Jul 15

EMINEM – “Stan”

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#885, 16th December 2000

emstan “Stan” is a murder ballad. A song – not the first or last such Eminem recorded – about killing a woman. If this seems a strange way to look at it, it’s because the record takes pains to make its murder incidental. Its victim is nameless. We know Stan’s name. We know his brother, Matthew’s. We know Slim, the persona Stan is writing to, and we know Marshall Mathers, the man who replies. We even know a possible name for the child the murdered woman is carrying. We do not know her name. That isn’t where we’re supposed to be looking. The spotlight in the song is on the relationship between two men, star and fan. It’s how Stan would have wanted it.

Still, the murder is not incidental: it’s the climax of the record. All through the song, beautifully layered under the vocals, are background noises. They accompany Eminem’s conversational, half-spoken rapping and the unassuming, mid-tempo beat: literal scribbles in the margin of the track, encroaching thunder and rain. In the third verse, the rain is broken up by the wet swoosh of a car windscreen wiper, and, on cue, a woman screaming. Her death, and Stan’s, are what this track has been leading up to.

The presence of a dead woman in the song makes matters more dramatic, certainly. In some eyes, it might even ennoble proceedings. In a somewhat notorious – and slightly tongue-in-cheek – piece for the Guardian, critic Giles Foden poured praise on Eminem as a poet, specifically making a comparison to the “dark” and “ironic” poetry of Robert Browning. I remember studying Robert Browning in school – a teacher was big on the same poem Foden compares “Stan” to, “My Last Duchess”. It’s dark and ironic because, you see, we gradually realise the narrator killed his last duchess. Eminem and Browning, linked across time by brilliance, irony, bodies.

The screams, when they cut into the soundfield of verse three, are visceral, some of the most unpleasant sounds to appear on any number one. Yet at the same time they’re corny, a bit of gruesome theatre to appease any Slim Shady acolytes who’ve been getting wriggly wondering where the funny stuff is. They’re visceral, I thought at first, because they’re corny – ultimately decorative in just this way. A shot of casual sadism, a dollop of murder to make a psychological study just that bit more hardcore. (Or, with a nod to Foden, more prestigious).

But I realised the murder does more than that. Stan’s nameless girlfriend is a sacrifice the story makes. For what? To prevent “Stan” being a particular kind of tragedy. Imagine the song without the murder: it’s a tale of how art can fill empty lives but can’t always save them, tracking Stan through fandom and obsession and finally self-destruction. But, for all his obvious delusion, you’d never have to stop feeling sorry for the guy, whose sympathy Eminem is skilful enough to make sure you lose only gradually in any case. Without the murder, the centres of the song shift. One of them is the moment where Eminem speeds up Stan’s cadences when he describes cutting himself, the urgency and vividness of Stan’s letter spiking up towards a burst of stresses (”it’s like adRENalin the PAIN is such a SUDden RUSH to ME”). Another is the slurred rambling of Stan relating a half-recalled bullshit urban myth about Phil Collins as he drives himself to his death, the mis-remembered song title the most perfect and somehow heartbreaking touch in a song full of astonishing choices.

I have to think about the song that is, not the one that isn’t, and the central narrative choice – the woman’s murder. It stops Stan being a tragic figure; turns him contemptible, an everyday monster. Why is it so important he becomes that? Partly it’s because the collapse in our sympathy for Stan means we might not lose too much sympathy for Marshall Mathers, the reasonable, reply-writing narrator of the fourth verse. Here’s where there’s some real old school irony, if you want it – Eminem’s carefully manicured, offhand, self-portrait as a busy but generous star, befuddled by but polite and helpful to his obsessive fans.

If listeners sympathised with Stan, Eminem’s dismissal of his self-harm – “I say that shit just clowning dog, how fucked up is you?” – would stand revealed as callous. But because we know Stan really is fucked-up, fucked-up enough to kill someone, Eminem has a shot at seeming wise. The same goes throughout his response. We know Stan is a monster, and because of that the song can treat his obsession as monstrous – most famously, the “we should be together, too” kiss-off line of the second verse, which, because the guy turns out to be a psycho, gives “Stan” a gay-panic overtone Eminem got called out on.

Often in stories, writers use a woman’s casual death as a spur to build the hero’s character. Here, it’s a device that makes clear who the hero isn’t, absolves Eminem by revealing Stan as just another murderous guy. Absolves him of what, though?

