Why Was It A Big Deal When Eminem And Elton John Performed Together At The Grammys?
At the height of criticism over the content of rapper Eminem's lyrics, coinciding with the release of The Marshall Mathers LP in 2000, it turned out his biggest advocate was none other than Sir Elton John.
"He was accused of being homophobic by so many people because of his lyrics, which I thought was nonsense," John told Graham Norton in 2017. "I came out and supported the fact that he isn’t." Eminem's songs were interpreted as anti-gay because of derogatory and offensive terms used in them. Many advocates were shocked when the openly gay John came out publicly in support of Eminem, who claimed his lyrics were being misrepresented by those opposed to them.
LGBTQ+ advocates were even more shocked when the pair performed Eminem's hit song "Stan" together at the 2001 Grammys. In the performance, John sang the sections that had been sampled from Dido's song "Thank You," and the duo shared a hug at the end. Whether it originated as a publicity stunt or as a genuine collaboration between two musicians, the duet was more than a defining pop culture moment for the early aughts: It led to an enduring friendship between the controversial rapper and the British pop legend.
- Photo: Mika-photography / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
Before The Grammys, Many Were Angry At What Was Characterized As Eminem’s Homophobia
The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem's third studio album, came out in May 2000. According to The New York Times, many critics refused to include the album on their end-of-year lists because of the rapper's propensity for lacing his lyrics with anti-gay slurs. This was a trend that reached back to the beginning of his career.
Steve Spurgeon, a spokesperson at the time for GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, articulated the opinion shared by many of Eminem's critics, telling The Guardian:
[This album] contains the most blatantly offensive homophobic lyrics we have ever heard. Ever. We can't bring ourselves to condone it merely on his right to self-expression.
Backlash from the LGBTQ+ community wasn't Eminem's only problem. His songs were also seen as hateful and misogynistic. It didn't help matters that, less than a month after The Marshall Mathers LP was released, he was charged with pulling a side arm on a member of another rap group from his hometown of Detroit, Insane Clown Posse.
GLAAD Urged The Grammys Not To Honor Eminem At That Year’s Ceremony
In 2000, GLAAD rolled out an extensive campaign against Eminem. The organization reached out to music retailers, Eminem's record label Interscope, MTV, and the Grammys, urging them all to stop promoting what it viewed as his hateful, anti-gay music.
Most of GLAAD's requests were ignored, but MTV did air a special show in August 2000 about Eminem's lyrics called When Lyrics Attack, which was seen as a way to appease those opposed to the rapper's lyrical content without upsetting the legions of fans tuning in to the station in hopes of catching Eminem's videos.
The Grammys ignored GLAAD's campaign, nominating Eminem for four awards and inviting him to perform live during its 2001 ceremony.
Eminem Defended Himself - And His Lyrics - Frequently In The Press
Eminem made it clear to the press around the time of the 2001 Grammys that he didn't buy into the judgments thrown at him. The rapper repeatedly told journalists that his use of slurs most people considered homophobic indicated weakness to him, not anti-gay views. He asserted the terms have no connection to someone's orientation for him, despite their common usage toward gay men.
This stance is connected to the rapper's carefully crafted image. In an interview with Newsweek right after the release of The Marshall Mathers LP, Eminem made it obvious that he saw himself as a divisive provocateur:
People ask me, "Well, how do we know when you're joking and when you're serious?"... It's like, you don't. That's the mystique about me.
- Photo: Interscope Records
Despite The Criticism, Eminem's 'The Marshall Mathers LP' Was Incredibly Popular
The Marshall Mathers LP had the most successful Billboard debut by a solo artist at the time and sold 5 million copies within a month.
Although a contentious record, it received rave reviews from many critics. Propelled in part by buzz stemming from Emimen's controversial lyrics, the record had sold 10 million copies by February 2001.
Eminem wasn't worried about the bad press. "Yeah, I put the jokes aside and made this album more aggressive," he told Newsday. "When it came out I didn't have a care in the world."
- Photo: Eva Rinaldi / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
At The Same Time, Elton John Was Seen As A ‘Gay Community Diplomat’
While Eminem was stirring the pot, piano-playing legend Elton John enjoyed recurring waves of success from a music career that already spanned decades and included dozens of hit songs. The openly gay singer often collaborated with controversial figures. Steve Gottleib from the trade magazine CVC Report told Rolling Stone, "Being an artist, Elton can probably differentiate one’s art or lyrics from one’s own personal view."
John performed with Guns N' