A Whiter Shade of Pale

Eminem plays the race cardin reverse.

If the mythology surrounding it is to be believed, the 1954 discovery of Elvis Presley turned as much on race as on talent. The story goes something like this: Sam Phillips, whose Sun Studios concentrated on songs aimed at the average rhythm-and-blues consumer, wanted to break into the musical mainstream--and he knew precisely the kind of performer that could help him do so. As Marion Keisker, Phillips's secretary, told author Peter Guralnick, "Over and over I remember Sam saying, 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars.'" In Presley, Phillips got just such a figure, and while the producer didn't personally net a ten-figure sum from his association with Elvis, he achieved a combination of big profits and quasi-immortality that was almost as good.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. More than forty years after Phillips unleashed the Presley juggernaut on unsuspecting youth across the planet, Andre Young, known to rap fans as Dr. Dre, was trying to decide whose recording should be the first to appear on his new label, Aftermath Records--and rather than choosing an African-American artist, this onetime member of N.W.A. (Niggaz With Attitude) ultimately settled on Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, a 24-year-old Detroit Caucasian. And a brilliant business move it was. While Eminem's delivery doesn't quite fit Phillips's Negroid model (he sounds more like a Dead End Kid from a Thirties-era Warner Bros. flick than the Beastie Boys ever did), his willingness to embrace hardcore topics and themes offers pale-faced consumers a white alternative to a black phenomenon, and they've responded in droves. Thanks to MTV's saturation airings of the video for the single "My Name Is," Eminem's Aftermath debut became an immediate, out-of-the-box smash; seven weeks after its release, The Slim Shady LP remains among the top five most popular platters in the country, with platinum-plus sales that continue to rise. In addition, Eminem received the cover-boy treatment by Rolling Stone (the only other male rap soloist I recall being so honored for his first album was--note the pigmentation--Vanilla Ice), and he's been denounced by legions of blue-nosed commentators and social activists, thereby guaranteeing him another much-appreciated burst of publicity.

Considering hip-hop's chart dominance of late, Eminem's success isn't unprecedented, but the manner in which it's happened is certainly instructive. On the surface, popular culture is more diverse than ever, with performers of every conceivable ethnic background existing--and profiting--side by side. But dig a little deeper and it becomes clear that this supposed rainbow coalition is as illusory as the fiction that America's racial conflicts are a thing of the past. (The apparent targeting of a black student, Isaiah Shoels, by the white gunmen at Columbine High School on April 20 is an especially horrifying indication that society has a very long way to go in this regard.) Segregation may have been struck down by the Supreme Court before Elvis discovered the joys of white jumpsuits and prescription-medicine abuse, but it remains a fact of life in American media. Some examples:

1. Radio stations continue to narrow-cast--program directors develop approaches that are intended to appeal to specific audiences differentiated by age, income and, yes, race. In this last case, buzzwords such as "urban" are used in place of "black" for reasons of political correctness. But the effect is the same: Listeners who want to hear a variety of styles are forced to switch back and forth between outlets that specialize in a single sound that they do to death day in and day out. The Denver-Boulder area is typical in this regard. Although survey after survey has shown that a sizable percentage of hip-hop discs are purchased by white consumers who also like rock, no commercial station here mixes the genres in any real way. Jocks at KXPK-FM/96.5 (the Peak) are currently spinning a Limp Bizkit tune from the Family Values Tour '98 compilation that includes turntable scratching, but any staffer taking the radical step of spotlighting a traditional rap track that sports the same technique would do so at the risk of his continued employment.

2. With only a few exceptions (such as Cosby and The Hughleys), shows that revolve around African-American characters are disappearing from major TV networks, with black actors being relegated more and more to supporting roles in sitcoms or dramas like NYPD Blue. Executives argue that the reasons for these decisions are primarily economic, pointing to such disasters as 1995's Under One Roof, a family series starring James Earl Jones that earned good reviews and miserable ratings (it was yanked from the schedule after just six episodes). Picking up the slack are services such as UPN and the WB, which have created shows that specifically cater to black viewers.

3. A handful of African-American actors have become legitimate film stars, yet when they take part in big studio productions, they are subject to restrictions concerning their roles that seem specific to their ethnicity. Denzel Washington, for instance, is seldom allowed to come across as a sexual figure, especially when he's cast opposite white actresses. In 1993's The Pelican Brief, he and Julia Roberts spend practically the entire movie together without making any overtures to each other, while 1996's Courage Under Fire removes the possibility that he and Meg Ryan might get it on by killing her character before the movie even starts; she is seen only in flashbacks that don't involve him. The Bone Collector, which is due out later this year, could well offer more of the same: Angelina Jolie is on the scene, but since the homicide detective Washington plays is a quadriplegic, don't expect the two of them to do a lot of bumping and grinding.

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