To answer that we have to remember how chippy and defensive “The Real Slim Shady” was behind its bonhomie, how keen Eminem was to promote himself as both a scourge of pop culture and a man besieged, with everyone from “feminist women” to Christina Aguilera trash-talking him, trying to pull him down. At the centre of the criticism was his misogyny and homophobia, the impact on his young fans of songs like the venomous “Kim” or “Bonnie & Clyde 97”, where the trunk murder motif first showed up. “Stan” is born from those traits too. But it’s also just as much a creature of its battling context as “Real Slim Shady” was. A key line – hidden in mid-rant, slurred mockingly by the drunk, desperate Stan – is “see Slim, I ain’t like you”. It’s more heavy irony – Stan has finally become exactly like Slim. But it’s only Slim he’s like – who never could have replied, because he’s not real. If “The Real Slim Shady” was Eminem trolling his critics, “Stan” comes on as him taking them in absolute earnest. He imagines their worst nightmare, the fan so deranged he actually does imitate Slim Shady. He plays the scenario out to its inevitable, horrible end, and then turns to camera and says, look, if anyone did this, it’s because they’re a psycho.

That’s Eminem’s point, one you might recognise from the weary defenses popular culture has to mount, time and again, against its censors. No, Grand Theft Auto doesn’t cause violence. No, heavy metal doesn’t cause suicide. No, Slim Shady isn’t an accessory to murder – Eminem getting his arguments in here before the media can find a real-life case to pin on him. It’s a familiar defense because it’s right. But long before “Stan” was released, a more nuanced criticism grew up alongside these simple-minded parades of direct cause and direct effect. Cultural influence isn’t the thunder and lightning, its the rain, falling steadily, eroding and altering things so gradually. “Stan” is a narrative, made up of authorial choices: one of those choices is to kill a woman to make a point about the men in its story. And as women were pointing out long before “Stan”, the rain of female bodies in so many stories, treated so incidentally, makes normal an idea that they are props, adjuncts to the story of a man. Just as his girlfriend is to Stan, whose motive may be unlikely, but whose crime is all too familiar.

“Stan” ends on a pratfall – Eminem’s “it was – damn!” which tilts the whole track into being a dark shaggy dog story or cautionary tale, if that’s how you want to take it. While he might have been surprised how the song took off, it’s obviously no throwaway. He takes immense care over the performance and its bravura execution. It’s undeniably a hip-hop track, and the hip-hop community picked up on it, taking “stan” into the language as a dismissive marker for fans committed beyond reason. But it also doesn’t sound very much like hip-hop. The tether of Eminem’s flow to the beat is gossamer; he’s using his skills as a rapper but never so you notice he’s rapping. The ancestry of “Stan” includes much rap storytelling but also older country and pop spoken novelties – cornball yarns like Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear”, and the death stories so popular in the 70s. Eminem’s skill lets him be far subtler, of course. The epistolary mode – first time at number one since 1966! – means we don’t need a unifying narrator to dilute the psychodrama, and his mastery of internal rhymes lets Eminem keep control of the rhythm while hardly ever drawing attention to it. I don’t particularly enjoy listening to “Stan” – the final verses are a little too cynical and voyeuristic for me. But every time I do play it I hear something else in Eminem’s performance. In execution, it’s peerless: no other record does what this does.

That performance – and the novelty – quickly made “Stan” Eminem’s most famous track. But it goes deeper, too. The relationship between star and fan has been the centre of pop for decades. It’s the dream of becoming someone else, and maybe becoming yourself through that. An inherently chancy process. Still, anyone from Bowie to Madonna, from Presley to Gary Barlow, might have told the story of their number one fan, and with dozens of different outcomes, most less cruel than “Stan”. Eminem’s fortune is to find that story at the start of a time when the barriers between everyone are thinning – where almost anyone might have an uncomfortable fan, an obsessive enemy, an awkward request or confession landing in their laps at any time. No wonder a song which explores, verse by verse, how much identificaton is too much can still sound uncomfortable.

We are all sometimes Marshall Mathers now? Maybe, but we are just as likely to be Stan, not the murderous Stan but the Stan who has a shitty day and drifts away and puts songs on. Marshall was that guy too, which is why those verses sound human, not just ominous – why “Stan”, like the best ballads, is a song you can hear and hope maybe this time it’ll turn out better. It’s important to Eminem that he dash our sympathies for Stan, but it’s important that not all the song’s tenderness be wrecked alongside them. Which is where the second woman in “Stan” comes in.

