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