There's a very good reason that our culture's most enduring artistic and moral icons all died young: because if they'd stuck around long enough, they'd have ended up shilling for sugary beverages during the Super Bowl. So long, Eminem. You were fun while you lasted.
Last night's Super Bowl featured not one, but two commercials starring Eminem, the great battle rapper, the perpetual underdog, the guy who made himself the biggest-selling artist on the planet by appealing to the downtrodden, to the unpopular, to the spat-upon, whose glorious appeal was based on his sly ability to say "Fuck the man" in oh so many new and different ways.
So let's get all of the objections out of the way up front: "This will be great for Eminem's career. He needed to do something to stay in the spotlight. This is a way for him to promote his music. You have to do ads to stay relevant in the music industry today. Lots of rappers have done commercials. Some of these ads really respect hip hop. That commercial was funny and knowing. And the Chrysler commercial was amazing. He did it for Detroit. He did it for his fans. He did it for his career, and I love him, so I love it. Everybody knows this is just how things are now."
All of those perspectives are perfectly valid—if you consider Eminem to be just another pop star, and you consider pop stars to be just another extension of the vast commercial consumption-encouragement apparatus that powers America. In that case, of course, who cares? The problem with that view is that it assumes, and requires you to assume, that nothing the musician in question says is real, or should be treated as real, or taken seriously, or felt in an honest way; it's all just so much space-filler for drive-time radio shows, feel-good background muzack for retail stores, aesthetically pleasing warbling that complements the gleaming lines of whichever auto it's supposed to be hyping up in the ad of the day. In this formulation, any music that's popular automatically sacrifices its claim to artsiness and free, unbounded expression in favor of its claim to popularity—because popularity, the ability to command an audience, is monetizable, and must be maximized and exploited at the expense of art, which is just some weird selfish flight of fancy.
All of which is just a long way of saying: it doesn't matter how cool you think the commercial is. It just matters that it's a commercial, and that it's using Eminem to sell sugar-flavored bubble water and a near-defunct brand of automobiles. Being in a commercial means taking the credibility and popularity you've built up over your entire career and exchanging it for a sum of money. It means lending a corporation your halo effect; trying to slyly transfer the good will that your fans give you, the artist, over to a corporation's product. And if that good will was built up on the back of real art—something worthwhile, something honest, something from the heart and untainted that resonated with people, no matter how profane—then the act of trying to make that good will rub off on a soft drink, or a car, or a sneaker, is essentially a trick. It's sleight of hand, a con job perpetrated on people who gave an artist their own good will in good faith. That's the reason that "selling out" used to be a taboo—because no amount of money is a reasonable price for the good will that an artist earned with their very soul, through art. It's especially sad when the artist in question gained lots of their fans with the type of unfiltered rage that stands in refreshing opposition to the sell-sell-sell society that leaves many of us with a vague sense of unease, the kind of unease that great music taps into, making us fans. Hardcore, loving fans who so adore an artist for putting words and music to our own feelings that we'd do damn near anything they say, even listen to a sales pitch for Brisk Iced Tea.
And Eminem was already rich. Shame.
[Photo via Getty]