A story floated across the news about a week ago that according to Nielsen Soundscan, Eminem is offically the best-selling musician of the '00s, edging out The Beatles for the decade's first-place spot. A lot of this success was due to the sales of his second Interscope/Aftermath album, called The Marshall Mathers LP and released in 2000.
I feel sort of silly noding about that album almost a decade after its release, but the Nielsen news caught the attention of a message board that I occasionally frequent.
At first I just posted a flippant response:
To be fair, about a third of his record sales were in the early part of the decade, from journalists who wanted to stroke their chins and have a debate about whether it's okay to say faggot on a record as long as you circle back in the press and clarify that by faggot you just mean 'weak person.'
It's not like that many people actually listened to his music.
Reading back on that post now, I wince at it. Part of the reason I wince because of the epithet that mars the first paragraph of that post, and now also mars this writeup. I never use the word in casual conversation, but it's almost impossible to have a discussion of this album and the debate which surrounded it without using the same word Eminem did. Dance around the edges of it, and you're kind of implicitly taking a side. This isn't to say that it's inappropriate to take a side, but once you've done so, you're now taking part in that argument instead of talking clinically about it, which is what I'm trying to do here. Personally, I mostly prefer rap music which doesn't sound like that these days--but I think part of the reason music like was able to take such hardy root was because of the debate this album initially provoked.
The other reason I wince is because people on that forum seemed to take the main thrust of my argument seriously, at least enough to start briefly debating the point of whether or not controversy contributed significantly to his record sales. I almost immediately regretted taking the thread in that direction (accidentally or otherwise) because I didn't think it was an especially good argument at the time, and I still don't. So I posted a second reply, trying to take on why I thought the album ultimately so commercially successful. I've included that here, with a few modifications to improve context.
Man. I was making a joke when I brought that shit up. Maybe it's an age thing. I'm old enough to actually remember all of the press nine years ago, and people responding to the fact that the Marshall Mathers LP had almost gone diamond by saying that most of the people buying it were only interested in it for the controversy.
That CD is more than 70 minutes long. Almost no filler. Guest vocals from several different platinum artists, a ton of Dr. Dre production. Three monster singles, and a fourth song that also charted in the first year. The song Stan was so well-received that the Dido song he sampled hit number one on the Billboard Top 40, and her album (No Angel) went platinum in the United States nearly two years after it was first released.
The album was also national news. He made a song about his wife which was a murder fantasy so vicious and hateful that she was widely reported to have attempted suicide as a result of it.
It was one of the first times in modern music that someone had gone so personal, so brutal, and so public.
The album made Eminem instantly notorious, and moved the discussion about him from what it had been (impressive newcomer, pop crossover rapper, white guy cashing in on Dr. Dre) to something closer to genuine legendary status in rap circles. Legendary is a good word for the album, actually. It's not a classic in the traditional sense of an album that changed the way we think about a genre or an era -- it's more like it stands unblemished at the center of a smoking crater, like an Arthur C. Clarke monolith. It landed, it distorted the world around it for a time, and then eventually its influence over us faded and we moved on. A classic is defined by the way it ages along with us. That which is legendary is instead defined by its agelessness.
Oh, yeah, and the homophobia thing. The album succeeded first, and that's what GLAAD got pissed about, and protested. Looking back at that nine years later, I'm reminded more of the GEICO Cavemen than I am of anything else. Eminem did a song at the Grammys with Elton John, and suddenly the issue went from being a matter for mainstream debate to being a topic of activist infighting. For the most part, people packed up their shit and started looking for the next controversy. Eminem toned down the language in subsequent releases, not so much because somebody changed his mind about it, but more because he won that fight and decided to move on to something else.
In fact, he spent huge portions of his next album wondering aloud why people had made such a big deal about whether or not the things he had to say were politically acceptable. He made the point, especially in Sing for the Moment, that the people who buy his music weren't buying it for the controversy, but because the music genuinely resonated with them. He wasn't wrong about that, even if a lot of those same people who bought the album grew up to be embarrassed by what it meant to them.
So, yeah. Saying that people bought the album to argue about whether or not it's okay to say faggot is an argument made in bad faith. People who said it at the time were doing so because they wanted to dismiss the idea that something so powerful and so ugly could be garnering both critical and commercial success on its own merits. They said the appeal was shock value, because they didn't want to admit that music packed full of so much rage and despair could have some kind of universality to it.
People who say the same thing now, that most of the album sales were because of the controversy, I'm less sure about. Sometimes we hear a thing enough times, and start thinking it's true.
I've also heard the argument that The Marshall Mathers LP was Eminem's Elvis Presley moment -- that the mainstream reaction to him was equal parts teen craze and authoritarian backlash; last time about the mass marketing of raw male sexuality, this time over genuinely dangerous-looking anger. We weren't that many years out from Columbine and people still weren't really done worrying about the idea that popular music might turn our children into savage killers. There was certainly some noise about that at the time, but I sort of doubt that this contributed much to his record sales; he had actually already gotten a lot of that heat over the Guilty Conscience single on his first Aftermath album and actually responded directly to those criticisms on this album.
Eminem certainly knew how to stir the pot and get himself some free press, but I guess I think that good music is good music, and I'm doubtful that so many people would have bought the record if it had sucked. Ten million copies in the United States alone, with a follow-up album nearly as successful. Controversy alone doesn't get that kind of repeat business. Does it?