Not a sweetie

Music - Steve Smith on the trailer-park, white-trash hero adored by the liberal press

A survivor of the punk-rock scene recently appeared on Channel 4 News to share his memories of 1977, the year of the Queen's silver jubilee. He agreed to talk about how the country should mark the 50th anniversary of her accession in summer 2002, but only on one condition: Channel 4 was not to show any footage of the man who had replaced him in his group 25 years ago. The revised line-up had immediately gone on to greater, or perhaps I should say more notorious, things. Such is the glacial longevity of rock feuds that our guest still hadn't forgiven his old safety-pinned, spittle-flecked bandmates for abandoning him on the grounds that he knew how to play his instrument and - the clincher - that he was "a middle-class mummy's boy".

If that is the antithesis of what makes a pop star, it's no wonder that Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, is so hot right now. Far from being middle class, the bestselling, Grammy- nominated rapper appears to have impeccable redneck antecedents. He was born in Kansas City in 1972 to a father he never knew. As little as 18 months ago, he was still calling a Michigan trailer park home. And as far as his mother's apron strings are concerned, his only interest there, I regret to say, would be in throttling her with them. Mother and son "have issues", as they say on The Jerry Springer Show - a milieu that, incidentally, Eminem has gravely praised for its faithfulness to real life. Relations cooled in the Mathers family mobile home after Eminem penned lyrics casting aspersions on his mother's bust (too small) and her dope habit (bigger than his). Debbie Mathers-Briggs hit back with a $10m defamation suit. On the face of it, this was bad (as in unfortunate or regrettable, rather than in the hip-hop sense, meaning good). But on the contrary, settling the action, if it comes to that, would be a small price to pay for the value the episode has had in cementing Eminem's reputation among rap's bedrock market of Beavis and Butthead lookalikes. To diss your mom in public and not get grounded! As teenage wet dreams go, not even the singer Christina Aguilera looms larger (although, as it happens, Eminem has also implied, in far from gallant terms, that he's got the T-shirt there, too). He has a readiness to take offence that would awe my superannuated punk. He is accused of pistol-whipping a man whom he suspected of kissing his wife, Kim, and of taking a dispute with rival performers the Insane Clown Posse out of a concert venue and into the parking lot.

Authenticity is all-important to the pop audience. Any real fan will hear the threnody in Geoff Dyer's account of meeting Def Leppard, the original groupie-violating, Rolls-Royce-scuppering rock act - at least according to their own publicity. In his book Anglo-English Attitudes, Dyer recounts: "Guitarist Phil Collen had already drunk enough to hospitalise most people. My God, did he pack it down him! Orange juice, ginseng juice, kiwi juice, melon juice, water juice. Anyone without his iron constitution would have OD'd on the vitamin rush."

The expose has yet to be written that proves Eminem is to white trash what Guy Ritchie is to the East End: perhaps an unacknowledged scion of the Bush dynasty. All the same, the rapper has found it necessary to address the subject of his own back-story in verse. The track "Marshall Mathers" includes the indignant line, "Talkin' about I fabricated my past". Eminem is just old enough to remember what happened to the last white rapper who made it big as a solo artist. Vanilla Ice scored a number one hit before he was outed as the mollycoddled son of a classical pianist. Vanilla is currently residing in the "Where are they now?" file, with apologies to the makers of This is Spinal Tap, the Battleship Potemkin of rock'n'roll movies.

Strangely, it was sympathetic critics in the liberal press who raised the question of Eminem's credibility. Belaboured by his misogynist arias to Kim - "Don't you get it, bitch, no one can hear you?/Now shut the fuck up and get what's coming to you" - and his homophobic tribute to boy bands - "I can't wait till I catch all you faggots in public" - these supporters have volunteered that Eminem's heart isn't in it, that he's sending up rap's colourful excesses; in short, that he is Ali G with a slightly more direct vocabulary.

Other apologists prefer to see Eminem as a spokesman for a generation of confused and angry white males just like himself. In what was presumably an exercise in hyperbole, our own dear Independent thanked him for "the most inspirational transformation of alienation into art since Dostoevsky pondered the murder of his landlady". Admirers give the rapper props, it is said, for baring his tortured soul. You suspect that his nihilism and self-loathing - and, it has to be said, his self-deprecation - come as a relief to students of the music industry, who are embarrassed by the more aspirational concerns of the black acts that have dominated this genre. I mean, with all those cars, guns and gold necklaces of theirs, they might as well be Republicans!

But even listeners who have come no closer to Eminem's trailer-park background than a caravanning holiday could be forgiven for thinking that the lyrics of Public Enemy are at least as enlightening as his, and that A Tribe Called Quest and the Blacknuss Allstars make a more winning racket. I first heard the hit "Stan" without knowing that it was by Eminem. Listening to its heart-rending narrative of star-crossed lovers whose relationship ends tragically in time for the closing bars, I wondered what it reminded me of: mortifyingly for all concerned, the song I had been trying to place turned out to be the lachrymose "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro.

None of this is to say that I don't get the point of Eminem. You need only turn from his driven, self-destructive pop-star antics to the doings of our own, more modestly garlanded artistes, our Billies and Robbies and Geris. How do we find them passing their days at the turn of the year, in the crazy business that is show? Dear God, chasing winter sun!

Stephen Smith is a Channel 4 News reporter. His book Cocaine Train is published by Abacus (£7.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the great cover-up

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture