"Love the Way You Lie," the latest single from Eminem's Recovery, may be one of the more affecting tracks he's ever written. In the song, he returns once again to the subject of his 20-year-long, on-and-off relationship with his ex-wife, Kim Mathers. That particular well never runs dry, apparently. Previous songs about Kim were exercises in brutality; they're almost unspeakably hard to listen to. Even reading the lyrics can give you nightmares.
In this outing, Eminem turns the anger and accusations toward himself. He admits to hitting Kim. "I'm so ashamed," he says at one point. And: "It's the rage that took over, it controls you both, so they say it's best to go your separate ways. Guess that they don't know ya, cause today that was yesterday." Taken alone, it's enough to convince the listener that he's truly repentant for his years of hating and hurting the women in his life. But it can't be taken alone, or apart from the context of his work. That moment of repentance and self-blame is genuinely tragic, and moving. But it's only a moment, and a disingenuous one at that.
The song was seemingly designed to be written about, what with the Rihanna guest appearance (and the award for Most Exploitative Use of a Domestic Violence Survivor goes to...) and the video,href> starring Megan Fox as a woman in a mutually abusive relationship with a very troubled hobbit. But, at least in my experience, the oh-so-bloggable controversy has actually opened up several remarkably genuine conversations about toxic and abusive relationships.
It feels safer to believe that one person will always come out of the relationship with clean hands, and that only monsters hurt people. But this belief can actually make it harder for victims to get out of abusive situations. Abusers are human; so are the people they abuse. Both parties are capable of feeling and inflicting pain. If we can't envision abusers as anything less than monstrous, or if we require victims to be perfect, then identifying and escaping abuse becomes that much harder. None of this is any excuse for abuse, because there is no excuse for that; still, maybe just because of its basis in well-known abuse cases, "The Way You Lie" has become a way for many people to discuss the ways in which our picture of abuse sometimes diverges from the reality. And that discussion is important.
But Eminem doesn't deserve any congratulations. This seemingly honest and heartwrenching statement of accountability comes to us in the context of an album wherein Eminem spends a depressingly huge amount of time proclaiming that, no, he will not ever stop abusing women. "I'll be nicer to women when Aquaman drowns and Human Torch starts swimmin'," he snarls; elsewhere, he mocks an imaginary journalist for asking why he's "so biased to the ho's." Or there's this: "Yeah I laugh when I call you a slut, it's funny."
MORE ON EMINEM:
Kevin Fallon: Rihanna and Eminem's New Video: Glorifying Domestic Violence?
Sam Machkovech: Eminem: 'Relapse', 'Recovery', and Rebirth
Alyssa Rosenberg: Rihanna and Eminem's Worst Impulses
In the context of Eminem's work—which includes fantasies about raping his mother and assaulting underage girls, among other things—the material on this most recent album seems almost innocuous. However, it also calls to mind an ugly incident from his past. In May of 2000, Eminem released a song entitled "Kim," about kidnapping and murdering his wife. Later that year, when she attended one of his shows, he nearly killed her with it.
"I asked him before the show if he was going to play that song, and he said no," Mathers said,href> in a 2007 interview for 20/20. He played it anyway. "Just watching everyone else just singing the words and laughing and, like, jumping around in, like, approval of... just, I couldn't take it." She went home and slashed her wrists.
All of which is to say, Eminem's laughter—and that of his fans—has had some very severe consequences. If Eminem is using his music to come to terms with abusing his wife now, he's also used his music to perpetrate that abuse for much of his recording career. And when Kim Mathers began to speak to the press about their relationship, and how he'd hurt her, Eminem took her to court.href> Unbelievably, the man who had written songs about this woman which climaxed with shouting "bleed, bitch, bleed" now wanted to prevent her from making any "derogatory, disparaging, inflammatory and otherwise negative comments" about him.
Eminem styles himself as a First Amendment advocate and once called his work "the freest of speech," but he apparently feels differently if there's a woman speaking. Accordingly, Rihanna's presence in the video seems like blatant tokenism; Eminem will allow a domestic violence survivor to participate in his account of domestic violence if she agrees to stick to his script, and let him do most of the talking. What he can't do, apparently, is let someone else control the narrative.
I've spent the past ten years deploring Eminem's albums, to the point of refusing to associate with people who bought them. I believe that his perpetuation and glorification of domestic abuse are vile, and that he can never undo the damage he's done. The best he can do is repent, and speak out against it, to change the minds of fans who bought his line the first time around. And when I heard "Love the Way You Lie," I genuinely wanted to believe that he'd begun a new chapter; that the eternally foul-mouthed boy had become a man, capable of questioning himself and even, maybe, changing himself. Unless we plan to ship every abuser on the planet to a space colony, from whence they will never be allowed to contact Earth again, then genuine change—which begins with holding oneself accountable—is the best possible outcome. (It's also, obviously, not something you should bank on if you are currently being abused.) But honest change is the one thing Eminem doesn't want—or, at least, won't admit to wanting. Eminem opens this latest album with the lines, "some things just don't change. It's better when they stay the same." He's half right.