Is Eminem Dad Rock?

The white rapper is trying to stave off creeping irrelevance.

Image: Peter Pham via Flickr

Eminem resurfaced for a BET Hip Hop Awards freestyle aimed at Donald Trump, and he got scorn from all sides: people who do not buy Eminem’s political awakening, people who get real mad on the Internet when someone is mean to our very stable genius-in-chief, and people who snicker at lines like “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not.” If Em’s late career is rocky, this attempted comeback has been rockier still—his subsequent album release, Revival, received even less enthusiasm than the BET thing. You can visibly see him struggling for his place in a crowded market that no longer feels so empty without him, as he lashes out at mumble rap while trying on trap beats. The derisive term we reserve for this kind of fade into irrelevance seems appropriate: Eminem is dad rock.

You’re probably wondering how Eminem, who is a well-documented dad but not much of a rocker, can possibly fall under the umbrella of “dad rock,” and the answer is simple: dad rock is a fluid term, routinely jumping boundaries and rarely agreed upon (though this Pitchfork video is a decent start). As someone who likes some late-career Springsteen albums (yeah, plural), I’d even suggest the term can be endearing sometimes. Eric Clapton, Journey, Billy Joel, Foo Fighters; just as there have been, over the decades, many evolving species of dad telling you to turn down that goshdarn racket, so, too, are there many forms of dad rock that the proverbial dad takes as Good Old Days gospel.

The sheer scope of music as a medium ensures that any claim to there being a Good Old Days is fundamentally bullshit; such claims more represent a refusal to step outside a comfort zone, clinging to old-school sensibilities as the only sensibilities. You don’t have to be a dad to be a dad rock enthusiast, but this is what dad rock is, in the derogatory sense. Dad rock is the embrace of what’s safe, the strict adherence to overplayed, unexciting convention to the exclusion of all else; the archetypal dad thinks your bangers are bummers because he knows what he likes and believes in every bit of that statement’s authoritative power, that there’s nothing else to discover.

Think of the familiar refrain: “I don’t like rap, but I like Eminem.” As one of the most successful rap artists of all time, Eminem represents a fairly wide comfort zone that he’s cultivated by casting a broad net. If the graphic violence and shock value of his horrorcore material doesn’t do it for you, maybe the introspective tracks will. Maybe the pop-y empowerment anthems are more your speed, or the generalized trolling. But regardless, this statement has never made much sense on its face. His rape and murder fantasies drew frequent controversy and probably should’ve been enough to scare off a mass audience, and (some intricate rhyme schemes aside) that’s mostly where Em’s music differs—his more accessible material hardly stands apart from the genre people call him the exception to. And yet there he is, the inverse hip hop companion to “everything but country”: “no rap except Eminem.”

The reason for this is obvious, even to Em himself: Eminem is the favorite rapper of white people because Eminem is white people. On the song “White America” from 2002’s The Eminem Show, he comments on “So many motherfucking people who feel like me / Who share the same views and the exact same beliefs” before remarking, “my skin is just starting to work to my benefit now.” Outside his more radio-friendly anthems, his music is not safe in a traditional sense, but given the sales, it’s safe in the aggressively mainstream sense. And what’s more dad rock than the adoring white audience who insists you’re the only one worth a damn because you’re square in their comfort zone?

In an excellent essay for The Ringer, Justin Charity finds echoes of “White America” and Eminem’s entire manifesto in current politics: “Fifteen years after…‘White America,’ U.S. politics is overrun with right-wing, Eminem-looking motherfuckers. The alt-right is a loose, amorphous movement defined largely by young, white men for whom trolling is art, recreation, and ideology altogether…their neo-shock jock, anti-PC razzing is a language they learned, eagerly or unwittingly, from Eminem.” But with Revival, Eminem’s attempted about-face has only unearthed that other dad rock hallmark, public apathy. Even setting aside the clumsy provocations of his BET freestyle, his protest music flounders—“Untouchable” clumsily flips between the perspectives of a racist police officer, a perspective we do not need in order to understand their monstrousness, and a black person from a poor neighborhood, a perspective we can get (more insightfully) without Eminem. These days, nobody’s really asking for Em’s input, as the people he spoke for in the past are decidedly overserved. He’s less a revolutionary than a relic; consider that one of his more prevalent descriptors, a “shock jock,” is a radio term.

He’s trying to stave off the creeping irrelevance so familiar to other dad rockers, and it makes you wonder about the sincerity of his politics as a result. Is Eminem just picking a fight because that’s what Eminem does? Craig Jenkins sums up his M.O. for Vulture: “He prods until he finds the joke that makes you maddest and then plays you for a fool and a square for getting worked up in the first place.” Maybe the political angle is another stab at credibility, another way to broaden his net like the trap beats of “Believe”  and that baffling “River” feature by Ed Sheeran. Where prominent dad rock outfit U2 calls up Haim and Kendrick, Eminem proclaims that he’s woke.

On the heels of Revival, Eminem has been announced as a headliner for festivals like Coachella, The Governors Ball, Boston Calling, and Bonnaroo. But given the tepid response to his album, it seems apparent that his appeal will come not from his new material, but as a novelty nostalgia act, a symbol of the Good Old Days that envelops audiences inside his great white comfort zone. He finds himself in that defiant late career rut that marks so much of long-running dad rock; how much of a coincidence is it, really, that Em can’t seem to shake the siren call of goofball guitar samples in his production, which began over a decade ago with Aerosmith’s “Dream On” in “Sing for the Moment” and now comes to an embarrassing head with Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock N Roll” on “Remind Me”? Meanwhile, his once-sharp wordplay has devolved mostly into terrible puns: “Your booty is heavy duty like diarrhea” or “You ate off Hitler” or “Nazi, I do not see.” Last week, Eminem put out a remix hitting back at Revival’s detractors, but it seems only a matter of time before his next rebuttal to the critics tired of his act is just, “Hi, tired, I’m dad.”