Rick Altergott
Let's start by recounting the few unequivocal truths hovering at the center of what looks to be 2001's premier pop culture 'n' politics maelstrom (at least until March 25, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards a third Best Actor Oscar to Tom Hanks, instantly causing the universe to explode).

The facts: Last year, rap artist Eminem released The Marshall Mathers LP, a ferociously intense and intricate record, featuring, among many other things, graphic descriptions of violence against women and the harsh derision of "faggots." This year, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences nominated Eminem for four Grammys, including a bid for The Marshall Mathers LP as Album of the Year. Two weeks ago, the Grammy committee announced that Eminem would perform live on its televised awards ceremony on February 21, in a duet with rock legend and outspoken gay rights advocate Elton John.

Then all hell broke loose.

For many in the gay movement, news of the upcoming Eminem/Elton John duet was a decisive slap in the face, in a year full of such slaps. The Grammy board's recognition of Eminem's efforts with multiple nominations seemed like the cherry on the sundae of shit the gay movement had been required to eat in regard to Eminem all year--until the arrival of Elton, whose agreement to perform with homophobia's poster boy du jour sent shock waves through the gay community and brought gay activists' fury to full boil.

"By agreeing to appear on stage as back-up singer to Eminem, [Elton John is] spitting on the grave of Matthew Shepard and every other hate crime murder victim," wrote Robin Tyler and Adam Thayer, in their widely disseminated "Open Letter to Elton John." The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)--who last year honored Elton John with their lifetime achievement award--declared themselves "appalled" that Elton would be a willing accomplice to Eminem's "musical hate crimes," and renewed their vow to protest outside the Grammy ceremony. Cooler-headed critics, such as Gay.com's Michelangelo Signorile, speculated that Elton John's decision to perform was nothing but a cynical grab for exposure, pandering to a fan base previously untouched by his bewigged homosexual charms.

But all agreed that Elton's acceptance of Eminem's offer was a serious insult--if not a tangible injury--to the gay community. "If you do this," wrote Tyler and Thayer in their letter to Elton, "we will consider you a collaborator in our war against injustice. Do you really want to draw a line in the sand between you and the community that supported you?" Signorile offered a more temperate threat: "If John values the role he's been given as an outspoken leader for gay rights, he has a lot of explaining to do."

So far, Elton's explained little, Eminem's said nothing, and I've been too busy smacking my forehead to think much about either of them.

That's not true: For the past two weeks, I've listened intensively to Eminem, particularly The Marshall Mathers LP, which, like millions of people, I purchased during the flurry of concern that greeted its release. Instantly repulsed by its surface ugliness and the seemingly single note of Eminem/Slim Shady/Marshall Mathers' anger, I shelved the record, primly dismissing it as another case of controversy over content. Earlier this month, I revisited Marshall Mathers, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Suffice it to say that Eminem's work does what good art should: transport you with its vision, impress you with its skill, and terrify you with its implications. And frankly, the wit of the wordplay would make Oscar Wilde spooge his pantaloons.

As for the gay stuff: How seriously can I take verbal attacks from a man who literally threatens to kill every one of his listeners during the first 10 seconds of his record? Detractors gripe that such cartoonish threats are obviously fantasy, while violence against gays remains harsh reality. And they're right. But this argument leads only to the unanswerable chicken-and-egg dilemma of an artist's responsibility for his influence on our culture versus an artist's responsibility to truthfully represent our culture. This argument will never be settled to anyone's satisfaction.

More troubling for the gay activists' side of this argument is the album itself. A closer look at Eminem's "gay attacks" reveals nothing so much as a suburban shock-seeker's use of the word "faggot" as an all-purpose put-down. For many, this usage is offensive enough. But in regard to Elton John, the issue isn't that Eminem called the Insane Clown Posse faggots (which he did), or his critics faggots (which he did), or that scarecrow on the split-rail fence a faggot (which he did not do). The issue is that Eminem invited Elton John to sing with him at the Grammys. And Elton John said yes.

Thirteen years ago, at the height of both the AIDS and the Axl-Rose-is-a-bigot eras, Guns N' Roses signed on to play at an AIDS benefit in New York City. The uproar from gay activists pushed the band, at the time the most popular in the world, off the bill. The activists' rationale was simple: Guns N' Roses are bigots, and we don't want no bigots at our benefit. Unfortunately lost in this reasoning was the "bigoted" band's offer to raise a bunch of money and give it to the fight against AIDS.

A similarly stubborn, shortsighted orthodoxy taints the Eminem/Elton affair. Faced with the confusing scenario of the gay community's Enemy #1 personally selecting as his duet partner a rock star who happens to be rock's premier gay spokesmodel, gay activists had a choice: Either reconsider Eminem's eternal enemy status, or stick to their fundamentalist guns. Sadly, they chose the latter, defending their scorched-earth rhetoric with gripes about the duo's lack of explanation. But from the beginning, Eminem has made a show of letting his actions speak for themselves, and his deliberately sharing the stage with the faggiest pop star in the galaxy is a significant gesture. Elton performing with Eminem could have the same impact as Mary Cheney bringing her girlfriend to the Bush inauguration--one of those actions-speak-louder-than-words moments.

Elton John knows this. "If I thought he was a hateful bastard, I wouldn't do it," Elton told the Los Angeles Times, obviously recognizing Eminem for what I believe he is--an artist who's made a complex career for himself by doing exactly what he wants to do, whether it's pretending to rape his mother on record or singing with a homosexual on the Grammys. And if you don't like it, you can suck his fucking cock.

Like all progress, the pairing of Eminem and Elton is messy, complicated, and deeply divisive. But, for better or worse, it's groundbreaking. Viewers of this year's Grammy ceremony will witness the unprecedented scenario of a homosexual and a homophobe coming together to sing a song in which a young pregnant woman is locked in the trunk of a car and driven off a bridge.

This is progress.