EW.com tells you why it's happening, and who has the most to gain
Credit: Eminem: UPPA/Zuma Press

Sure, the 43rd annual Grammy Awards (airing on CBS, Feb. 21 at 8 p.m.) will feature performances by Faith Hill and Destiny’s Child, as well as a first time host, ”The Daily Show”’s Jon Stewart. But the live telecast’s most anticipated event — the moment that’s really going to keep everyone’s hands off the remote control — is the bizarre duet between gay basher (in his lyrics, anyway) Eminem and gay community diplomat Elton John. The icon of sweet melodies and extra large sunglasses will perform folk singer Dido’s vocal part on ”Stan,” Eminem’s hit tune about a homicidal, obsessed fan from the obscenity laden, 8.1 million selling ”The Marshall Mathers LP” — which also happens to be up for the Album of the Year Grammy.

As many industry observers expected, news of Eminem’s Grammy honors (even before the duet announcement) triggered a storm of protest from activist groups such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which released a statement saying that it was ”appalled that John would share the stage with Eminem, whose words and actions promote hate and violence” against gays and lesbians. ”We were all flabbergasted that [John] would do this,” GLAAD’s news media director Cathy Renna told EW.com. In anticipation of such backlash, John told the Los Angeles Times last week that he would ”rather tear down walls between people than build them up. If I thought for one minute that he was hateful, I wouldn’t do it.”

Controversy aside, the duet is likely to benefit its participants more than it will harm them — especially the real Slim Shady, who’s up for four Grammys. ”Eminem obviously gains more from the pairing as it almost puts a seal of approval on the rapper’s claim that his lyrics are not meant to be taken seriously,” says Steve Gottlieb, a senior editor at the trade magazine CVC Report.

Em’s audience consists largely of teens and young adults, notes modern rock DJ Lisa Worden of L.A.’s KROQ. But the Grammys tend to attract a wide range of viewers, many of whom might have only heard of Em through negative press reports about his violent lyrics and his now notorious arrest last summer in a Detroit area suburb on weapons charges. Seeing the 28 year old rapper paired with the pop music elder can only boost his reputation. ”Eminem is going to be tapping people who probably never would have paid attention to him. Moms and dads will definitely be watching that duet!” says Worden.

Indeed, Em’s rep Dennis Dennehy tells EW.com that the idea for the duet originated with the rapper and his manager. ”It’s an opportunity he wanted to explore as a performance,” Dennehy explains. Em and Co. contacted execs at record label Interscope’s owner, Universal, who helped solicit John and the Recording Academy’s interest. Dennehy, however, insists that Em wasn’t just trying to polish his public image. ”Regardless of what people are saying, Elton’s been one of the more vocal artistic supporters of Eminem — as another artist. He’s said nothing but nice things about Eminem from the beginning,” says Dennehy.

Other industry observers point out that John has a history of ignoring politics in favor of his musical tastes. ”Back when there was that huge controversy over Axl Rose’s antigay comments on the Guns N Roses song ‘One In A Million,’ Elton John went ahead and performed with him at a Queen benefit show,” says CVC’s Gottlieb. ”Being an artist, Elton can probably differentiate one’s art or lyrics from one’s own personal view.”

Moreover, John’s image has proven resilient. The singer has had 57 top 40 songs throughout his three decade career — second only to Elvis Presley. ”It’s not like he needs the money,” says Worden. ”I think it’s cool that he’s decided to do this.” Even so, this might be the last time we hear the words ‘cool’ and ‘Elton John’ together in the same sentence for a while.