Gun violence is a crisis that you can see and hear. There’s surveillance footage of the Columbine killings, and the assailants taped home videos bragging about what they were about to do. When a Las Vegas music festival was targeted in 2017, audience video showed the moment when shots began raining down. The alleged Christchurch, New Zealand, gunman live-streamed his attack on a mosque last year, and the footage looked like a video game. Such visibility has not curbed violence, clearly. In fact, the way the internet rewards audiovisual spectacle may be an incentive to evil.
Art that portrays such killings would, then, seem to have a high bar to clear. It inevitably risks glorifying—aestheticizing, narrativizing, making catchy—that which it condemns. There’s a question of futility, too: By what logic would, say, a music video portraying mass shootings shock anyone into activism more than the actual shootings do? Last year, Madonna’s “God Control” video imagined a massacre at a disco club and ended with a call for new firearms regulations. “This is really happening,” the pop star told People. “This is what it looks like. Does it make you feel bad? Good, ’cause then maybe you will do something about it.” Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting in Parkland, Florida, replied by tweeting, “Madonna’s new video for her song #GodControl was fucked up, it was horrible.”
Eminem has followed Madonna’s example with the music video for “Darkness,” the first single off the album, Music to Be Murdered By, that he surprise-released today. It re-creates the Las Vegas slaying of 58 people, with an actor playing Stephen Paddock, the perpetrator. Eminem raps from the perspective of Paddock as he prepared and then fired from a hotel room across the street from the festival. The verses and visuals string together specific references: The shooter didn’t know his father well; he used Valium and booze; he was a licensed gun owner; he had no known motive; he wrote down targeting calculations; he began to shoot at 10:05 p.m.
The song and the video do not simply restage the massacre, though. Eminem is attempting a double entendre, in which most of the lyrics could equally refer to the rapper himself, sitting in a hotel room, nervous before a concert. He looks out on the crowd early in the night and frets that it’s too sparse: “You can’t murder a show nobody’s at.” He seems to be empathizing with a mass killer by comparing the rapper’s own sense of mental embattlement to the perpetrator’s. This exercise results in no greater understanding of why tragedies like this happen. There’s just ineffable darkness, and the availability of guns allows it to have horrific consequences.
Perhaps the point is more that Eminem’s anxiety about performing stems from the fact that concerts have become killing grounds. Probably, though, the main idea is simply to spin a riveting narrative that focuses attention on the message delivered at the end of the video. Eminem looks upon a wall of televisions arranged in the shape of the United States; each screen shows news footage from a shooting. An onscreen message: “WHEN WILL THIS END? WHEN ENOUGH PEOPLE CARE.” Text then directs people to register to vote in order to “change gun laws in America.” Eminem’s website features links to anti-gun-violence organizations, including the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and March for Our Lives.
The anti-violence message may seem rich coming from Eminem, whose lyrics over more than two decades have notoriously depicted graphic murder and mayhem. But he has a political conscience—see his anti–Donald Trump broadsides of recent years—and can reach an audience that many other outspoken performers can’t. Many mass shooters tend to be angry, and white, men—which is also how a significant segment of Eminem’s fan base can be described. His confrontational style combined with his appeal to a demographic that is not, stereotypically, super-woke does make him uniquely positioned to have an impact.
But that power cuts multiple ways. Experts on mass shootings say that in addition to enacting stronger gun laws, one of the best ways to prevent future tragedies is to deny fame to murderers. The copycat phenomenon is real, and when the media broadcasts the names and faces of criminals and obsesses over their backstories, would-be killers get the message that they could become more famous than any of the people whose life they take. If Eminem jolts his fans into taking action to support gun control, that effect will have to be weighed against this grim fact: One of today’s best-selling musicians has humanized the perpetrator of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.