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How Eminem uses misogyny to sell records

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There’s little that surprises in the new music video by the increasingly anachronistic Eminem. Promoting an upcoming release of a Shady Records compilation, the video shows the rapper in an abandoned Detroit auditorium, clad in gray sweatshirt, free-styling for seven minutes while a silent man in a sunglasses looks on in the background. For many of those minutes, it’s unclear what exactly the rapper is trying to convey. But then he lands upon the point.

“I may fight for gay rights, especially if the dyke is more of a knockout than Janay Rice,” he rapped. “Play nice, b—- I’ll punch Lana Del Ray in the face twice like Ray Rice, in broad daylight, in plain sight of elevator surveillance, ’til the head is bangin’ on the railing, then celebrate with the Ravens.”

The threatening remarks may have been extemporaneous, but the publicity tactic driving them was not. Calling out — and then threatening or insulting — prominent women is a frequently-used Eminem device to drive album sales. The mechanism works something like this: Exploit current affairs to target a culturally relevant woman and then leverage the ensuing controversy to ratchet up album and merchandise sales. (“New Fall Merch Available Now,” his Web site says next to the new video.) Though the tactic perhaps pulls a Piers Morgan by conflating controversy with relevancy, it is nonetheless one Eminem has mastered.

Since Eminem’s arrival in 1999, capitalistic misogyny has buoyed his career. “Eminem’s uber-misogynistic lyric toward Lana del Rey is neither shocking nor surprising,” wrote the Guardian’s Britt Julious. “For 15 years, he has used our culture’s feigned anger toward acts of misogyny, and our obsession with celebrity, as a shortcut to staying relevant. … Attacking women in his singles offers instant selling publicity.”

Though he has rapped of machine-gunning women and murdering his ex-wife, the violent lyrics, rather than derail his career, have in fact burnished it. “Despite the firestorm of controversy surrounding his often misogynistic, homophobic and violent lyrics, Eminem has always been able to transcend hip-hop music’s boundaries in a variety of ways,” wrote Ryan Ford of the University of Iowa in 2004 in the Journal of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy. “His records get played on rock stations … he has managed to get top billing over more established, veteran rap acts … [and] was able to survive a storm of staunch criticism by the gay and lesbian community” to win two Grammy Awards in 2001.

All of this while he singled out Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. “Christina Aguilera, better switch me chairs so I can sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst and hear ’em argue over who she gave head to first,” he rapped on his hit “The Real Slim Shady” in 2000.

Around that time, he spoke frankly about the anger that sometimes flared within him against women. He told Vanity Fair he had had bad luck in relationships. “I haven’t had the greatest experience with women,” he said. “So if I say, ‘b—-‘ or ‘ho’ in a rap or something like that … you can get mad and record something at that moment and that’s how you felt at that moment.” He added: “I’ve seen a lot in my life. I’ve seen groupies on the road and women throwing themselves at you just because you’re famous, and I hate that. … It takes your opinion of women and lowers it. How can these girls dress like this? … How can these girls portray themselves in this way and then get mad if we call them a ‘b—-‘ or a ‘ho?'”

In 2009, after several years out of the limelight, Eminem roared back with a fresh barrage, this time targeting the women of that moment: Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson, Amy Winehouse, Kim Kardashian and Mariah Carey. He called Carey a “c–t” and a “whore,” insults that made even Busta Rhymes tell him to cool it.

If anything, the names of the famous women may change, but the act of targeting them does not. “Make no mistake,” the Guardian’s Julious wrote. “If this was two years ago and Lady Gaga was still on top of the world, Eminem would have merely slipped in her name instead of Del Rey’s.”

But with the rise of social media, in which the public can bypass mass media to voice discontent, there are signs Eminem’s use of misogyny as a tool to sell records may not resonate as it has in the past. As the national debate over issues raised by Elliot Rodger, the catcalling video and Jian Ghomeshi rages, the pushback after Eminem’s attack on Del Rey was immediate.

Singer Azealia Banks only had this to say to Del Rey: “Tell him to go back to his trailer park and eat his microwave hotpocket dinner.” Her message was then re-tweeted 8,400 times.