Dido’s refrain, threaded through the song like a flyleaf between each chapter, was the first most listeners – to Eminem or anyone – heard of her. It’s sweetly sung, but with a slight reserve, a disengagement from the cold-tea despond of life she’s describing. Her detachment is designed to resolve, in the chorus of “Thank You”, into gratitude: a stock songwriting contrast, not too far in tone from All Saints’ “Black Coffee”. In “Stan”, of course, that chance of resolution is cut off. The only source of release is the picture on the wall, and the cycle begins again. Even though Dido’s voice is a lull and her interludes narcotic, her “not so bad” is the portion given to hope in this bleakest of great hit records. It’s not much. The endless drizzle, the numbed delicacy, and that glimpse of imaginary empathy – these are what precede, and survive, Stan and his girlfriend’s catastrophe. The same anomie, and the same rain, introduce Marshall’s reply as introduced Stan’s first letter. What was accomplished? Nothing.



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  1. 31
    Andrew on 12 Jul 2015 #

    Incredible review. Really fantastic, Tom!

    (I could have sworn after Oops! you had anticipated awarding another 10 before 2000 was finished. Surely not Bob the Bunny?)

  2. 32
    Tom on 12 Jul 2015 #

    (I think I said something like end of the year, but I meant 2015 not 2000! All projections subject to change, in any case….)

  3. 33
    JLucas on 12 Jul 2015 #

    I’m going to have to go against the grain with this one, because for me Stan is a great idea – probably Eminem’s best – but marred by some painfully ham-fisted moments. Did he have male fans whose obsession bordered on sexual? Quite possibly, but the “P.S. we should be together too” line comes out of nowhere and is a distracting, clumsy example of Eminem’s ever-present undercurrent of gay panic.

    Also, do we really need the unconvincing, self-justifying final verse of a kindly, sincere Eminem writing back to his ill-fated fan? For me it’d be a much better, more realistic depiction of the theme if the conversation remained one-sided to the end. But Eminem can’t resist another round of painting himself as the misunderstood victim of the piece, and his self obsession drains the song of a lot of its power, ending on a laughably clunky note with the “come to think about it, it was…YOU” line.

    I also share the issues a lot of readers have identified with Stan’s girlfriend having no features whatsoever beyond adding another violated body to the piece. That said, Dido’s ghostly vocal hook does give the song a lot of its power, and adds an air of quiet tragedy that elevates the material around it. If I think of this record without that sample, it’s really just a messy and uneven writing exercise.

    Like most people I was a little disappointed that the full ‘Thank You’ turned out to be quite bland, but in general I think Dido has undeservedly become a byword for coffee table muzak. I find a lot to like in all her records – not least the magnificent White Flag which I’d much rather be talking about than this. Her first solo hit ‘Here With Me’ is great too, a quiet storm of despair and obsession that plays like a more subtle, feminine version of this very song. I’d also point to ‘Happy New Year’ from her slept on 2013 album The Girl Who Got Away, as lovely, fragile and desolate a song as I’ve heard in recent years. A female Michael Buble she most assuredly is not.

    Anyway, 7 for this, but take Dido out of the equation and it’s more like a 5. Great concept, shame about the execution.

  4. 34
    Tommy Mack on 12 Jul 2015 #

    #33 Great review Tom. I know lots of people are saying that but I’m your biggest fan. I’ve even read that underground shit you did on ILX. Hit me back, just to chat…

    JLucas and Tom I think hit on what I’ve found most awkward about Stan: The self indulgence of Eminem getting to play the good guy in the final verse. The most generous reading I can muster is that he genuinely feared for the real life Stans who might be listening and their nearest and dearest. That he wanted to put across loud and clear that he did not condone any of this shit in real life. That doesn’t make it artistically better but it does seem like less of a dick move than saying ‘even though I am Satan in half my songs, I am actually Jesus as well. Look at me’

    Gay Panic is a big thing in Eminem’s psyche, I don’t have a problem with it (though I do find Ken Kanif tedious) I appreciate that I’ve never been on the receiving end of Eminem’s inexcusable and wearisome homophobia.

  5. 35
    Ed on 12 Jul 2015 #

    Phil @11: I disagree that the sample doesn’t really work.

    It’s primary meaning is as Stan’s voice, surely? However terrible his life might be, Eminem makes it bearable. His picture on Stan’s wall reminds him that it’s not so bad.

