Should the work of popular songwriters, such as Eminem, be banned?
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Echo Issue Outline 2001 / 17
The American 'rage rapper' Marshall Mathers has created significant controversy both here and in the United States. Popularly known as Eminem, the singer and songwriter has faced calls for his music to be banned both in the United States and in other countries where his albums are sold and where he performs live. Critics of his material claim that it promotes violence and hatred of women and homosexuals. They argue that the music industry should not have effectively promoted his work by twice nominating him for Grammy awards.
Mathers' recent Australian show originally provoked calls that his visa application be denied and there were also calls to have his Melbourne show restricted to those over 18.
Mathers' supporters defend his right to artistic expression and claim that he represents a talented new voice.
What they said ...
'This case isn't about art. It's about marketing. ... the industry ... [has] developed sophisticated strategies to sell death-metal music to adolescent boys. They don't care whether the violent, misogynistic messages in these lyrics causes children to do harmful things ... All they care about is money'
Mr David Pahler, whose fifteen-year-old daughter was recently murdered by young men whom he claims were influenced by lyrics in the songs of the 'death metal' band, Slayer
'The sententious bleating about a small man with a microphone is laughable, when families sit down at news time and see a barrage of evil, from unending global war to local violence'
Mr Michael Witheford, a Melbourne writer, questioning critics of Mathers' lyrics
Copyright © Echo Education Services
First published in The Echo on-line newspaper information site.
Issue outline by J M McInerney
Marshall Mathers is one of a number of music groups whose works have been criticised as pushing the boundaries of popular taste beyond what is acceptable.
There have been a number of attempts in the United States to hold such groups responsible for the supposedly harmful influence their works have had on young people. There have been cases in which young people accused of murder have tried to argue diminished responsibility because they claim they were acting under the influence of violence-promoting popular songs. Similarly there have been attempts by the parents of murder victims to hold performers and their distributors legally responsible for the supposedly damaging song lyrics they produce and promote. To date none of these defences or lawsuits has been successful.
In Australia the situation has been less extreme, however, the recent visit of Marshall Mathers promoted serious calls from some lobby groups for the singer-songwriter to be denied access to Australia. There were also calls to have his show restricted to an audience of over 18.
Australian censorship laws require that Eminem videos and albums be sold with a warning as to the nature of their content and last year the ABC youth radio network Triple J declared Eminem's lyrics too misogynistic and homophobic to play.
However, it is an indication of the divided state of popular opinion in Australia that despite deciding not to play Mathers' material Triple J promoted his Australian show.
There are a number of Internet sites that deal with Marshall Mathers and attempts to ban or restrict access to his music.
(Please note that because of the topical nature of this issue some of these sites may be available for only a short time. It is recommended that they be accessed and printed as soon as possible.)
The Internet information site 'About' (formerly 'MiningCo') has a number of sections of its site dealing with Marshall Mathers' work.
One of these is a comment written by Catherine Jones titled 'Eminem: The Case for Free Speech. Why we should be defending Eminem's "hate" lyrics.'
This piece argues that homosexuals should defend Mathers' right to freedom of expression as censorship tends to limit the freedoms of minority groups. It also argues that there is no conclusive evidence linking hate crimes to popular music.
The article can be found at http://gaylesteens.about.com/library/weekly/aa022001a.htm?once=true&
'About' also has a section of its site that gives regular updates and comments on developments in Marshall Mathers' career. The section is titled 'Eminem: Inside the Controversy. Is He Socially relevant?' It is produced by Adelle Vancil Tilton. Its most recent section reports and comments on Mathers' Australian tour.
It can be found at
'About' has also produced an article titled 'Eminem Unites Conservatives, Liberals' written on February 2, 2001, by Susan Jones. The article looks at the wide range of groups that opposes Mathers' lyrics.
It can be found at http://usconservatives.about.com/bln0202eminem.htm?once=true&
The student online publication 'The Senator' has a comment supporting the work of Marshall Mathers.
