Eminem, Rihanna and the impossibility of relationships

Eminem, Rihanna and the impossibility of relationships

I went on an Eminem trip for a while this past Spring (yeah, I know, he is “so 2000’s”; well, deal with it).  A number of songs have stuck.  Others haven’t.

By far his #1 top-selling song (it at the moment has over 764 million hits on YouTube), from his 2010 album Recovery (yes, it was 4 years ago), is “Love the Way You Lie”, in which he raps the (brilliantly disturbing) verses, while the female vocalist Rihanna sings the brutally sardonic chorus:

…Just gonna stand there and hear me cry
But that’s alright because I love the way you lie

One could argue that the song is simply a dark romanticization (or, perhaps, Hollywoodization) of a domestic abuse relationship (and violent lyrics are Eminem, whose early life was, predominantly, violence), but there is plenty here that is real, plenty that poignantly captures a real relationship.  (And I think it’s worth saying:  more relationships–and, generally speaking, more lives–are traumatized by violence than one might think, not least in stereotypical white suburbia.)

A shot from the song’s music video (which, imho, melodramatizes the subtlety of the song)

So, what’s a real relationship?

One in which the very best of you comes out, in which your talents find their sweet spot and you become almost superhuman–or, should we say, superhero:

It’s so insane cause when it’s going good, it’s going great
I’m Superman with the wind at his back, she’s Lois Lane

But a real relationship is also one in which the worst of you comes out, in which you stand in utter disbelief at…yourself:

But when it’s bad it’s awful, I feel so ashamed I snapped
Who’s that dude? “I don’t even know his name.” 

Eminem (a.k.a. Slim Shady), then, gives us the internal dialogue of the divided soul, the Gollum-like back-and-forth that ensues after we have lashed out in wrath at our partner, a dialogue in which Eminem inquires with genuine surprise, “Who’s that dude?”, with the alter ego responding with an honest, even exasperated ignorance: “‘I don’t even know his name.'”

A real relationship brings out not only the very best and worst, but also betrays the cyclical nature of unhealthy dynamics:  like explorers who, realizing they have become lost in confusing terrain, journey for several hours only to find themselves retracing their steps:

Now I know we said things, did things that we didn’t mean
And we fall back into the same patterns, same routine

But perhaps most profoundly–and disturbingly–is the indissoluble mixture of truth and lie, of admission and domination, a mixture concocted by some lost alchemy, which plagues and afflicts the real relationship:

Come inside, pick up your bags off the sidewalk
Don’t you hear sincerity in my voice when I talk
Told you this is my fault
Look me in the eyeball
Next time I’m pissed, I’ll aim my fist at the drywall
Next time? There won’t be no next time!
I apologize even though I know its lies

Thundering claims of sincerity and self-accusation accompanied by an inescapable awareness of deception (and, perhaps, self-deception?).

Maybe it’s simply the great tune and hypnotic rhythm that have resulted in over 3/4 of a billion hits on YouTube.  But maybe it’s more than that.  Real relationships reveal what we can be at our best but, for the most part, at our worst.  Maybe that’s why real relationships seem so impossible, why they are source of so much trauma.  Is it better to stick with the superficial?  Or is loneliness equally traumatic?

4 thoughts on “Eminem, Rihanna and the impossibility of relationships

  1. I’ve spoken with folks who are in a peculiar kind of physically abusive relationship. They and their significant other would not only get in verbal arguments, but knock-down-drag-out fights without a clear victim, per se, or abuser. Each person was both victim and abuser. That’s what I thought this song was always about: the craziness of a relationship between two people who hurt others and hurt themselves.

    I really do think the difference between a stable, loving marriage and what I just described (and what seems to be described in this song) isn’t one just of intensity, but really of kind. Real relationships do reveal us at our best and our worst, but there are real good relationships and real bad relationships. I think Eminem and Rihanna describe a real bad relationship.

    If you think of the popularity of this song (if not attributable to, say, the melody, etc, as you say) is an expression of young adults’ dissatisfaction with their relationships, I think what it might represent is a desire to both love someone but also dominate them; to respect them but also to force them to do things; and to desperately pull a relationship out of the death spiral into which its entered but lacking the means to really restore anything. Eminem and Rihanna have put to music what so many people suffer and that makes it all the more appealing because folks hear their own narratives told back to them, reinforcing their present reality (for better or for worse). This is just one story that comprises the meta-narrative of the lives of many people who are fed by popular culture.

    How does one inject hope into this situation? I don’t think a competing music industry would be helpful (e.g., contemporary Christian music), because those songs do not speak of a narrative that makes sense to someone who identifies with Eminem and/or Rihanna (sometimes because their theology is weak, and thus often not true). What hopeless people in hopeless relationships need is to see, interact with and move through communities of hope, with people who are deeply engaged in relationships that are grounded in hope. They need a different narrative than the one they’re ingesting daily through their headphones.

    1. “the difference between a stable, loving marriage and what I just described (and what seems to be described in this song) isn’t one just of intensity, but really of kind.”

      Hey, Josh, hmmm… I’ll need to ponder that more. In one obvious sense, the difference is one of kind–one is characterized by physical abuse but the other is not.

      But perhaps I would wonder how fundamental that difference is (I would guess that it is not). Are relationships characterized by violence more manipulative? more degrading? more unjust…? I’m not prepared to say they are not, but nor am I prepared to say they are. You seem to imply (and, if so, I would agree) that differing intensities of violence may themselves constitute a difference in kind (the spectrum is incredibly wide here).

      1. I don’t think it’s just the types of violence in which we engage, though that’s representative of what is underneath. I think the foundation of a loving marriage is different from the foundation of, say, the relationship about which Eminem and Rihanna are singing.

        I don’t deny that there might be acts of violence and manipulation even in a strong marriage (e.g., a snide remark to manipulate your spouse to do the dishes; etc). We all sin and we all fall prey to weakness. However, a covenant before God between a husband and wife, in which each person prayerfully approaches service to the other and humbly repents of sin is surely something different in kind than a corrupted relationship of masochistic self-pity and spiteful abuse (and only those things), perhaps one in which no covenant was ever made, and the foundation of which might be substance abuse, mutual sexual pleasure, exploitation or any number of other worldly things.

  2. Agreed, though I would say that the marriage relationship you’re describing is different in kind only because it has been made different. “Service to the other” and humble repentance are not native to any relationship. And I think that’s what Eminem communicates so well–relationships in their native condition, so to speak, relationships which are impossible in that they cannot remain, because of their unstable foundation. This is humanity’s “natural” (i.e., present, uninterrupted) condition: alienation.

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