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We can pretty much encapsulate "Love the Way You Lie" in just one four-letter word. And that four-letter word is whoa.
The song feels like a big deal. It feels intense, meaningful, chilling, frightening, deep, and sometimes worrisome. It feels emotional. And to many, it feels real.
Why all the feelings? It's not like people haven't heard Eminem rap about violence or Rihanna sing about love. The beats underlying the vocals aren't doing much that's particularly original, and the melody of Rihanna's hook doesn't do much to break new ground, either.
But the words. The song's intense depiction of a violent relationship raises questions powerful enough to attract interest not just from Eminem fans, but also from educators, domestic violence activists, feminist bloggers, and an unusually broad slew of commentators concerned about Eminem's influence on teenagers and about his seemingly unguarded misogyny.
Ever since he made his controversial debut more than a decade ago, Eminem's M.O. has been to deny that his more violent songs are meant to send a message. But "Love the Way You Lie" was tagged as a "message song" about the real problem of domestic violence by none other than Rihanna herself, who said this about it in July 2010, "It's something that, you know, we've both experienced…on different sides, different ends of the table. He [Eminem] pretty much just broke down the cycle of domestic violence and it's something that people don't have a lot of insight on… It's something that I understood, something I connected with." (Source)
Far from distancing her own personal life from the song, then, Rihanna gave listeners a certain degree of license to speculate about the connections between the song and both performers' own troubled histories—Rihanna as a victim of domestic violence, Eminem as a perpetrator. "It was authentic, it was real," Rihanna added. And for millions of people, the subject matter is real—not just because they've seen news reports about Rihanna's abuse by Chris Brown, but because millions of people experience violence in their own relationships. Unlike some of the previous angry warnings against abuse found in popular songs, this one has an edge of highly personal knowledge. And unlike more than a few popular revenge ballads, so extreme that they can almost be taken lightly, "Love the Way You Lie" is clearly not a joke.
So, what's the world's most notorious woman-bashing hip-hop jokester doing making a serious song about violence against women?
To begin with, the facts: Although some have excused Eminem's violent lyrics by saying that they represent nothing more than a shocking brand of comedy, the rapper has always been more than just a jokester. In the process of bashing everybody from Hillary Clinton to Michael Jackson to ex-wife Kim Scott, he's been accused of hating women, gay people, his mother, himself, his past, and society at large. He's also been defended on the basis that he offers a voice for the voiceless who speaks openly about working-class male rage and his own feelings of powerlessness.
It's true that Marshall Mathers—that's Eminem's nom de reality—has always had his reasons to be angry. The rapper grew up poor, was bullied as a kid, and flunked ninth grade three times before dropping out of high school in Detroit. His drug-addicted mom was physically and emotionally abusive, and his dad was absent. His best friend Proof compared Mathers' childhood home life to the 1996 Valu-Jet plane crash to illustrate the level of chaos and violence he saw there. When Mathers put out his first album in 1996, he was working as a line cook in Detroit and struggling with his then-girlfriend Kim Scott (later Kim Mathers) to support their young daughter Hailie.
Rap legend Dr. Dre discovered Eminem in 1997, and The Slim Shady LP released the same year led the young rapper to overnight fame. Hot on the tail of fame came controversy. Eminem's early songs included graphic descriptions of the brutal rape and murder of women, and he uses every derogatory name in the book to refer to almost everybody—but especially his own wife and mother. And rather than discount accusations of misogyny or homophobia, he actually talked about his early music as a sort of raw, un-edited version of the person that he really is.
"If you're sick enough to think it, then you're sick enough to say it," he told SPIN in 2000. "I don't think there's really a limit to what I would or wouldn't say." (Source)
How does Eminem's propensity for saying whatever comes into his head relate to his real behavior and attitudes? In other words, is he really as creepy as his rap persona sometimes suggests, or does he merely articulate creepy-seeming (but mostly harmless) thoughts? Where is the line between the two?
Here's one perspective: Eminem has a tattoo of his daughter, Hailie, on his right arm. Embedded in the tattoo are the words "Bonnie and Clyde," the title of Eminem's song on The Slim Shady LP that describes murdering the girl's mother and shoving her body off the end of a pier while his daughter watches, screaming. Our creep alarm is definitely going off here.
Still, it could maybe, just maybe, be all fun and games...if Mathers hadn't actually verbally harassed his ex-wife to the point that she nearly killed herself in 2000 before suing Mathers for defamation. Was Kim Mathers overreacting to a little song and dance? Not exactly. The Marshall Mathers LP featured a single called "Kim" that unleashes an alarming slew of verbal violence against this woman, by name, before describing how she would be murdered.
To make matters worse, Eminem has openly stated that his scary fantasies on that track were based on real feelings he had at the time. Taking it even a step further, Eminem's performance during his tour at the time including beating up a mock-up doll that resembled Kim Mathers. It was after seeing a performance of this in which she says people were "cheering, singing the words and laughing" (source), that she attempted to take her own life by slitting her wrists.
On top of this disturbing series of events, Eminem was arrested twice in the same year, the first time on assault and weapons charges for pistol-whipping a man he saw kissing his then-wife outside a bar (the pair divorced later that year).
Both violent jealousy and public insults to a partner are known signs of relationship abuse. One review called "Kim" a "shout-rapped enactment of domestic violence so real it chills" (source). And when Christina Aguilera, herself a survivor of domestic violence in her childhood home, criticized Eminem for the song as a part of their ongoing feud, he lashed out at her with barely-controlled rage.