It is titled 'In defense of Eminem: violent lyrics do not necessarily produce violent behaviour' and was written by Jaclyn Lowman. The article can be found at http://www.shs.springfield.k12.il.us/newspaper/2000-2001/oct/viewpoints/lyrics.html
'The Senator' is published monthly during the school year by the newspaper production class of Springfield High School, Illinois.
The Internet-based Frontpage Magazine has an article critical of Mathers' work and the support given it by the American recording industry and prominent musicians and recording artists.
The comment is titled 'Eminem and the Arts Elitists'. It was written by Lowell Ponte and was published on February 21, 2001.
The comment can be found at http://www.frontpagemag.com/columnists/ponte/2001/ponte02-21-01.htm
GLAAD (the New York-based Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) has published an article critical of Marshall Mathers' lyrics. The comment is titled 'Musical gay bashing doesn't sound so good.' It was published on May 25, 2000, and can be found at http://glaad.org/org/publications/alerts/index.html?record=952
MediaForum, hosted by the University of Minnesota, has an interesting series of overviews exploring different aspects of the media's influence.
The issues considered include "How much influence do the media have?" "Are all children equally susceptible?" and "How valid is the research?"
MediaForum (formerly MediaNet) is an electronic resource collection and networking tool. It includes the research, policy and opinion documents to inform users about the myriad of social, economic and policy factors around media's influence in the lives of children and families.
On September 14, 1999, the United States Senate released a report titled 'Children, Violence and the Media".
This is a valuable attempt to assess the impact that popular media is having on the behaviour of young people. It can be found at http://www.senate.gov/~judiciary/mediavio.htm
Arguments against banning the work of popular songwriters such as Eminem
1. No one is compelled to listen to the work of 'rage rappers' such as Eminem
One of the general arguments offered in support of the work of popular songwriters such as Eminem is that anyone likely to be offended by Eminem's work simply need not listen to it. This view has been attributed to Terry Bracks, the wife of the Victorian Premier, Steve Bracks. Mrs Bracks was reported as having said to Eminem's Australian tour promoter, Michael Gudinski, 'Nobody has to go [to an Eminem concert] who doesn't want to go.'
2. People should be free to choose what they will view or listen to as entertainment
Many opponents of attempts to ban Eminem's lyrics oppose censorship per se. According to this line of argument it is a basic civil liberty to be able to choose what one will view, read or listen to.
Within the United States attempts to restrict the lyrics of performers such as Eminem have been frustrated by the first amendment to the United States Constitution. This amendment guarantees freedom of speech.
Freedom of artistic expression is generally seen as an extension of freedom of speech. It is claimed that in a civilised and cultured community individuals should be able to freely express themselves and should be able to choose for themselves what they will be informed or entertained by.
3. Censoring or banning the work of 'rage rappers' and other popular songwriters could lead to a more general acceptance of censorship
Some supporters of Eminem's lyrics argue that accepting restrictions on Eminem's work could make it difficult to prevent the socially conservative from banning many other forms of expression.
According to this line of argument, those who favour censorship and prohibition generally react negatively to topics that offend them, rather than to the manner in which these topics have been treated or to the presenter's purpose.
It has been claimed that accepting the banning of the work of 'rage rappers' and other popular songwriters could create a culture of prohibition, which served to encourage and legitimise many other limitations on freedom of speech.
Mr Peter Eliasberg, of the American Civil Liberties Union, has stated, 'We're kidding ourselves if we don't think that the cultural climate affects judges and their decisions. We're getting to the point ... that someone can say (blaxploitation movie) Shaft glories vigilantism. There is a really serious danger to decide not to make a movie or not to write a book.'
4. The lyrics of Eminem's songs have artistic merit
It has been claimed that Eminem is a skilful songwriter and that this work should not be banned because of its artistic value.
