Eminem — taken by the Department of Defense, Public Domain
I’ve listened to Eminem’s Stan dozens of times. After all, Eminem has been a mainstay in popular culture for as long as I’ve been alive, and for good reason. He’s a good rapper, but no song strikes out to me as much as Stan for its disturbing lyrics, music video, and quality.
The song has a whole storyline told in its lyrics and verses. If you haven’t listened to it, I would highly recommend listening to the song and watching the music video. As a warning, it’s very graphic and violent and includes graphic mentions of self-harm.
I’ll give a brief analysis of the song, followed by the message I took away from it. If you don’t want to read a long piece, the message is not to take your idols too seriously. It’s to not take a musician’s music too seriously or an artist’s art too seriously.
In the song, a fictional character of Stan is an idol of Eminem and goes above and beyond as a fan. Stan is slighted by Eminem not returning his letters and not acknowledging him at a show. A particularly disturbing and escalating part of Stan’s letter to Eminem is that he self-harms because Eminem raps about it:
“Sometimes I even cut myself to see how much it bleeds
It’s like adrenaline, the pain is such a sudden rush for me
See everything you say is real, and I respect you ’cause you tell it.”
Anyway, Eminem responds in his letter that he wasn’t serious about cutting his wrists:
“But what’s this shit you said about you like to cut your wrists too?
I say that shit just clownin’ dog, come on, how fucked up is you?”
Again, it’s a message not to take Eminem too seriously. The direct message is to not actually cut your wrists just because Eminem raps about it, but a larger message is a musician’s public image is much different than who they actually are as a person. Eminem put on a big public image and persona that a fan like Stan would idolize, but in reality, he’s just a regular person with way too much fanmail who can’t get to all his letters in a timely manner.
It is a disturbing song. It’s a disturbing music video.
Stan is so desperate for Eminem to write back to him that he sends him two letters, with three phone numbers on each letter. He documents his personal connection to Eminem — he is about to have a daughter, too, much like Eminem. His uncle, like Eminem’s, also died by suicide. Stan worships Eminem so much he has a shrine to himself in his room and tries to prove how much a fan he is by his devotion to his earlier music.
Stan’s second verse becomes significantly more violent. He guilts Eminem by saying he and his six-year-old brother waited for him for four hours to get an autograph, but Eminem refused to give them one. He furthers his personal connection with Eminem, having an absentee and abusive father, and having nothing else to do when he’s depressed. Stan has a tattoo of Eminem across his chest, and again, he self-harms as Eminem talks about it in his songs. Lastly, Stan says “we should be together too.”
The last verse of Stan’s is the most tragic — Stan drank a fifth of vodka, and was so slighted at Eminem failing to return his letters he ties up his pregnant wife and puts her in the trunk. We learn later he drove the car off a bridge while he was recording the tape.
When Eminem finally writes back, he attempts to ground Stan, tells him he should treat his girlfriend better, and suggests he get some counseling. He realizes at the end of the verse a news story of a man who drove his car off a bridge with his pregnant wife in the trunk was, in fact, Stan.
Again, the lesson is not to take Eminem’s music too seriously, or anyone for that matter. No one should be idolized as much as Stan idolizes Eminem, and while it’s okay to be a fan, putting Eminem on a pedestal clearly makes the Eminem character incredibly uncomfortable. It’s also very unhealthy for Stan.
Another big lesson is famous people are people too. They can’t greet everyone at a big event or concert. They can’t sign every single autograph. They, too, need privacy. They can’t reply to every letter, and upholding superhuman expectations of human beings is very unfair.
I first listened to Stan before I was 10. Now, at 24, I certainly have a different perspective on the song. It’s disturbing and an incredibly creative song, yes, but Stan is also just a great song because it tells an entire story within its verses.
Overall, who an artist is in their art isn’t who they are as human beings. It’s just a persona and it’s not who they are in real life. As a writer myself, I can resonate with that message as well — I only tell you the good parts of myself.
Well, I’m joking a bit there, but there are some people who commend my writing because of how vulnerable I am with my experiences and emotions. Some people like the fact that I write about my opinions and faith in a time of all-time high cultural sensitivity.
But come on — if I was vulnerable about absolutely everything in my life, you would probably not like me. I have said and done things I’m not proud of (look through my social media posts when I was 12) and that I’ve deemed wiser not to share publicly (and only with a select few people in my life) because I know how they would react. Similarly, I’m not sharing every single opinion I have because I know some would result in repercussions that could easily shatter the image people have of me.
I am just an obscure writer with a small following, but I have cultivated an image and brand. That’s certainly not who I am in real life. It’s not like I am a liar, it’s more so that cultivating an image and telling a story about yourself involves a fair amount of selective choosing and omission about the story you want to tell.
Eminem conveys the theme there that his public image is just that — an image. And he has several layers, too, beyond just a public image. He has a musical image, an image to the media, and the reality of who he is in everyday life. All of these are connected, but ultimately separate, and who Eminem is as a person in real life is someone we probably will never know.
We know the musical version of Eminem and the Stans of the world idolize him, but do they really know Eminem? No. And that’s why taking someone’s art that seriously is dangerous — the majority of people won’t tie up their pregnant wives, put them in the trunk, and drunkenly drive their cars off bridges, but there will always be fans that have an unhealthy obsession with their idols. And that’s not fair to the artists nor the fans.
Originally published on The Riff on October 17, 2021