    But then, as with all great uses of sampling, there’s a subliminal undertow of the original song there, too. First, it’s the idea that Stan’s relationship with Eminem could be as romantic as the relationship in ‘Thank You’: a suggestion that scares Eminem and stokes that sense of Gay Panic that many have identified.

    Second, it’s the idea – made explicit by the use of Dido in the video – that the sample is also the anonymous girlfriend’s voice, giving her deluded view of her relationship with Stan. That’s why the songs work so well as a linked pair, I think: because of Eminem, we hear Dido as thanking Stan for giving her the best day of her life. And that makes ‘Thank You’ a much more interesting song than the weak ‘Black Coffee’ that it would otherwise have been.

  6. 36
    Tommy Mack on 12 Jul 2015 #

    At In The City, the Manchester based music industry conference, Tony Wilson’s phone went off during a seminar and his ringtone was the first verse of Thank You. As he apologised and tried to turn it off, a fellow panellist remarked ” I’m more concerned that the boss of Factory Records has Dido as his ringtone”, to which Wilson protested “It’s Eminem! It’s Stan!”

    So weirdly, since he died, hearing this always makes me sad for his passing. I pocket dialled his old mobile once and it was creepy as fuck, hearing his answerphone message from under my coat.

  7. 37
    Ed on 12 Jul 2015 #

    I know we have a fair few bunnies to come to discuss later Eminem, but I wanted to defend ‘Mosh’, which I think is terrific.

    It puts Eminem in that category of artists identified by one critic (Chuck Eddy?) as being able to get really fired up in their later years only for politics.

    See also the Ramones (‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’) and the Rolling Stones (‘Undercover of the Night’).

    Argh: just seen the apostrophe @35. Damned Autocorrect….

  8. 38
    Tommy Mack on 12 Jul 2015 #

    Thing that grates about Mosh is when he concludes ‘fuck Bush till we bring the troops home’ – he doesn’t know or care about the mess we made of Iraq or Afghanistan. Square Dance is a much better War On Terror song.

  9. 39
    Shiny Dave on 12 Jul 2015 #

    #32 I’m guessing that the already-technically-unbunnied Kylie track from 2001 is the 10 in question. The one remaining Destiny’s Child bunny also feels like a contender.

  10. 40
    crag on 13 Jul 2015 #

    Brilliant song but for me it’s almost ruined by that aggravatingly unnecessary ‘pen on paper’ sound effect- yes, he’s writing a letter: WE GET IT.

  11. 41
    Alan Connor on 13 Jul 2015 #

    Re: #10 (” Is this the first example of a diegetic sample we’ve encountered on Popular?”):

    Does the band in Yellow Submarine (from the same crop as #24 Paperback Writer) count?

  12. 42
    Phil on 13 Jul 2015 #

    Only if we assume that Ringo is describing a factual state of affairs – something which is hard to reconcile with the first, framing verse, never mind the internal evidence. (I always wondered about the additional friends who lived “next door”, never mind the location of the band.)

    You think about these things when you’re a kid. I always wondered who these other people were who were chiming in on “She’s leaving home” and claiming that they’d also sacrificed most of their lives…

  13. 43
    Tommy Mack on 13 Jul 2015 #

    #42 She’s Leaving Home is just Paul narrating and John voicing the abandoned parents, right?

  14. 44
    Tommy Mack on 13 Jul 2015 #

    On Eminem: I went for a jog to Dre’s 2001 album which I loved when it came out. Em’s by far the most interesting thing about it: five tracks of guns, beef, bitches, money, ‘I’m still ghetto’ then he turns up and spins the plot of a Hollywood slasher flick in the space of a verse. Dre and Snoop come across as a right pair of pricks, banging on and on and fucking on about treating women like shit in the dreariest, most humourless way. Obviously I appreciate the irony of bigging up Eminem and then complaining about misogyny but as I’ve said before, it’s pretty clear we’re not meant to think Slim Shady’s an aspirational role model.

  15. 45
    Phil on 13 Jul 2015 #

    #43 – I think it’s two Johns harmonising, but yes. Clearly not the voices of a middle-aged couple, though – hence my confusion. I also wondered how Paul was involved personally, given that he sang “How could she do this to me?” These were perfectly serious questions for me at the time (I was quite young).

  16. 46
    thefatgit on 13 Jul 2015 #

    #43 & #45 Paul singing the words of the mother as well as narrating, but I always wondered if the double-tracked John was the daughter recalling the nagging words of the her parents from her own memory; as in “I wonder what they’ll say when they read my letter?”