Eminem has been praised because of his fresh and original style, the force of his performances and because of his clever use of rhyme and rhythm. His work has been favourably compared to the repetitive and restricted lyrics and rhythms of many of his contemporaries.
Highly regarded popular artists such as Paul McCartney and Elton John have defended Mathers' work on the basis of its artistic merit.
It has been claimed that those who are attempting to ban Eminem's work are guilty of generational prejudice and do not recognise the essential similarity between the impact of Mathers' work and that of now highly regarded performers such as Elvis Presley and The Rolling Stones who also shocked and outraged critics when they first performed.
5. The lyrics of Eminem's songs do not promote violence and socially divisive attitudes
Defenders of Eminem's work have claimed that its detractors fail to recognise that it is 'shock art'. Mr Michael Greene, head of the music industry's Grammy awards, made this point.
Mr Green has argued that critics have tended to confuse the supposed message of many of his songs. According to Mr Green and others, Marshall Mathers is not endorsing the violence, homophobia and hatred of women that many of his songs present.
It is claimed that Mathers establishes personas or characters (such as Slim Shady, and even Eminem) in his songs and it is these characters who enact the violent and hate-filled scenarios that some of the songs present. Thus, it is argued, where the songs present apparently violent and prejudiced attitudes and actions these are not being offered as the views of the songwriter and are not being put forward for the acceptance or imitation of his audience.
It is argued that the creation of these personas allows Mathers some critical distance from which he can comment on the behaviours and attitudes his songs present.
Many defenders of Eminem see him as a skilful social critic rather than a purveyor of violence and sexually perverse attitudes.
6. The capacity of song lyrics to shape audience behaviour has been exaggerated
Defenders of Eminem's lyrics, of 'rage rap' and of 'death metal' music tend to argue that these songs do not have the capacity to affect the behaviour of their audiences that their detractors claim.
Mathers has made this point repeatedly, sometimes in interviews, at other times in his song lyrics.
Mathers argues that his critics exaggerate his power. He claims that he is just a performer and that if social commentators are looking for the origins of the violent behaviour of young people they should look at contemporary society and at family relationships rather than at the music industry.
7. Eminem's song lyrics merely reflect contemporary reality
Melbourne writer, Michael Witheford, has made this point. Mr Witheford has stated, 'The sententious bleating about a small man with a microphone is laughable, when families sit down at news time and see a barrage of evil, from unending global war to local violence.'
Those who put this argument claim that songs such as Eminem's do not create contemporary reality they merely reflect it. They therefore argue that it is inappropriate to complain of the violence, prejudice and negativity in Eminem's lyrics as though the songs were the source of these developments.
Some defenders of Eminem's work argue that rather than promoting violence and prejudice, Eminem is a satirist whose work serves to criticise the negative features of contemporary society.
Arguments in favour of banning the work of popular songwriters such as Eminem
1. Lyrics such as those of Eminem songs endorse prejudiced, obscene and socially divisive attitudes
This point has been made by many of Eminem's critics. Rosemary Neill, a commentator for The Australian, has referred to Eminem's 'seething misogyny' and 'festering homophobia'.
Bob Herbert, who writes for the New York Times, has made similar points. Mr Herbert has claimed, 'No image is too vile. In Eminem's world all women are "whores" and he is eager to rape and murder them. He dares us to question whether he will choke a woman "till the vocal chords don't work in her throat no more."
Not even mom is immune. On the song "Kill You", the singer's mother, as debased as any other woman, is ordered to prepare herself for sex with her son.'
2. Lyrics such as those of Eminem songs can provoke violent actions in their audience
There are those who claim that songs such as Eminem's, some of which actually dramatise violent acts, can provoke similar violence in audiences. It has been argued that young listeners are particularly susceptible to the influence of such lyrics.
In the United States there have been numerous attempts to demonstrate that popular songs have helped to motivate people to commit violent crimes.
