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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Column: Eminem meets the 99 Percent

Eminem is an unlikely political prophet. Two lead singles on the Marshall Mathers LP bring new insight to the Occupy Wall Street and We Are The 99 Percent movements. “The Real Slim Shady” and “The Way I Am,” both speak to the tactics and challenges of these protests, respectively.

The single “Who Knew” was originally intended to be the lead track on the album. It wasn’t until a few hours before the final deadline for the album that Eminem wrote “The Real Slim Shady.” As anyone who has listened to it knows, the song is a five-minute-long assault on factory-made pop music, organized as a series of drive-by vignettes on the likes of Britney Spears, Pamela Anderson, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC, Will Smith and others. In a sense, Eminem takes the anti-corporate thesis directly to its headline benefactors.

Occupy Wall Street hopes to be similarly aggressive in its tactics, bringing protesters directly to the streets sidelining major corporations in the Financial District. To date, however, the protests have been confined to marches and rallies in parks. The public display of critical mass is great because it can be packaged and promoted by social media. And in that sense, the protests have successfully spread virally into cities all across the country.

But I think protesters need to channel their inner-Slim-Shady more if they want to be effective. What was notable about “The Real Slim Shady” was its ability to incite a response. Christina Aguilera produced a song titled “My Reply”. Industry response came additionally in the form of parodies and covers. I literally have three albums worth of Eminem disses and counter-disses. To ignite response is to unambiguously show you’re being heard.

Occupy Wall Street lacks a like response – a recognition of the demonstrations from its target. Politicians, celebrities and the news media have had a field day appropriating the protests to service their own sound bites, but the corporate giants charged with corrupting politics have been conspicuously mum. That’s because the demonstrations occupy Wall Street, not their offices.

Eminem’s next big hit on the album, “The Way I Am,” is a darker production. This track was intended to answer the burdens Slim Shady was facing with his reign atop the rap world. As fans, critics and record company execs projected their own infinite desires on his art, the chorus answers: “And I am whatever you say I am. If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am? In the papers, the news, everyday I am.”

The public pressures of self-identification manifest in the We Are the 99 Percent arm of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Tumblr blog is meant to serve as a stream of collective consciousness for the movement, perpetually displaying the images and stories of those struggling in the bottom 99 percent. Touching, though it is, the Tumblr highlights the overreach of the demonstrations. I’m following the development of the movement like most people, through social media, news coverage and word-of-mouth, but I’m hard-pressed to describe a single actionable demand characteristic of the whole effort.

Perhaps that’s the point of it all – to mirror the democratic composition of the demonstrations with a similarly democratic collage of frustrations, goals and demands.

The democratic nature of Occupy Wall Street’s identity is being crowdsourced. In “The Way I Am”, Eminem is attacking the additional burdens of a public identity to reclaim his own; Occupy Wall Street, by contrast, is inviting a mosaic of labels because they hesitate to claim their own. The current appeal of the movement is that it takes in everyone. Occupy Wall Street is whatever you say it is. If it wasn’t, then why would you say it is? We’re the 99 percent for a reason.

The larger issue at hand is the problem of being too inclusive. Movements for change tend to build a mass of popular energy, harness the energy into a point of tremendous pressure and focus that point onto a specific policy change. To do that, you need a kind of hierarchy to the movement, a set of defined outcomes, and a path to achieving them. Occupy Wall Street has a path via mass demonstrations, but the We Are The 99 Percent fizzles the energy into a million tiny sparks.

There’s no shame in having an exclusive set of goals with an inclusive mass of peoples. The Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Rights Movement, and the various independence movements have all had their leaders and defined goals to rally their coalition of masses. Will the real Occupy Wall Street please stand up?

The real RAJIV NARAYAN is whatever you say he is/if he wasn’t then why would you e-mail him at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.


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