So, Eminem may well be as creepy in real life as he seems on his songs. But he still ended up getting real, real popular as each of his first four major-label albums was showered with critical acclaim, high sales, and multiple awards. Young people loved his off-the-wall lyrics, and critics loved his raw talent. Ongoing criticism of his songs' messages couldn't hold back the avalanche of record sales or frequent impassioned defenses of his character.
But the rapper rose to the top on a shaky personal foundation, leading him to take a sudden musical hiatus in 2005. During this time, the real Marshall Mathers went into recovery and went sober. He also re-married and re-divorced Kim Scott, and mourned the violent death of his best friend Proof. He said in a 2009 interview that he came close to death during this period, and chose to turn his life around in order to survive.
The rapper also came close to losing his corner of the pop-rap market. His 2009 release, Relapse, was a flop of a comeback album. Over ten years since The Slim Shady LP hit the market, audiences seemed to be strangely desensitized to Eminem's shady scary stuff, too prevalent on Relapse for the album to feel original. The people that didn't like it didn't feel it was worth continuing to pay attention to, and the people that loved Slim Shady were just less impressed. Eminem seemed to have lost his controversy-driven glow.
So, in 2010, Eminem left behind a lot of his old antics to produce a more serious album, Recovery. Rolling Stone's review of Recovery points out that, although the rapper still tosses in some rage against Mariah Carey, "Em is finding ways to make therapy fun, including mocking his own penchant for navel-gazing melodrama" (source).
And indeed, "Love the Way You Lie," Recovery's biggest hit, is all about the side of Eminem who is in recovery from, rather than enthralled to, his own violent and disturbed past.
For some reason (most likely self-promotional genius), Eminem had the idea to call up Rihanna to sing the hook on this one. The young Barbadian woman's history in the public eye is a little shorter and a lot more straightforward than Eminem's. Her first big hit came in 2005 when she was only 18, and her most successful album to date is the 2007 release Good Girl Gone Bad, the effort of a baby-faced star to start transforming her reputation to something a little more grown up. With Good Girl Gone Bad, Rihanna became one of the hottest stars in pop.
In early 2009, a violent incident with then-boyfriend Chris Brown put Rihanna in the spotlight in a far less consensual way than her many hit singles had. Photos of Rihanna's battered face were leaked to the media, preventing Rihanna from maintaining any privacy in the matter. Brown soon pled guilty to felony assault and begged fans for forgiveness, while Rihanna unwittingly became a public advocate on issues of domestic violence.
Later that year, Rihanna spoke out about what happened with Brown. She told ABC News that she was "embarrassed" that she'd gone back to Chris Brown in the weeks following the assault, and recommended that young girls in her situation "don't react off of love. F love. Come out of the situation and look at it in the third person and for what it really is." (Source)
With her whole life story laid bare before the mass media, Rihanna has been confronted and even attacked with some of the worst stereotypes about survivors of domestic violence—one of which is that domestic violence can't happen to strong, independent women. "I am strong," Rihanna told ABC. "This happened to me. It could happen to anybody." (Source)
Naturally, some have speculated that "Love the Way You Lie" serves as a sort of catharsis for the singer. But others have accused "Love the Way You Lie," particularly the music video, of reinforcing some of the same myths that Rihanna and others have worked to break down.
In the music video, actors Megan Fox and Dominic Monaghan are shown fighting, making up, making out, and fighting again. Fox goes out with another man, and Monaghan attacks him in a bar (reminiscent of Eminem's own 2000 attack); Fox tries to leave, and Monaghan begs her to stay and punches a hole in the wall. The video may reinforce the idea that abuse is partially the fault of the victim because he or she is unfaithful or picks a fight. It could also suggest that people who are violent are merely losing control or losing their tempers (as opposed to a more deliberate pattern of coercion), or that those who don't leave are to blame. One blogger criticizes the song for speaking only from the perspective of the perpetrator, and another says that the video "teaches the same bulls--t lessons about destructive, abusive relationships being 'passionate.'"
On the flip side, though, the video may pressure the public to confront one of the hardest realities about abusive relationships—that people can feel passion, love, and sexual attraction, even with partners who abuse and control them. What's more, for people who stay in these relationships, love or attraction can be a part of the reason why people stay. So can financial constraints, threats and the fear of heightened violence, or a belief that the abuser really is going to change.
The whole debate about the song's message raises a question that goes beyond the domestic violence debate alone: Are artists responsible for what people make of their art? What responsibility should Eminem and Rihanna take for the influence their song may have, positive or negative? When it comes to a subject so dangerous and so prevalent, can hit-makers like these two avoid liability?
The broader question here is whether hit music about a topic like violence can be descriptive without being prescriptive. In other words, can Eminem and Rihanna describe their own experiences without also appearing to tell others what is okay and not okay? These questions do not have easy answers.
Let's be real. Eminem is still Eminem, and he insists that the song and video are personal stories, not public service announcements. And Rihanna, who has bravely revealed so much of her own story in order to advocate for other young women, cannot be expected to be the resident pop expert on dating violence for all eternity.
Whether we take it as a serious warning, a source of identification, or a sorry series of excuses, or even just a catchy pop tune, "Love the Way You Lie" is ultimately going to be what listeners make of it.