Currently the parents of a fifteen-year-old girl who was beaten, stabbed and sexually assaulted after death are suing the band Slayer and the companies that have distributed their material. The couple argue that the young men who killed their daughter listened regularly to material such as Slayer's "Kill Again' which includes lyrics such as 'Homicidal maniac/Trapped in mortal solitude/Lift the gleaming blade/Slice her flesh to shreds/Watch the blood flow free.'
Similarly an Australian couple are arguing that their son attempted to assault his family and screamed obscenities at his mother after hours of listening to Eminem's songs.
Critics of the lyrics of Eminem and bands such as Slayer argue that they provoke young people to violence by the repeated modelling of such behaviour. It is claimed that listening to these songs for hours and hours on end represents a form of brainwashing that influences the attitudes and then the actions of some of those who do so.
3. The supposed artistic merit of Eminem's work does not make his lyrics any more acceptable or socially responsible
Rosemary Neill, a commentator for The Australian, has also made this point. Ms Neill has written, 'Those who hail Eminem as a true artist while distancing themselves from his gay-bashing and woman-hating are essentially arguing that his talent for rhyming, slick scores, and sending up Britney Spears somehow excuses the nasty stuff ... The cult of Eminem ... shows how, within popular culture, excess is increasingly mistaken for innovation.'
Ms Neill is arguing that a talent for clever lyrics should not enable a songwriter to be able to produce material that promotes violence and socially damaging attitudes.
4. Eminem's target audience is young people under 18 who may be particularly susceptible to his message
It has been claimed that Mathers' work particularly focuses on the young and socially and intellectually immature.
Critics claim that Mathers' sales indicate that his principal audience are adolescents. It has also been noted that the promoters of Mathers' recent Australian tour did not want performances restricted to those aged 18 and above as they believed that this would significantly reduce their profits.
Those who are opposed to the lyrics of Mathers' songs argue that in promoting his work to young people the songwriter is endangering an audience whose understandings may not be sufficiently developed to distinguish between artistic performance and reality.
It is a generally accepted principle that one of the primary purposes of censorship is to protect children and young people from unsettling and possibly damaging influences that they do not yet have the maturity to deal with.
Bob Herbert, a commentator for The New York Times, has made this point. Mr Herbert has stated, 'This stuff is readily available to 10-year-olds, which should make any serious person both angry and sad. A steady diet of this ugliness is poisonous, the equivalent of developing one's self-image by looking in a toilet.'
5. The popular acceptance of lyrics such as those of Eminem's songs could encourage other performers to produce even more extreme pieces
It is claimed that there is a one-upmanship in popular culture that makes the works of Eminem particularly dangerous. According to this line of argument, every songwriter who successfully pushes the boundaries of popular taste encourages other groups to push those boundaries still further. It is claimed that we are developing a culture of excess in which groups attempt to outdo each other in order to shock audiences and capture a section of the market.
The Melbourne-based death metal band Blood Duster has criticised Eminem as a 'choir boy' and have claimed that unlike Eminem who often wears a mask when performing 'We don't have any mask to hide behind. We're out there.'
The songwriter for Blood Duster, Jason P.C. has claimed of Eminem, 'I reckon he's pretty tame. He's not really saying too much.'
6. Eminem's work and that of many other popular recording artists is commercially motivated and its marketing apparatus vastly extends its range and influence
This point has been made by Mr David Pahler, whose fifteen-year-old daughter was recently murdered by young men whom he claims were influenced by lyrics in the songs of the 'death metal' band, Slayer.
Mr Pahler has stated, 'This case isn't about art. It's about marketing. Slayer and others in the industry have developed sophisticated strategies to sell death-metal music to adolescent boys.
They don't care whether the violent, misogynistic messages in these lyrics causes children to do harmful things. They couldn't care less what their fans did to our daughter. All they care about is money.'
