Did Eminem And Elton John’s 2001 Grammys Performance Of ‘Stan’ Inadvertently Normalize Homophobia?

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In 2001, I was 11 years old and my queerness was something that lived underneath my skin like a shark fin that terrified me every time it came to the surface. I was experiencing my first year of middle school, and my identity could not be hidden. It was in the way I talked, how my hands moved, which classmates my eyes laid upon. That age is also the time when boys are being socialized with the tribalism of patriarchy; most boys would do anything to prove they belonged in the club of boyhood, and often the terrorized queer kids to gain the sense belonging they desperately desired. The patriarchal images the media produces also normalizes this behavior. When you see rich, famous men behave in toxic ways, you don’t just believe it is normal, but that your success as a man is dependent on it.

In that same year in February at the Grammys, Eminem found his chance to comfort many about his disturbing art. He was set to perform his hit song, “Stan,” about a crazed fan who was obsessed with Eminem. The title character idolized Em to the point of psychosis, and the cultural impact of both the video and the song itself was so intense that today, when someone demonstrates fanatic behavior, we refer to them as a “Stan.” As for the performance, it introduced something else into Eminem’s dark trajectory: Absolution.

Fake lightning flashed across the screen and thunder filled the room onstage to set the mood; this had to be a type of hip-hop theatre, not just an odd mash-up or album promotion. This was supposed to be the performance that made fans, critics, and haters get it: He’s not a bigot, he’s an artist. After the first verse, the illustrious guest and surprise for the evening, Elton John was revealed.


He hovered over a keyboard in a pink and orange suit, singing the melody that tied those dark and cartoonish rap verses together into a moody masterpiece. The audience began to applaud once the sound of Elton John’s famous howls filled the room. Elton’s duty was to assuage the public’s discomfort due to Eminem’s bigotry and continually professed hatred for the queer male identity. The performance ended with the two performers embracing, holding hands, and Elton John looking into the audience as if to ensure they were convinced his job was done.

Elton was there, of course, to prove that Eminem was not a bigot — a label that could make Eminem lose television appearances, endorsements, and profitable opportunities — but an artist. The moment worked. Eminem was never accused of homophobia with the same ferocity again, solidified as not a bigot, but an artist. The problem with that moment, in retrospect, is that using Elton John’s identity as a gay person as a prop to dismiss accusations of homophobia is dishonest. Elton John can’t be seen as the gatekeeper of what is and isn’t homophobia, or what is or isn’t dangerous.

The truth is, Elton John and Eminem have more in common than not as far as identity politics go — they are both white, male, rich, and often use elements of shock to further their music and profit. Elton John transitioned into an icon partly because of his use of flamboyant clothes and a dramatic performance style that played with gender and sexuality, which was shocking for his era. Considering these commonalities, Elton John was not “saving” Eminem as much as preserving a version of himself, one that allows white men to activate dangerous speech and images without protest — as long as falls under the label of “art.” However, art should be open to debate, critiques, protest, and in wonderful yet rare occasions, elevation. The other failure of the moment as a kind of political proof that Eminem was a non-threat to the LGBT movement is that Elton John could never know who Eminem’s lyrics truly endanger.

Lyrics like the ones Eminem created would activate those boys in my past, not only to further their cruelty towards queer kids like me but to also feel affirmed in that moment. Words like “faggot” were no longer just used as a means to terrorize me, but now, because the biggest rapper in the world at that moment used them, and aligned his successful brand of patriarchy with fame, access, and — thanks to Elton John — widespread social acceptance. Elton John should never have been the deciding factor as to whether what Eminem was saying was okay or not.

Eminem’s use of hateful and homophobic terms — as well as detailing a murder of his daughter’s mother — echoed the reminder of a kind of white boy that America has never truly known how to deal with. The white boy that will kill his own: Other precious white children. The kind that shoots up country music concerts or the ones that spray bullets in Columbine. Eminem was the poster child for a type of white, male rage and hatred that has long made white people severely uncomfortable. In the months leading up to that year’s Grammys, it was time to alleviate some of the concern of the public. It was time to show that while Eminem’s brand was “dangerous, outraged white boy,” he still belonged to something familiar and something white. Em needed a foil.

Traditionally, the Grammys collaborative performances are rare moments when you see generations and genres collapse. The Jonas Brothers and Stevie Wonder, Madonna and De La Soul, Moby, and Jill Scott, even CeeLo Green, Gwyneth Paltrow, and the Muppets; the Grammy Awards show has habitually combined the weird and the wonderful. But, the institution of the Grammys is also intensely respected across genres and generations because it has the unique power to bring together unexpected performers by promising they’ll share that coveted stage, and maybe even get closer to the cherished gold award.

To be fair, the Grammys usually bridge those gaps for capitalistic reasons. It makes sense that crossing hip-hop’s biggest superstar and one of pop music’s biggest star would garner more viewership from each artists’ fans, as well as people who just want to know what the hell that performance might even sound or look like. It’s a marketing tool to keep the award show exciting and appealing to as wide an audience as possible year after year. Like most things with commercials in between, it’s about money. There are a few times, however, when what you witness on television is about politics. This was one of those times.

Of course, strategic political alignment and leveraging power or status are not new tactics in music or for rich white men, but those are elements are exactly what we should be examining in 2018. It’s time to consider that — more times than not — rich, powerful white men often decide to transcend their differences and come together for a common interest. In those cases, that common interest is the preservation of white men’s ability to express disturbing, hateful things with no policing or protest. These alliances reinforce the hierarchies that keep those men empowered. It makes sense that they were able to collaborate and use one another in order to achieve this common interest — no matter how dishonest it turned out to be — because of their alliance to white manhood.

This is the greater danger in general of using tokens from marginalized groups as props to avoid accountability or the protest that comes from art or speech. It reinforces this dangerous idea that marginalized people, in this case, the LGBT community, live as a monolith with one leader or spokesperson. There will always be an individual from a marginalized community more interested in power or the preservation of status than the shared interest of the entire community. To use a figure like that in order to manipulate moments and minds is not only dishonest, it is a dangerous act. It flattens a group and squashes the necessary dissent required to move into better, more evolved art and performances.

Recently in Interview magazine, Eminem and Elton John shared a conversation and a quick reflection on their friendship. The most astonishing part of the interview is how the media desires to label them as an oddball pairing when it is obvious throughout the interview that they share more in common than expected. In this friendship, no cultural or political walls were broken, but the desire for power and status was shared. In the interview, Eminem greets Elton John as a cunt. Elton John greets Eminem as an old bastard. This exchange of insults is symbolic for their history together: They are slightly different on the outside, but just as deeply committed to preserving their ability to freely insult — because they know that’s where the power is.