Worshipped by fans, reviled by critics, it's hard not to have an opinion about the real Slim Shady. Since Eminem hit the scene in the late '90s other artists have gone from hot to not, nearly an entire teen pop wave has crested and crashed.
And still Slim stands tall.
For local radio programmers, the reason for Eminem's cred is as natural as the transition from adolescence to adulthood. With a message that speaks to a disenfranchised youth eager to rail against the establishment, the Detroit-bred rapper is the voice of a generation.
"He just lays it all out, everything he's been through. You can feel the emotion coming out of that music," says Rick Alexander, operations manager for Dame Broadcasting. "I think that's true of any good TV, movies, music. If you don't make people feel something - laughter, sadness, anger - you fail. And I think that's what Eminem does. He brings out some anger, some pretty deep emotions out."
In the Hagerstown market Dame operates five stations, including Mix 95.1 FM, where Alexander is a morning host. Playing hits from the '80s, '90s and today, Alexander wouldn't dream of playing Eminem on the frequency.
But when the company shuffled its station lineup earlier this year, introducing a Hagerstown-based hip-hop/R&B station (WDLD FM, Wild 96.7), the rapper became a core artist.
Yes, the lyrics can be harsh, peppered with expletives and possessing dark undertones that make parents cringe.
But they resonate with teens. The result is a musical generation gap accentuated in ways not seen since Elvis swung his hips on national television.
The way he is
With Eminem, the divide has returned, supplanting a feel-good era where mainstream artists from Elton John to Rod Stewart appealed to audiences old and young.
Alexander says he's never seen the chasm between musical tastes so wide. Others agree, citing hip-hop culture as one of the reasons.
Unfortunately, says 96.7 program director Norm Kelly, the divide can be chalked up to a lack of understanding about the music, a case of not reading the lyrics for the language.
Those who dismiss Eminem out of hand miss a chance to expose themselves to songs and at least provide a foundation upon which to base their opinions.
Alexander has become a fan of at least some of the music - "Cleanin Out My Closet" on "The Eminem Show" is a favorite - but it wasn't immediate.
"I get this now," he says. "I may not like it, but I get it. A lot of people won't have a reason to get it. I had a reason because I have to program it."
Still, Eminem's appeal does not break smoothly along demographic lines. Brad Hunter, program director and music director at Revolution 103.7 FM in Chambersburg, Pa., says he's been surprised by how many listeners older than 35 are into the music.
On remote broadcasts he often has fans 40, 45 or 50-plus asking about Eminem's music, which is in heavy rotation at the alternative station. With two songs on the playlist now, Hunter says Eminem can be heard at least 50 times each week.
"I think the main thing is he makes good music," Hunter says. "I don't think there are people who can say with a straight face his music's not catchy."
Gary Storm is among the "aberrations," a 51-year-old attorney and Eminem fan from Glorieta, N.M., who was a DJ for 10 years who used his experience as an all-night radio host in the late '70s and early '80s to write a graduate dissertation in English.
Storm thinks Eminem is a genius, an artist whose brilliance is punctuated by an in-your-face vocal style and an ability to rhyme as impressive as the best riffs of jazz improvisers.
"One of the things he does so well is he speaks with extreme bluntness and power with the voice of teenagers. He articulates the angst and anger and deep feelings about justice that are so strong when you're young," Storm says. "You feel the hurt of the world and he responds with great power and anger and defiance and, again, confidence against the injustice, sadness and craziness of life."
First king of controversy