This paper will consider whether Eminem’s song ‘’Not Afraid’ can be dismissed as mere light entertainment or whether it is worthy of more serious academic interest. My argument will focus on style and use of language, and on the song’s subject matter and impact within the context of Eminem’s total artistic output – which convey significant messages about personal growth and maturity.
Poetry accompanied by music is, as far as anthropologists can tell, the oldest form of human art (apart perhaps from cave drawings). Poetry, passed down as part of the oral tradition, existed before writing. Lyric poetry, a term still used today, was designed to be accompanied by music until the early part of the 17th century. It is no surprise that we call the words of a song its lyrics. Eminem and all modern singers are part of a human tradition stretching back tens of thousands of years.
Seamus Heaney (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995) said in 2003 when he was Oxford University Professor of Poetry. There is this guy Eminem. He has created a sense of what is possible. He has sent a voltage around a generation. He has done this not just through his subversive attitude, but also his verbal energy.
The Poetry Society of London agreed with Heaney:
Eminem harnesses the power of word and language and that’s what a poet would do. ‘Not Afraid’ is full of verbal energy and poetic techniques: metaphor (‘This fucking black cloud’s still follows me around’; ‘I shoot for the moon/But I’m too busy gazing at the stars’; despite his commercial success and the numbers who attend his concerts, he uses the second person to address his audience intimately and to reassure them that they, like him, ‘been down the same road’; there are witty and self-critical references to his previous album – Relapse; word play and paradox- ‘I’m way too up to back down’; the use of taboo words is also not gratuitous but carefully designed to shock, but also to deepen his relationship with his fan-base. Finally look at the use of assonance and consonance (which I have underlined) to give these lines aural cohesion:
His gift is a curse, forget the earth, he’s got the urge.
To pull his dick from the dirt and fuck the whole universe.
This mastery of poetic techniques explains Heaney’s comment about Eminem’s ‘verbal energy’.
Recovery was released on June 18th, 2010. The album debuted at number one in both the US and the UK, showing Eminem’s huge influence and following. What makes is interesting is its artistic position in relation to his previous work and what we know of his life. The themes of ‘Not Afraid’ are profound and typical of works of art which are more often associated with high culture. ‘Not Afraid’ is full of an angry and determined defiance, and reflects, perhaps, on the singer’s legal and marital problems during his 2005-8 hiatus from recording as well as his battles with addiction to prescription drugs. However, the song is full of self-reflection (captured in the video of the song in which there are so many reflective surfaces). ‘Not Afraid’ expresses a new sense of responsibility to his fans – ‘We’ll walk this road together through the storm’ – and to his four daughters (biological and adopted) – ‘I solemnly swear to always treat this roof like my daughters and raise it’. This sense of unity with fans and family suggests artistic development in a moral sense which complements his adept use of ‘verbal energy’.