This is to share and make a smallish comment about a jaw-droppingly powerful image that I have just seen, disseminated to my newsfeed today by Nation magazine. I’m not sure if I should directly feature the work of the Australian painter, lushsux, licensable by Getty images— but, after all, lushsux hopes go viral as a “meme artist” so I guess it’s OK. You can easily find the image that the Nation licensed if you click on this screenshot.
At this point my readers may divide, with half not grasping the genius of the reference, and the other half annoyed with me for mansplaining it. (Will this be like either getting a joke or not, and if we have to stop and explain, it is already too late?) If you are in the latter camp, skip the next paragraph.
For the former camp, the mural references Eminem’s song “Stan”—arguably one of the top ten hip-hop songs ever made. A single hearing permanently sears it into memory. If you want to stop and do that now, please don’t be like my students who only read the first half of Malcolm X’s autobiography, armed with negative preconceptions, get offended, stop … and thus they miss the end of the book that repudiates most of what offended them, and they also miss understanding why some of the things that offend them deserve careful thought. (Not that Eminem equals Malcolm or this song is a joke—I’m just saying listen to the end.)
So, hopefully everyone still with me shares some basic hip-hop literacy: It is “Stan,” an obsessive superfan, being referenced here, and he is addressing Eminem’s rap persona, “Slim Shady”:
“Dear Slim, I wrote you but you still ain’t calling….”
Stan has lost track of the difference between, on one hand, the ironized description and/or critique and/or hyper-intensified semi-caricature of violent misogynistic behavior in much hip-hop music—that is, a poetic report that is also lament and outrage— and on the other hand, a straightforward promotion and celebration of such violence and misogyny. Let’s be clear that both things are part of hip-hop, but far more of hip-hip is in the former camp than haters presume. (That’s by any reasonable measure, and I would say further that the critical parts are preponderant in the best hip-hop.)
Stan believes that Eminem, whom Stan obsessively imagines as the only one who “gets” him and by extension as a sort of idealized best friend or lover, has disrespected him. Slowly Stan loses his grip, and by the end he goes off the rails, puts his girlfriend in the trunk of his car, and drives off a bridge.
His last message to “Slim,” from the bridge, makes it clear that he is partly blinded by rage, partly wants to punish Eminem for an imagined betrayal, and partly hopes to posthumously impress Eminem. He does the latter by re-enacting in “real life” (that is, within the song’s narrative) what in an earlier Eminem song was best understood as a disturbing but largely ironic revenge fantasy. (At the least, Eminem frames the situation this way in the song, clearly trying to distance himself from earlier work insofar as it was not ironic enough for “Stans” to grasp.)
Within the song, we know that Stan is only imagining Eminem’s betrayal, because we can hear Eminem catching up on replies to his fan mail. He apologizes for an unintentional slight, encourages Stan to chill out and spend quality time with his girlfriend, and urges him get counseling.
About the revenge fantasy he says: “I say that shit just clowning, dog/ How fucked up is you?”
Thus we arrive at the deep complexities and powerful ironies encoded in this mural. Yes, Trump has triggered something—parts of which might lead back toward understandable grievances—that pushed his “Stans” over the edge. Yes, there are sick fantasies and broken promises involved. Yes, everyone needs to chill out and get some counseling.
As to the question, “how fucked up is you?,” and as for the object of Stan’s obsession trying to calm him down— the point for today doesn’t seem to be Trump addressing this to his alt-right militias, but rather the world addressing it to Trump.
MBE standard notice: The time I spend on this blog is not in addition to a Twitter and FaceBook presence, but an alternative to it. If you think anything here merits wider circulation, this will probably only happen if you circulate it.