How Odd Future Is Misinterpreting Eminem’s Use of Cross-Dressing
by Zack Rearick
“My signature sound, / when a tube of lipstick’s around / I’m bound to put in on in an instant, wow”
Earl Sweatshirt is a key member of the neo-horrorcore rap group Odd Future Wolfgang Kill Them All. OFWKTA, in particular Sweatshirt and Tyler the Creator, have blown up recently off the strength of tremendous Internet buzz, a stellar live show, and a few excellent music videos. Both Sweatshirt and Tyler, have cited Eminem as a chief influence on their rapping style and subject matter, so much so that Tyler’s claim in “AssMilk” to be a “reincarnation of ’98 Eminem” seems closer to a defense against plagiarism than boasting. Of the themes which Tyler and Earl have borrowed from Mr. Mathers, perhaps the most intriguing is Eminem’s complicated take on cross-dressing. Beginning with his transition into Slim Shady on his second album, Eminem has spent more time on the subject of cross-dressing than any rapper in the game’s history. After a few casual-sounding mentions of wearing lipstick and dresses on The Slim Shady LP were met with confusion, Shady complicated his relationship with cross-dressing on The Marshall Mathers LP, taking time in “Who Knew?” to advise his listeners to “make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up”* and painting fellow Detroit rappers ICP as “two females / in make-up who may try to scratch me with Lee Nails,” while wearing “a grin full of chapped lipstick” on “Amityville.”
Em’s stance on the subject was further muddied by his decision to dress up as Britney Spears for the “The Real Slim Shady” music video and to occasionally wear dresses on stage at his concerts during the Anger Management Tour. As his rapping persona became more and more defined, the intended import of Eminem’s cross-dressing lyrics became easier to grasp; specifically, he used cross-dressing as a manifestation of
his extraordinary insanity. Consider one of the previously-referenced lines from The Slim Shady LP
, this one from “Cum On Everybody”: “Broke out then I dipped quick back to the crib, put on lipstick
/crushed up the Tylenol and ate it with a dipstick
.” In the midst of a drug-fueled rampage, the rapper dons make-up before ingesting even more drugs. It is here that we see the typical context for an Eminem cross-dressing line: it comes within the framework of a moment of insanity and is used as proof of the extent of that insanity. That the media-proclaimed “shock rapper” equates cross-dressing and aberrative/disordered behavior is not particularly surprising, though it is, of course, dangerous thinking.
But Mathers’ use of cross-dressing is significantly altered on his sixth album, Relapse. The concept album attempts to paint Mathers as a Hannibal Lecter-esque serial killer, but with an increased penchant for violence and an addiction to essentially every known type of prescription drugs. Eminem’s use of cross-dressing is much higher here than before, appearing on nearly every song and constituting one of the major motifs of the record. This quatrain from “Stay Wide Awake” is characteristic: “Escaping me, no dice, you see, I might just be Ted Bundy / or Satan, gee, what a sight to see, I’m dancing in my red panties. / I’m crazy but it’s all right with me; man, life can be so empty. / Stay away from me ‘cause I’m dancing to quite a different drumbeat.” This excerpt reveals Eminem’s decision to paint his fictive serial killer as a cross-dresser in the mold of Ted Bundy. That Bundy’s cross-dressing has been connected by many to his traumatizing relationship with his mother is not coincidental. Indeed, the track “My Mom,” in which Eminem’s identity literally “melts”* under the pressure of his mistreatment by his mother and stepfather, seems to unearth previously hidden transgendered desires. On the hook, Eminem claims that he is who he is (in the context of the chorus, a drug-abuser; in the context of this discussion, a cross-dresser) because he actually is his mother: “That’s why I’m on what I’m on ‘cause I’m my mom.”
This progressive treatment of cross-dressing which moves the act beyond proof of insanity and into the realm of serious discussion of gender identity issues is ignored by Odd Future, who, in adopting Eminem’s treatment of the subject, seem to be unaware of the genuine attempts made by the Detroit native to address the construction (and then deconstruction) of identity along gendered lines. In this line from Tyler the Creator’s “Yonkers,” the subject matter and motifs of Relapse are replicated to the point of biting, but the larger context of the dissolubility of identity in terms of gender and its construction are missing: “I slipped myself some pink Xanies / and danced around the house in all over print panties.” Ultimately, Odd Futures’ two most noteworthy artists fail to take from Eminem the greater message behind his later use of cross-dressing in his lyrics. Though the rappers continue to use Relapse as a jump off for their own re-imaginings of themselves as serial killers, they seem to miss the point of the project, which is to use those re-imaginings to deconstruct one’s real-life identity and to then re-configure it, as Shady did on Recovery.