Number 180 / March 2001:

"I don't think he'll get a Grammy for best album," Randy Newman said prophetically just before the Grammys on February 21. "The voters are too conservative. But if he did, it would be a good thing--the fact that the Grammys had that kind of vision."

The best album nod went instead to Steely Dan, their middle-aged prurience winning out over Eminem, the first hardcore rap artist ever nominated. But Randy Newman is hardly exceptional in his taste.

"'Stan' is a great song," Stevie Wonder told the LA Times. "We dance forever around the issues, and [embrace] songs about unity and love. But until we really confront the truth, we are going to have a Tupac or an Eminem or Biggie Smalls to remind us about it."

Elton John, who at Eminem's request performed backing vocals on "Stan" at the Grammys, told the Times: "As a gay artist, I'm asked by a lot of people, 'But what about the content of Eminem's music?' I think there is far more humor on the album than people think. It appeals to my English black sense of humor."

Any of these celebrities could have introduced Eminem on the Grammys TV show, perhaps point/counterpoint with one of Em's many critics. What we got instead was Grammy honcho Mike Greene, apologizing for having to air Eminem. But, Greene explained, his hands were tied by this thing called artistic freedom. (Of course, there is no artistic freedom at the Grammys--Eminem's performance was hacked up by censor's bleeps.)

What about those who don't find Eminem funny or insightful? Anyone who is offended by him should speak up, but we should also examine who is speaking up and why. Tom Manoff, an NPR classical music reviewer, wrote a Christian Science Monitor piece called "Boycott the Grammys" in which he claimed that all classical musicians approve of forcing babies to listen to Mozart because "other music" can be damaging. In a Billboard article headlined "Should Eminem Be Denied Airplay?" one radio station program director-- who insisted on remaining anonymous-- said he won't play Eminem because "the job of the program director is to be a gatekeeper for the audience." Another anonymous programmer who's also banned Eminem said his biggest problem with Em was "the pissed-off attitude that he purveys."

Even worse were the responsible spokesmen who claim to represent all the "victims" of Eminem's lyrics. There was Scott Seomin, longtime John Tesh publicist and now media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), who helped lead the anti-Eminem picketing at the Grammys. According to Elton John and many other gay activists, Seomin does not speak for everyone. There was former New Orleans district attorney Kim Gandy, now the executive vice-president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), calling for Eminem to be dumped from the Grammy show. Gandy certainly doesn't speak for the hundreds of thousands of women who've bought Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP, the majority of whom are undoubtedly quite a ways down the economic ladder from the upper middle class leadership of NOW

Seomin and Gandy have allies in America's increasingly straightjacketed schools (school uniform sales now account for 5% of the $21 billion "children's apparel market"). In Tipton, Iowa, sixth grade music teacher Cassie Johnson resigned the week before the Grammys after she was reprimanded for allowing her students to put together a report on Eminem. Superintendent Jeff Corkery said it was all about "inappropriate" lyrics, although the reports in questions didn't deal with lyrics at all and were a complement to an assignment on classical composers.

The most important issue here isn't whether Eminem's lyrics are "good" or "bad" or whether he is "right" or "wrong." The issue is that a kid from the trailer parks has been able to create a de facto dialogue within (and certainly without) a huge and diverse fan base. The issue is that most of this dialogue, which could be of great benefit to society, is never heard. That's because our self-appointed betters--whether they are radio programmers who insist on being our "gatekeepers" or feminists who speak for women without first listening to them or school administrators who think that kids should be seen and not heard--have decided that we shouldn't hear it.

Whenever someone gets murdered, the TV crews can't wait to thrust a mic in front of some grieving relative, to "find out how they feel." But when it comes to an artist who has captured much of the public's imagination with descriptions of a murderous society, the media has no interest in talking to any of Eminem's fans, only to a hand-picked group of upwardly mobile talking heads.

To have a true national debate and dialogue about lyrics would bring out some vile prejudices, to be sure. But above all, it would become a forum for the average American to explain that he or she has some life and death problems that only artists have found the right words for. Such a debate would tear away the veil of respectability with which the media has anointed a cabal of unelected know-it-alls, leaving America's problems fully exposed.

In the end, this isn't about shutting up Eminem. It's about keeping the rest of us quiet.