find time to describe the star’s throwing up a meal of pizza and Bacardi and politely (really) autographing the breast of a female fan.
Anthony Bozza (touted as the author of not one but two Rolling Stone cover stories on Eminem, also hard at work on Tommy Lee’s autobiography) and Robert Coles (the revered Pulitzer Prize-winning child psychiatrist with almost 60 other books to his credit) would not seem likely to share an approach. But each has taken a musical figure of great pop-cultural impact and assembled a book-length rumination on how the star mirrors the society that celebrates him.
Dr. Coles has the easier task in “Bruce Springsteen’s America,” since it has not been hard for him to find Americans who respond to the meaning of Mr. Springsteen’s lyrics. In a book that recapitulates much of Dr. Coles’s past associations, he summons his 1954 memory of William Carlos Williams speaking about Frank Sinatra to voice this book’s operating principle:
“Look, whether we’re young, or we’re all grown up and just starting out, or we’re getting older and getting so old there’s not much time left, we’re human beings we’re looking for company, and we’re looking for understanding: someone who reminds us that we’re not alone, and someone who wonders out loud about things that happen in this life, the way we do when we’re walking or sitting or driving, and thinking things over.”
In a rambling volume that Dr. Coles describes as “not a study of fandom, but a gathering of narrative moments that I as a listening documentary worker and teacher have encountered in recent years,” he transcribes the thoughts of listeners who wonder, say, where those Glory Days went or why the Vietnam veteran in “Born in the U.S.A.” has any reason to sound so upbeat.
The readings of Springsteen songs tend to be as folksy and colloquial as the material itself. “I don’t think the Boss will ever get on the fancy `history of America’ courses I took no way!” one typical speaker says. “But he’s sure on my mind!”
Mr. Bozza’s “Whatever You Say I Am” inveighs against any conceivable crime against cool. Taking frequent swipes at “nearsighted fuddy-duddies” who were wowed by Eminem at the time of “8 Mile” (as Barbra Streisand remarked, “This kid Eminem is really interesting”), he loves to point out his own prescience in making an early, authorized visit to the trailer park home that would soon become the stuff of well, if not of legend, at least the stuff of this book. Mr. Bozza’s back-patting also extends to revealing how Rolling Stone scooped The Source, thanks to his own contributions, and to describing his brief dealings with Eminem’s famously difficult mom.
Although this collection of “snapshots and billboards” is more or less authorized by Eminem, it is no fan-friendly repository of inside information. “I had a hard life, blah blah blah,” Eminem reveals conversationally. But of course he says this, and a great deal more, far more wittily and scorchingly every time he goes into a recording studio. And Mr. Bozza has clearly made the Devil’s deal common to most celebrity biographers: he has much opportunity to talk about what it’s really like to be with Eminem at an after-party, but no motive to jeopardize that privilege by turning nasty.
But it’s time for a thoughtful look at what Eminem’s appeal really signifies, and Mr. Bozza, for all the self-promoting and padding that goes into this book, has done a creditable job. He considers the way that Eminem “fused the crazy white boy and angry young man stereotypes, playing both to their fullest with ironic, unmerciful insight into white dysfunctional family values, all the more real for the self-loathing present throughout.” He also notes that in 1999, a year that brought “The Blair Witch Project” and “American Beauty,” Eminem’s playful, angry irreverence was one more sign of the times.
Although “Whatever You Say I Am” sometimes bogs down in the minutiae of hip-hop rivalries and cites endless critical yammering about the star’s importance, it will still interest anyone seriously impressed with Eminem’s abilities and his prospects. Dismissing reflexive invocations of Bob Dylan and the Beatles as fellow musicians who helped shape the lives of their listeners, Mr. Bozza points instead to the more protean and mercurial David Bowie and post-Beatles-breakup John Lennon as forebears.
He also devotes much space to the racial questions raised by Eminem’s pre-eminence in the hip-hop universe, as he cites one critic’s deeply polarizing opinion that “today, race is performative.” It thus comes as no surprise to learn that of 16 African-American critics, academics and artists approached by Mr. Bozza for this book, only 4 would talk to him.
“Whatever You Say I Am” is a compelling but awkward hybrid between fan fodder and serious thought. It has been illustrated with dull, feebly captioned photographs that can be arranged chronologically by the appearance of new tattoos on Eminem’s biceps but otherwise reveal little of interest. The anti-glamour of these pictures may signal an aspiration to street credibility. But Mr. Bozza delivers a lot more of that simply by treating the Shadyfication of America as a phenomenon worthy of notice.