He's known as a misogynist, a satirist, a jokester, an attention-seeking bad boy, a creep, an artistic genius, and a man with a history of addiction and abuse. She's known as a diva, a self-proclaimed "good girl gone bad," a brilliant performer, and a survivor of violent assault by her equally famous ex-boyfriend. When Eminem and Rihanna teamed up to perform a wrenching song about a violent relationship, people were fascinated, disturbed, thrilled, angry, triggered, impressed, affirmed, upset, unsure… whatever your personal reaction to the song, there's no question that "Love the Way You Lie" caused people to throw out a lot of strong adjectives.
When "Love the Way You Lie" was released, fans went nuts. Bloggers went nuts. YouTube went nuts. What is happening in this song, people asked? Does it condemn dating violence, or glorify it? Is it about catharsis for Rihanna, or excuses for Eminem? Is it a piece of thoughtful artistic reflection, or something more closely related to Eminem's longstanding enthusiasm for shocking the media? And what about the good-looking actors and hard-hitting plot of the wildly popular music video? There's so much to talk about here that we're going to stop talking now so we can get on with it.
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Eminem's lyrics are known as much for their explicit violence as for their anti-social satire mocking everyone from the kids who died at Columbine to his own mother. He's no Chaucer when it comes to complicated irony, but no one denies that the guy can work a crowd with words. Still, part of what's compelling about "Love the Way You Lie" is that the song doesn't fall so much into Eminem's usual too-scary-to-be-true style as into the more disturbing category of the scary but real.
Eminem and Rihanna are far from the first to toe an uncomfortable line between violent art and violent reality. When Edgar Allan Poe wrote "The Black Cat," a short story narrated by a man who murders his wife, people were unsure about whether the dark, creepy fantasy was a reflection of the real Poe. Is "Love the Way You Lie" the real Eminem? Or perhaps the "real Slim Shady"? Is Eminem working to clear his reputation? Is he trying to apologize for his past by spitting some (slightly) more reflective lines about relationship abuse? Or is he, like the beautiful actors in his music video, just playing with fire to see how it burns—and how it sells?