Sunday, January 09, 2005

# Posted 2:16 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

EMINEM'S FAMILY VALUES: If, for just one moment, conservatives stopped demonizing Eminem and actually listened to him, they might realize how profoundly his work supports so much that conservatives have to say about family values.

In short, that is Mary Eberstadt's argument in a brilliant essay in the current issue of Policy Review. Eberstadt never apologizes for the violence, misogyny, drug abuse and casual sex glorified by the lyrics of Eminem and others. But she points out that the rappers and heavy metal bands who revel in such behavior constantly insist that there is one reason and one reason alone why they are so maladjusted: because they didn't grow up in stable, two-parent homes. Eberstadt writes that:
If yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon, today’s is that of abandonment. The odd truth about contemporary teenage music — the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before — is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers...

To put this perhaps unexpected point more broadly, during the same years in which progressive-minded and politically correct adults have been excoriating Ozzie and Harriet as an artifact of 1950s-style oppression, many millions of American teenagers have enshrined a new generation of music idols whose shared generational signature in song after song is to rage about what not having had a nuclear family has done to them.
Eberstadt points out that much of this obsession with the fallout from broken homes has autobiographical origins. Papa Roach, Good Charlotte, Pink, Blink-182, Snoop Dogg, Jay Z and Tupac sing about broken homes because that is where they come from.

The one musician, more than any other, responsible for this trend is Kurt Cobain. As Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, observed in an interview almost a decade ago,
"I think it was maybe a shock to both of us [i.e. Vedder and Cobain] that so many people were going through the same things. I mean, they understood so completely what we were talking about...when our first record came out, I was shocked how many people related to some of that stuff . . . . The kind of letters that got through to me about those songs, some of them were just frightening

“Think about it, man,” he says. “Any generation that would pick Kurt or me as its spokesman — that must be a pretty f—d up generation, don’t you think?”
It's hard to disagree. An interesting point Eberstadt doesn't make is that Pearl Jam is one of those rare bands that has responded to its sense of loss and abandonment by praising -- and attempting to practice -- sensitivity and moderation, rather than violence and self-destruction. There is a lot of anger in Pearl Jam's music, but that anger is never an end in itself.

Toward the end of her essay, Eberstadt observers that
Where parents and entertainers disagree is over who exactly bears responsibility for this moral chaos. Many adults want to blame the people who create and market today’s music and videos. Entertainers, Eminem most prominently, blame the absent, absentee, and generally inattentive adults whose deprived and furious children (as they see it) have catapulted today’s singers to fame. (As he puts the point in one more in-your-face response to parents: “Don’t blame me when lil’ Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watchin him — apparently you ain’t parents.”)

The spectacle of a foul-mouthed bad-example rock icon instructing the hardworking parents of America in the art of child-rearing is indeed a peculiar one, not to say ridiculous. The single mother who is working frantically because she must and worrying all the while about what her 14-year-old is listening to in the headphones is entitled to a certain fury over lyrics like those. In fact, to read through most rap lyrics is to wonder which adults or political constituencies wouldn’t take offense. Even so, the music idols who point the finger away from themselves and toward the emptied-out homes of America are telling a truth that some adults would rather not hear. In this limited sense at least, Eminem is right.
The ultimate question is what we should do about this crisis. Eberstadt rips into those liberal scholars who speak of "family diversity" as if the embrace of one-parent and no-parent homes would solve the problems they generate. But trashing such ostrich-headed liberals is not enough (although it is probably both fun and necessary.)

What is enough? Hell if I know. I study foreign policy. When something goes wrong with our foreign policy, the answer is to have the government come up with better ideas. But I tend to doubt that the government can take a leadership role in the struggle to fix broken homes.

I think that what it all comes down to is the kind of cultural change that no one knows how to generate. Somehow, Americans need to develop the caution, self-awareness and self-control necessary to make responsible decisions about childbearing, sex, marriage and divorce. As Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, there are simple answers to our problems, just not easy ones.
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