Co-Opted Trauma In Music Doesn't Begin (Or End) With Eminem's Manchester Attack Lyric

By Nathan Ma

Eminem has never shied away from controversy: The 47-year-old rapper is known just as well for his double-time delivery and for inventing the term “stan” as he is for his liberal use of homophobic slurs and the gratuitous depictions of violence against women in his music. Unsurprisingly, Eminem's latest release Music To Be Murdered By is no exception. Dropped as a surprise at midnight on January 17, the album is punctuated by flashy stars and unexpected cameos: Ed Sheeran, Young M.A., Anderson Paak, Q-Tip, the late Juice WRLD, and — most provocatively — the Manchester Arena bombing.

History is a subjective art. It relies just as much on first-hand experiences and first-person accounts as it does on how it’s recorded and remembered. Eminem’s lyrics on the track “Unaccommodating” —“I’m contemplating yelling ‘Bombs away’ on the game/Like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting” — are likely to be whisked away from the public eye as quickly as they were written, but they’ve already left a sour taste in the mouths of many. In a statement given to BBC News, Manchester mayor Andy Burnham called the song “unnecessarily hurtful and deeply disrespectful to the families and all those affected”, and critics had harsher words still. “His tactics on this song reek of desperation, like the Eminem who can’t get any attention in Trump’s America,” Matt Miller wrote for Esquire. “And what’s weird is that Eminem’s flippant reference to the Manchester bombing doesn’t make any sense considering he helped raise $2 million for the victims”.

Here is what we know to be true: On May 22, 2017, 22 people were murdered as they left an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena. Ten of the people killed were under 20, with the youngest being an eight-year-old girl and the oldest being a 51-year-old woman. An additional 139 people were wounded by the improvised explosive device, which sprayed shrapnel throughout the thousands of people who had attended the concert. Up to 250 people were later reported to have sought medical attention after the bombing, including many who faced severe psychological trauma following the attack.

The Manchester Arena attack was front-page news around the globe. It’s remembered as the deadliest terrorist attack in the United Kingdom since the 7/7 bombings, and a chilling day for fans of pop music. It’s a story of tragedy, but also of community resilience. Under Grande’s leadership, musicians from across the world came to the city two weeks after the bombing for One Love Manchester, a benefit concert to aid the victims and their families. Others joined in the fundraising by supporting the efforts of the British Red Cross and Manchester Evening News —Eminem included.

So what’s behind the jarring lyrics on “Unaccommodating”? Some speculate that by making a metaphor of the Manchester Arena bombing, Eminem is hanging tight to Ariana Grande’s coattails. Grande has established herself in recent years as one of pop music’s most interesting and thoughtful artists; a public scuffle with the young singer could very well be the newsy hook Eminem needs to make headlines and the charts.

Others point to Eminem’s reputation as a provocateur — "Unaccommodating" can be quite easily slotted in between his previous homophobic lyrics and misogynistic themes. Eminem made his name on crude, crass raps, and he’s known for saying things that ought to be left unsaid. He agitates audiences with a disregard for what might be considered offensive, privileging a fine-tuned flow over taste. This seems more likely, but it’s a bleak day in music history when the deaths of 22 people are reduced to a pair of throwaway bars.

Some artists thrive on the spectacle of shock value, and many wear it with a sense of pride. Consider indie-rock outfit Preoccupations or rapper Rich Brian, both of whom debuted under names meant to drop jaws. The former chose to go by Viet Cong despite being a band made up of four white guys with no relationship to Vietnam; the latter act opted for a nonsensical portmanteau consisting of the word “Chinese” and a racist slur.

Aesthetic choices and appropriative in their nature, these names caused controversy from the minute they were announced, but the initial buzz came with material consequences as well. Oberlin College cancelled a scheduled Viet Cong gig citing their offensive moniker, and the band’s decision to go by Preoccupations was announced shortly thereafter. Elsewhere, Rich Brian announced his new pseudonym alongside an apology for any offence caused to those who derided his music based on his offensive stage name alone. Two weeks later? He became the first Asian musician to reach the top spot on iTunes’ Hip-Hop chart.

Both Rich Brian and Preoccupations formally apologised for their choice of names, as did rapper Noname when she announced that she would no longer be using a previous stage name. In 2016, the Chicago-based artist extended an apology to the Romani community, and she took ownership of how her choice had hurt communities she was not a part of. All three of these apologies were succinct and to the point — they identified the communities they had harmed and saw the artists address the impact of their choices.

It’s a stark contrast to Eminem’s approach: A week after his album’s release, he tweeted a signed statement on yellowed paper complete with two bloody streaks. “This album was not made for the squeamish,” he wrote. “If you are easily offended or unnerved at the screams of bloody murder this may not be the collection for you. Certain selections have been designed to shock the conscience, which may cause positive action. Unfortunately darkness has truly fallen upon us”.

Near the end, he takes a swing at critics’ intelligence: “So you see, murder in this instance isn’t always literal, nor pleasant. These bars are only meant for the sharpest knives in the drawer”. His shock value, Eminem claimed, is an art form, and its brilliance evades critics. While others like Noname and Rich Brian have assumed responsibility for the impact of their words and actions, Eminem is blameless: His issue, it would appear, is with what he sees as bad-faith misunderstandings of his work.

Still, Eminem is poised to keep failing upward. He has 15 Grammys and an Oscar to his name, and remains amongst the best-selling artists of all time, as well as the fifth most streamed artist on Spotify of the last decade. His fans are as ardent as they are enthusiastic, and he’s currently hovering around second place as the most-discussed artist of the year on Metacritic.

Most interestingly, Eminem’s success amongst his broad and active fanbase shows a disconnect between Slim Shady stans and and music critics: The Independent dismissed the track as “grossly exploitative” and Rolling Stone noted it was “the most egregious self-owning oversight” on the album, while NME described the album as “between clumsy pop commercialism and something close to outsider art”. Will Eminen’s fanbase care? A quick look at Twitter offers a serviceable answer — probably not. In the UK at least, the controversy over the contents of Music To Be Murdered By has so far had little impact on its success — it debuted at No. 1 on the UK album chart, while "Godzilla," a track from the album, reached No. 1 on the UK singles chart. It makes Eminem the only artist in UK chart history with 10 consecutive No.1 albums.

Any backlash towards “Unaccommodating” will most likely be lost in the long run. Critics and fans will take away what they want from it. It’s crass but it’s true: While the thought of making a mockery of the Manchester Arena attacks is stomach-churning, it’s also not particularly unexpected. Similarly, for many Eminem fans, it’s neither a problem nor a new consideration to keep in mind. The rapper's career was built on controversy, and with “Music To Get Murdered Be”, he added another log to the fire. Eminem–or Slim Shady, or M&M, or whichever of his stage names you prefer–is and always has been a conversation starter both online and offline. But my decision moving forward? I’m keeping Marshall Mathers muted.