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The glaring difference between the two pop icons is driven home in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, which manages to widen Eminem’s appeal without necessarily co-opting his anti-establishment edge—something Cobain was never able to bring himself to do.

WHITE TRASH WINS LOTTO: ART, COMMERCE, CLASS AND RACE IN POP CULTURE

Eminem, Kurt Cobain Able to Connect Product and Art, as the Gap Between Quality and Quantity Widens in the Digital Age
It’s no small irony that Eminem’s 8 Mile film (Universal) and soundtrack (Shady/Interscope/UMG Soundtracks) arrive the very same week as DGC’s Nirvana retrospective (with the newly unearthed "You Know You’re Wrong") and Kurt Cobain’s posthumously published Journals (Riverside Books).

With pop music and film superstars overexposed and a dearth of new talent to take their place (see Bernie Brillstein’s screed in yesterday’s Daily Variety), these two—one very much alive, the other dead for almost a decade—remain larger-than-life figures.

Both came from lower-middle-class upbringings with mothers whose sexuality and alcoholism embarrassed them, and largely ineffectual (or absent) fathers. Both found comfort in fringe subcultures (punk-rock and hip-hop). Both were self-taught geniuses determined to transcend their trailer-camp surroundings without selling out, by maintaining their integrity. Both challenged the status quo with brutal honesty, never excusing themselves from their critiques, though one eventually succumbed to his self-destructive bent.

The glaring difference between the two pop icons is driven home in Curtis Hanson’s 8 Mile, which manages to widen Eminem’s appeal without necessarily co-opting his anti-establishment edge—something Cobain was never able to bring himself to do.

Of course, there are at least three changes in the onscreen, semi-autobiographical Rabbit, as noted by Village Voice's R.J. Smith. Where Eminem has been accused of homophobia, his character is seen as sympathetic to gays. While Slim Shady steadfastly refuses to forgive his mother, the rapper shows compassion to his film mom, which isn’t too difficult considering she’s played by Kim Basinger. The real Eminem has been known to carry a gun and wave it around in public, though his film counterpart seems horrified when he sees a member of his posse brandishing a weapon.

In the end, it’s the keen observations about class and race that give 8 Mile its pop-cult clout. The title road, the oft-cited boundary between Detroit’s white suburbs and black inner city that Eminem finds himself on the wrong side of, represents the old divisions between black and white that have been replaced by those of income. The Rabbit character’s friends are virtually all black, and that becomes an issue early in the film, when Em competes in rap battles against a sea of skeptical black faces— in these scenes, what it means to be a minority is brought home with chilling force. In the climactic skirmish, though, Eminem scores his Rocky-like victory (another Great White Hope in a black universe) when he reveals that his opponent attended "private school," incorporating the unspoken American division of class, not race. That’s why, when Eminem is called "Beaver Cleaver" by a rap opponent, it is as much a reflection of his economic standing as it is his color. In the world of hip-hop, dubbing your rival bourgeois is the ultimate dis.

There’s a scene in 8 Mile that brings out this whole notion of a vanishing middle-class—the idea that middle-class whites and blacks have more in common with each other than with either the richer or poorer members of their same race. After setting fire to an abandoned building that has become a neighborhood eyesore, Eminem pauses to examine an old photo of a black family that used to live there. In an interview about the film, Hanson admitted he tried to find an authentic picture of just such a family in the Detroit area, but couldn’t.

Eminem has captured the smell of teen spirit, and 8 Mile has harnessed it. While he’s spoken of suicidal tendencies in the past, it would appear Marshall Mathers has managed to find the inner will and discipline to survive his worst impulses…and turn them into art.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Kurt Cobain a little less than 10 years after shooting himself in the head. And while the publication of Journals, by a tony publishing company, is a meticulously preserved (and duplicated) collection of the punk-rock icon’s musings, doodlings, song lyrics and correspondences, Cobain himself seems ambivalent about whether he wanted these notebooks to be available for public consumption. There are certain indications he did, but whether he approved of selling them for $4 million and having this handsome, coffee-table tome retailing for $29.95 is another story altogether.

One feels almost like a voyeur peering into a mind that is painfully groping for answers, but in an undeniably creative and entertaining manner. Cobain is undoubtedly a special talent, but as Pete Townshend wrote while reviewing the book for the London Observer, Journals is probably most compelling as a warning against the ravages of drug addiction. The predominent feeling you get while picking through these archives is, "What a waste."

Eminem and Cobain wore their pain on their sleeves and in their art. Each felt trapped within the lower reaches of the American class system, but only one remains to celebrate his escape. As outsiders, their stories can be seen as inspirations—or, in the case of Cobain, a cautionary tale for those who find themselves powerless through addiction.

Given the transforming nature of capitalism, art wrenched from agony inevitably becomes product. And the best of it—The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Man From Elysian Fields, Everything Is Illuminated, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Conor Oberst, the Rolling Stones live, Suicide (the band, not the action)—fills the gaps in our lives as it illuminates them. Likewise, the brand names of Eminem and Kurt Cobain have become synonymous with quality, an ever-diminishing commodity in today’s bottom-line pop-culture mentality.

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