7. Live performances by songwriters and musicians are allowed an unrestricted audience not available to other forms of entertainment
It has been claimed that while laws in Australia restrict the sale of Eminem ablbums and videos to minors, there are no laws restricting who can attend a music concert. It has been claimed that this is a contradiction and a significant oversight. It has similarly been argued that if it is appropriate to restrict the films which young adolescents are able to view, it should similarly be possible to restrict the live performances that they are able to attend.
Both the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) and the Australian Family Association (AFA) argued that Mathers' Australian show should be restricted to those over 18.
At the moment it seems unlike that further Australian restrictions will be placed on the work of artists such as Marshall Mathers. Despite the anomaly that sees Australian censorship laws limiting the films that those under may view but placing no such restrictions on live concerts, the call for law reform is currently limited to a few lobby groups.
Similarly, serious calls to deny Marsall Mathers an Australian visa were limited to very few individuals. The Australian Prime Minister, Mr John Howard, made clear that he found Mathers' work distasteful, however, he appears to have made no attempt to influence the Immigration Minister, Mr Philip Ruddock, to block Mathers' entry to Australia.
In the United Sates the situation appears somewhat more uncertain. Despite the apparent protection of the first amendment to the United States Constitution, the ongoing legal pressure to link popular music groups to the criminal behaviour of some of their audience may ultimately result in this connection being legally established.
Should this happen there is likely to be a dramatic change in the nature of the material being promoted by American music distributors as they opt for caution in an attempt to avoid lawsuits.
Newspaper items used in the preparation of this outline
Available as a press cuttings package (with an issue outline reprint): price: $24.00 (NO LONGER AVAILABLE)
12/2/01 page 9 analysis by Michael Ellison, 'Slain for a song'
21/2/01 page 15 comment by Shaun Carney, 'Like Eminem says, why all the fuss?'
22/2/01 page 17 comment by Bob Herbert, 'Grammy's pose a test of our cultural sanity'
2/3/01 page 15 comment by Graham Willett, 'Why gays - and others - should back Eminem'
3/3/01 page 7 (News Extra section) comment by Letta Tayler, 'Sad old rockers deaf to Eminem's grim humor'
22/6/01 page 3 news item by Patrick Donovan, 'Eminem leads star-packed line-up on Australian tours'
2/7/01 page 8 news item by Sophie Douiez, 'Rapper sick and demeaning: PM'
3/7/01 page 12 editorial, 'Eminem should not be banned'
6/7/01 page 15 comment by Michael Witheford, 'No threat to decency'
3/2/01 page 9 comment by Rosemary Neill, 'Shut up yourself, you pathetic misogynist wigger'
8/6/01 page 13 comment by Rosemary Neill, 'Ain't nothin' new in what you spew'
2/7/01 page 33 news item by Monica Videnieks and Benjamin Haslem, 'PM is not rapt with Eminem'
4/7/01 page 3 news item by Matt Price, 'Rapper row's on for young and old ... MPs, that is'
The Herald Sun
29/5/01 page 3 news item by Nui Te Koha, 'Ban demand on hate rapper tour'
2/6/01 page 27 analysis by Nui Te Koha, 'Eminem: devil or evil genius?'
3/6/01 page 19 news item by Adam Zwar, 'Worse than Eminem'
6/6/01 page 20 comment by Paul Gray, 'Banning this guy would be a joke'
23/6/01 page 11 news item by Nui Te Koha, 'Off-limits move on rage rapper'
26/6/01 page 9 news item by Nui Te Koha, "Rap music drove my son crazy'
27/6/01 page 13 news item by Nui Te Koha, 'Group says Eminem too hateful'
28/6/01 page 7 news item by Nui Te Koha, 'Rapper ready to face critics'
29/6/01 page 5 news item by Nui Te Koha, 'Bracks speaks up for rogue of rap'
3/7/01 page 14 news item by Nui Te Koha, 'Eminem cut-off looms'
5/7/01 page 11 news item by Michael Madigan, 'No secrets in rapper visa bid'