  17. 47
    Tommy Mack on 13 Jul 2015 #

    #46, that would explain the mix of snearing and genuine sadness in his voice. They’re fools who drove her away through their suffocating attempts at kindness but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t grieve for the loss she’s inflicting on them.

  18. 48
    Andrew on 14 Jul 2015 #

    #44 it seems all too easy to give Eminem a misogyny/homophobia/violence pass because he provides a name for his cartoon alter ego.

    This raises questions for me about who we ‘let off’ for bad behaviour, and who we censure. I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling that for all the “Slim is a cartoon”/”it’s a commentary on American society”/”he doesn’t really mean it” excuses, Eminem was ultimately allowed to get away with advocating some pretty shitty behaviour because he’s white.

    That said, nobody seems to hold Dr Dre to account for his appalling IRL actions: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dee_Barnes

  19. 49
    Tommy Mack on 14 Jul 2015 #

    #48: I think it’s more how it’s put across: I don’t condone any of it in the cold light of day but wit and invention or even sheer OTT excess can make the difference between ‘This is boring and offensive’ and ‘I really shouldn’t be enjoying this’.

    With Dre, you listen to NWA or The Chronic, it’s gripping stuff, a bleak, brutal vision of life without hope or compassion. By the time you get to 2001, he’s a boring middle aged bloke bragging about fucking women up the arse and then kicking them out because he can. Slim Shady by contrast is Freddy Krueger. Eminem’s been quite cunning in creating a character who’s so obviously the bad guy it becomes irrelevant to call him out on it. Though I accept that people probably wouldn’t watch Nightmare on Elm St if Robert Englund got caught killing kids in real life.

    I also realise that as a white guy, Eminem has the luxury of self-deprecation: if a black rapper wrote “I’ve got genital warts and it burns when I pee”, half of white America would be like “well, of course you have”

  20. 50
    pink champale on 14 Jul 2015 #

    #48 Eminem called out Dr Dre on Dee Barnes in ‘Guilty Conscience’! (Though admittedly more as a punchline than anything else).

    Good call by Tom on “In the Area Tonight” – that’s always been my favourite bit. Unlike some upthread I love the final verse. I don’t think Eminem’s seriously expecting us to believe that once he takes the Shady mask off this is the real him, but his maddening calm rationalism is perfect trolling. And you’ve gotta love the second best line “I think you’ve got some issues, Stan”.

  21. 51
    Kinitawowi on 23 Jul 2015 #

    Let’s also take this opportunity to give a nod to Chris Moyles, who spotted the festive timing and cooked up “Stanta”, a parody based around letters written to an unresponsive Father Christmas. Plays up the entitled-shit angle even more (“Don’t forget my presents man, I need that Pikachu / If I don’t get it, no talkin’ from me, I’ll be eating reindeer stew”), shatters the original’s pretentions of boundaries between Stan and Slim, goes a bit personal when Stan kidnaps one of Santa’s elve and bikes him into a lake, and drives Santa himself over the line (“You see I may be Santa but I’m rock hard / I could kill a man with just a Christmas card”)…

  22. 52
    Stephen Emmett on 9 May 2020 #

    Another fun fact – on Radio 1 at the time of the song’s release, Mark Goodier recorded a warning before the song saying something to the effect of “this record contains subject matter you may find upsetting, but we think it is very important that you hear it which is why we are going to play it”. Interestingly, this track was my birthday Number One in Ireland, the first of two Irish Christmas Number Ones for Eminem. A 10 out of 10 for me.

    @52 Yeah. “Stanta” was a brilliant parody. Here’s an animated video for the song if you feel like checking it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4w9xeqbewRw

  23. 53
    benson_79 on 24 Apr 2021 #

    A ten for me.

    I do feel pretty thick for not making the connection that this is the origin of the verb. I also never thought that the victim being overlooked was in any way problematic – the song’s not about her after all. If today’s standards had been applied 20 years ago then Stan would no doubt have been found guilty of some kind of cultural insensitivity or other and would never have gotten the same airplay or perhaps even been allowed to exist, and a genuine dark masterpiece would have been lost to the world.

  24. 54
    Stephen Parish on 25 Apr 2021 #

    Not a fan of Eminem, but I think it’s his best tune. 6/10.

  25. 55
    Gareth Parker on 31 May 2021 #

    I can’t be doing with him to be honest, one of my musical irritants. 2/10.

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