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Is Eminem a poet? In a recent collection of essays entitled White Noise: The Eminem Collection, he is compared, favorably, to a variety of literary figures, including Sylvia Plath, Flannery O'Connor, Robert Browning, T. S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, and Vladmir Nabokov. (1) One critic even attempts to reinforce the parallel with his own alliterative phrasing, calling Eminem a "bleach-blond Baudelaire." (2) Issued on the heels of Eminem's apotheosis as a movie star in the semi-autobiographical 8-Mile and edited by New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als, White Noise both marks and meditates upon a familiar phenomenon in the American mediascape: an acceptance by the cultural mainstream of a purportedly oppositional, dissident artist. Eminem was Selling Out. But to whom? After all, the audience for White Noise is not quite the same as the audience for 8-Mile, though neither represent the denizens of Detroit's hip-hop scene, where Eminem originally established his underground notoriety. The complexity of Eminem's status as a celebrity, then, can be seen in the tense coincidence of his apparent co-optation by Hollywood with his apparent consecration by America's cultural elite.
This consecration operates by way of the literary analogies referenced above. The critics in White Noise affirm Eminem's talent as an artist by shifting the field of focus from music to literature, and therefore from performance to authorship (while his cinematic debut pressures his image in the other direction). It is worth noting that none of the analogies are contemporary; in fact, all of the writers to whom these critics compare him could broadly be considered modernist. As I intend to show, the attempt to consecrate popular music by way of literary analogy began in the sixties, when a specific type of authorial celebrity characteristic of modernism shifted from a literary to a musical dominant.
In tracking this historical development, I hope to achieve two critical objectives. First, I want to extend the argument of my recent book, Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, into the contemporary, postmodern era. In that book I claim that literary celebrity during the era of modernism took the specific form of a traumatic split between a restricted renown in which an author was respected and read by a limited field of cultural producers, on the one hand, and a general recognition in which an author became familiar, frequently only as an image, to a wide range of consumers, on the other. This split between what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has called the restricted and general (or large-scale) sub-fields of cultural production informed both the subject and method of much literary work in the modern era. A principal concern of major American modernists from Ernest Hemingway to Gertrude Stein, I argue, was the authorial self torn between a bohemian coterie in which it originated and a mainstream market into which it expanded.
With the emergence of postmodernism, however, the significance of bohemia as a source of literary innovation (and, indeed, the significance of literature itself) receded, and therefore literary celebrity no longer commands the cultural authority it once did. The peculiar conflation of literary genius and pop phenomenon, however, did not disappear. Rather, it passed from the literary to the musical field in the figure of the singer-songwriter, whose emergence during the postmodern era is a crucial condition of possibility for the aesthetic consecration of a figure like Eminem. In this essay, I hope to establish why and how this shift occurred when it did.
In arguing for the historical specificity and sociological complexity of this form of celebrity, I would also like to make a more general bid for, as well as an intervention in, a particular approach to celebrity culture that I associate with the academic practice of cultural studies. Until recently, understandings of celebrity both inside and outside the academy tended to be dominated by a declension narrative whose principal points of reference were compellingly schematized in Daniel Boorstin's seminal study, The Image: "The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media. The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name." (3) Boorstin's pithy parallelisms give his analysis the benefit of an evaluative and historical clarity, which testifies to the persistence of its reductive claims: the hero, a gifted individual responsible for his renown, is a figure of the past; the celebrity, an empty vessel filled by media hype, is a figure of the present. The problem, of course, is that many contemporary figures-Eminem is an excellent example--are both. Clearly the person named Marshall Mathers III is a talented individual whose creative skills are at least partly responsible not only for his music but for his public avatars, Eminem and Slim Shady. It is equally clear that these avatars are trademarks and images created and sustained at least partly by the culture industry in order to promote sales of the music. What is required is an analytical method that, instead of ruthlessly separating these two modes of public individuality into what inevitably becomes a declension narrative, understands them in dialectical relation to each other.
Two studies--Joshua Gamson's Claims to Fame and P. David Marshall's Celebrity and Power--begin to envision and deploy such a method, and both are categorized by their publishers as "cultural studies." Generally speaking, this cultural studies approach replaces Boorstin's declension narrative with an emphasis on the gradual, and partial, empowerment of audiences in a democratic society. With this shift in historical understanding comes a realignment of methodology, from Boorstin's focus on the monolithic powers of the media to a more nuanced concern with the dialectical engagement between industry and audience. Thus, Marshall credits cultural studies with affirming that "celebrity is simultaneously a construction of the dominant culture and a construction of the subordinate audiences of the culture." (4) Like Boorstin, cultural studies scholars continue to be critical of the "dominant culture" of corporate mass media (though their critique tends to be more left-leaning, derived from the Marxist tradition of the Frankfurt School). However, they counterbalance this …