Five Ways Eminem's "High" ESPN Interview Is Pop Culture's Pro Wrestling Moment
Eminem has always explicitly played a character on his records, so I guess we shouldn't be surprised that he's playing one on TV now that he's re-dyed his hair and dumped his earnest Recovery/Chrysler commercial persona. Based on the reaction to his bizarre "high" ESPN interview with Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit, though, we were. (This is especially impressive on his part because these mid-game interviews with celebrities are always awkward and usually ignored.)
Assuming he wasn't actually high--this seems safe--it was a brilliant piece of promotion and character-building. It was also one of the best signs we have yet that pop culture is basically now pro wrestling for people who never thought nWo shirts were cool. (Granted, pro wrestling's been on my mind since I ranked the best WWF theme songs ever.)
Here's what pop stars have learned from pro wrestling:
1. Age doesn't matter, so long as your character believes he's young. In pro wrestling it is not especially weird when Hulk Hogan, who is now 60 years old, is able to beat the crap out of a 25-year-old contender. Music used to be the exact opposite: Pop stars were over the hill at 30. Heck, Kriss Kross was over the hill at 16.
This is no longer the case. Some of the Backstreet Boys are in their 40s, yet they're able to dance to "I Want It That Way" to packed houses their younger counterparts would be overjoyed to draw. As with Hulk Hogan, we suspend disbelief when '80s stars decide they want to look 25 longer than is advisable or possible (Madonna) or act like they're the same dangerous rock stars they've always been (Motley Crue.)
Eminem--Slim Shady, specifically--is a chaotic force, a young upstart that Old People Just Don't Understand. But Kirk Herbstreit, who stood next to him during the interview, is all of three years older than Marshall Mathers, who's going on 42. So long as he wears the costume, we the Twitter userbase are willing to suspend disbelief and act like he's a 28-year-old outsider, and not a guy who released history's most vulgar adult contemporary album three years ago.
2. Know your audience. Pro wrestling bad guys always know where they are, and tune their in-ring monologues to achieve maximum reaction from the crowd. In the South? Better adopt a Yankee accent and start calling people hicks. In my hometown, Springfield, Illinois? Maybe tell Abraham Lincoln to suck it.
College football reaches the exact same demographic as Slim Shady: Nostalgic former 17-year-old males and current 17-year-old males, all of them ready for something just slightly transgressive and wild. It's the perfect place to revive Slim Shady, the rough equivalent of bringing your Soviet Union villain out during a show on Independence Day. It's not quite as inspired as *NSYNC reuniting at the VMAs in front of millions of people who used to watch TRL, but it's close.
3. Don't go so far that people get tired of you. *NSYNC didn't even need to perform an entire song to fulfill the OMG *NSYNC IS REUNITING storyline, and a good pro wrestler knows that working an angle too long will eventually make people sick of you. After all, that's what happened to Slim Shady in the first place.
You can wave the flag around as Hulk Hogan for a while, but eventually the fans will get sick of you running in and saving the day and Hulking Out at the last minute if you keep doing it--10 years into the gimmick he was getting regularly booed, a fact that his federation's announcers had to cover with the wrestling equivalent of "No, they're saying Boo-urns."
In this interview Eminem starts off coherent, if a little strangely dismissive of his new album. He plugs it, he explains that it's a continuation of his earlier albums, he talks for a while about being a diehard Lions fan. He makes a polite joke about having Brent Musburger on his Fantasy Announcer team. It's awkward, but it's no more awkward than most of these, which are just the worst. Only then does it get bizarre enough to turn into a million Twitter GIFs.
4. Cheering and booing are both good signs. A pro wrestler's only in trouble when fans aren't reacting like they're supposed to--when a villain can't piss them off by insulting their mom, or a hero can't make them care about his comeback victory.
On his last album Eminem seemed to want people to take him seriously and respond positively to his earnest getting-my-life-back-together backstory. It worked. This time he seems determined to confuse people and make his crossover fans almost regret liking "Not Afraid" so much. So far it looks like that's working, too. He is, in the wrestling parlance, drawing Heat.
5. Believe in the promo, even when it obviously isn't true. I don't think many people believe Eminem was actually high Saturday, just like most people did not believe a rogue fringe of people WCW was paying millions of dollars were actually taking over their weekly shows and spraypainting NWO 4 LYFE on the backs of helpless announcers.
But they were always careful to act like they were breaking wrestling's code of secrecy--they used a wink about pro wrestling being scripted to hide pro wrestling being scripted.
Eminem's interview doesn't make my head hurt quite as much as that, but I can only assume things will become more like wrestling as time goes on. This is all leading up to Justin Bieber's face turn on Monday Night Football, right?
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