Music by VICE

How to Process Pain at an Eminem Show

For the past 20 years he’s showcased his past, supporting his listeners through turmoil. But has either party ever really moved on?

by Ryan Bassil
Aug 30 2017, 4:26pm

Foto: Jeremy Deputat

When was the last time you really thought about pain? I don't mean the physical kind, breaking bones and everything. I'm not talking about your hangover from the weekend either, although I am sorry if that's the case. This is something deeper, a burial, a fallout that's been covered with soil yet continues to breathe inside you. A past trauma that needed to be forgotten but somehow still exists.

If you're slightly aware of something like this, the pain you might be thinking of is likely to be still be as cracked as a broken leg. Maybe it emerges from time to time, influencing the present with its broken wounds. Perhaps it's lingering behind a wall, sealed internally with protective glue. It could even be so present it's carried around like a satchel. Whatever the case: it's there, somewhere, pulsating as an ember of the past, pushed down so deep it should be forgotten but isn't, because why else would there be remnants of a fire if there wasn't still something flammable enough to burn? Eckhart Tolle describes it as the "pain body"—a kind of parasite that pops up from time to time, bringing past situations alive, trying to create present pain.

Whether it's the loss of a close friend, family issues, drug addiction, being broke or any other traumatic experience, Eminem has seemingly been through them all. For the last 21 years he's released pain through music—about his mother (and father); his drug addiction; his recovery; his mourning for friends or family that are out of reach—and done so in a way it's allowed us to reflect on our own issues.

Last weekend he brought that mirror to Reading and Leeds, where he headlined. At this point we could talk about the mechanics of the performance: he rapped his songs, which you may know, and he had a beard, which you may not. While this information may be useful to those who support beards and/or reliable expectation, it doesn't really say anything. What's more important to focus on is that feeling I mentioned earlier—the one buried in the walls of time yet unconsciously present; the one Eminem probably talks about in one of his songs; the one thing you're probably thinking of right now but never fully addressed, because it was easier to suppress.

Photo by Jeremy Deputat

Most of Eminem's songs are so old it's difficult to watch him perform them and not relate in some way to the moment when you first heard them and what's happened since. Whether it's the subject matter or the way it's approached, he has something for everyone—you're sad, you're broken, you're ignorant, you want to laugh; he's got you. That's why he's one of the best-selling artists of a decade. He can spit on your onion rings, lift the mood with a crass joke about the Discovery Channel, then expose expose his feelings in a way that's so direct you get something from it too.

Because he's a human first and a rapper second, it's likely Eminem has his own pain body—one complete with recurring themes of sadness, anxiety, anger, or self-defeating behaviors. It would be unfair to second guess what these experiences are. But should you relate to anything he's saying in his songs (if you've ever had a shitty day and put them on) then his headline slot is a spectacle. It's hard to beat music you care about being performed in real time. Eminem's appeal has always been rooted in his ability to let loose with past experiences, often in a way that can be helpful to his audience—whether that's confrontational, funny, obscene or so blunt it's depressing yet cathartic in the way it can be empathetically applied to a variety of situations.

When I'm watching Eminem at Reading, I can't help thinking about my own pain body and how it's possible to carry memories forever like an invisible limb. Tolle says it's possible to dissolve these past experiences, to recognize when they're starting to breathe their hurt into new situations. In his book A New Earth he writes: "We can learn not to keep events alive in our minds, but to return our attention continuously to the pristine, timeless present moment rather than be caught up in mental movie-making"—which is to say we're not defined by the past but by our present, that it's possible not to feed the pain body and subconsciously repeat patterns.

As he said on "Rap God," Eminem has got "enough rhymes, to maybe try to get some people through some tough times." That's his USP and it's not a fault—it's a good, cathartic, needed thing. But if there's one last grand trick he can pull that doesn't involve him battle-rapping until there's no more spaghetti left in Italy, it's how he can be a vehicle for each of us to see what emotional baggage we may still be carrying around; to learn to let go and become so fully present we're able to move smoothly between the so-called immovable parts of the past.

You can find Ryan on Twitter.

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