Despite the controversy, ''The Marshall Mathers LP'' faces little competition

By Rob Brunner
Updated January 12, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Eminem: Dave Hogan/Image Direct

He’s a bigot! He’s a genius! By now, the great Eminem debate is more familiar than Britney’s belly button, with one faction skewering the rapper for supposedly promoting hate speech and the other defending his First Amendment right to be as nasty as he wants to be. But just as 2000’s most rancorous musical kerfuffle looked to be waning, the Jan. 3 Grammy nominations kicked up a new stink.

Despite oft quoted lyrics like ”My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/ That’ll stab you in the head whether you’re a fag or lez,” Eminem’s ”The Marshall Mathers LP” earned four nods from music’s most prestigious awards show, including one for Album of the Year. (Mathers won two Grammys last year for his less reviled debut, ”The Slim Shady LP.”) ”His nomination sends a dangerous message that you can write, sing, and market anything,” says GLAAD spokesman Scott Seomin.

Within days, more than a thousand phone calls and e- mails flooded the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS). ”We’re really not endorsing him,” insists NARAS head Michael Greene. ”There are very few people in this organization who wouldn’t agree that Eminem’s record is probably the most repugnant album of the year. However, the craft around it…it’s a remarkable recording.” Like many conflicted industry- ites, Greene grapples with the extremes of Eminem’s music. ”I don’t like the stuff,” he admits. ”It offends me viscerally. But when I asked [my teenage sons], they told me, ‘Nobody believes any of this stuff, Dad. He’s just trying to shock you.”’

Of course, Eminem’s already proven he can win the hearts of rebellious teens. But will the decidedly adult Grammy voters — who’ve championed middle of the roaders like Sting and Bonnie Raitt — actually award him Album of the Year? Quite possibly.

Conventional wisdom suggests fogy nominees Paul Simon and Steely Dan will cancel each other out, leaving only Radiohead’s difficult ”Kid A” and Beck’s ”Midnite Vultures,” which garnered lukewarm notices, to vie with Em’s album. And of the nominees, only Mathers boasts multiplatinum sales. ”There’s a good chance he will get it,” says manager Bob Garcia, a Grammy voter. ”We still have some of the old faces, but the Academy is starting to think younger.” And Eminem has found some surprising industry support. Melissa Etheridge tells EW: ”I can’t tell him what to say. I like his album on an artistic level. He’s hurtful, but he’s talented.” Whether Eminem will perform on the Feb. 21 CBS telecast is another question mark — he’s yet to commit — but CBS wants him in the house. ”I’m totally in favor of Eminem being on the show,” says CBS chief Leslie Moonves, who’ll consider running an advisory should Em appear. (MTV ran a public service announcement after his number on last fall’s Video Music Awards.) ”He is one of the most preeminent musicians. To eliminate him would be wrong.” So far, GLAAD isn’t planning any action other than calling for a PSA, but ”never say never,” says Seomin.

Meanwhile, some good has come of all this. MTV just kicked off a yearlong antidiscrimination campaign, whose scope and timing come partly in response to the Eminem controversy. (An MTV publicist says the effort wasn’t prompted by corporate soul searching, noting that it ”was conceived of well before Eminem’s album came out” following a 1999 poll of viewers’ concerns.) ”There’s now a dialogue about racism, sexism, and homophobia,” says Greene. ”The reason we’re talking about those issues is Eminem.”

One person who isn’t talking is the center of the storm himself. But as he sings on ”The Real Slim Shady”: ”You think I give a damn about a Grammy?”

(Additional reporting by William Keck, Lynette Rice, and Tom Sinclair)