Eminem at Reading Festival

August 25, 2013

A giant white curtain is draped over the whole main stage. A few shadows shuffle around behind it and a large spotlight illuminates the centre of it. As the house lights go down, anticipation peaks. What seems to be the biggest crowd of the weekend by a significant distance has gathered, with people shoulder to shoulder right back to the food vans. Here he is, here’s the man, the most controversial artist of the 2000s, down comes the curtain and… he’s not there. He comes out a minute later, but apparently there is absolutely no way that we could ever see a ramp being constructed before the show begins.

The majority of the set sees him stalking the front of the stage with his hype man Mr. Porter (Kon Artis in D12), while his 8-piece live band are lined up at the top of a ramp. This spectacle helps it to feel like much more of a proper set worthy of a massive stage than in the past when he has just had a DJ providing music. He begins with new number ‘Survival’ and had thousands of hands bobbing along immediately. Quickly shifting back to earlier material, highlights include ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’ quickly moving into ‘The Way I Am’ and the brazen crash of ‘White America’.

Another early track that got a massive reaction in the early goings was ‘Kill You’, taken from the Marshall Mathers LP. With the lyrics “Bitch I’ma kill you! You don’t wanna fuck with me, you ain’t nothin’ but a slut to me,” it’s as if #EverydaySexism never happened. But he bought Dido out for ‘Stan’, this means he doesn’t hate women so it’s all okay.

The show is fun, but you have to switch off sensitive factors like that. This isn’t always easy in 2013. If you’re 13 then you might not see a problem with the lyrics, it’s merely posturing to you. It’s just cathartic stuff you throw out to feel like a tough guy in your bedroom. But once you’re older you know the impact and value of such words (or at least, you should). You could put it down to the fact that much of it is commentary on the effectiveness that shock value can have in his music, and the furore surrounding it (which this could be an example of). It’s also worth noting Eminem’s material is often in the guise of his alter-ego Slim Shady, who is a violent misogynistic prick from a bad place that we’re not really supposed to empathise with. This was part of Elton John’s justification for buddying up with him, whether it’s something that angry teenage boys are aware of is a different matter albeit not really one to discuss further here. It’s been done, on with the show.

The aforementioned Dido duet was a major talking point, walking out to little fanfare she managed to get a singalong of heroic proportions going as she sang the haunting chorus of their 2000 hit. Their hug as she left the stage was a touching moment, fascinating to think what it would be like being in a room with them. This set wasn’t allowed to be filmed for TV (more on that later), so this is the best that most of you will be able to see of their reunion:

You had to be there really.

The crowd is rapturous for his great trio of self-referential massive hits ‘The Real Slim Shady’, ‘Without Me’, and ‘My Name Is’. It would also take one hell of an effort from Biffy on Sunday night to create a bigger moment than when Emineme closes his set with ‘Lose Yourself’ from the 8 Mile soundtrack.

The big elephant in the room is when you notice that the vocal sounds coming out the speakers don’t always seem to match what Eminem seems to be doing with his mic. Would we outright say he’s miming? No, certainly not totally. It looked like he was rapping over his own vocal track or employing a similar tactic. The fact that he banned the BBC from filming and showing his set didn’t exactly help put those claims to rest. He’s definitely not the only person in Hip-Hop to do this, it’s very common. But when you’re headlining a festival that people have paid £200+ to come and see it all feels like a con. Rapping is different from singing, constantly needing to flow with little time to breathe and a lot more lyrics than Rock is a small part of why such tricks are commonplace. Whether you choose to buy that or not is up to you.

So it’s a great show but it’s stacked with ifs that you have to navigate if you really want to enjoy it. If you can do that then you’re going to have a hell of a time. And ‘show’ is an important word to use here. You’re not really seeing Marshall Mathers rapping. You’re seeing Eminem often performing as Slim Shady with the volume way up, custom made videos illuminating the set behind, and no room for a cock-up.

This factor is what sets giant headline artists apart from talented poets and rappers earlier in the day like Ghostpoet and Action Bronson. They can throw out bars, make acute observations and have an ear for a melody, this appeals to dedicated Hip Hop fans. But to create something massive, you need the bigger character that Eminem is chanelling here. Even from far back in the crowd he feels threatening, even though this is as slickly produced and streamlined as any Beyoncé track you still feel anything could happen. This is why he’s headlining and they aren’t.

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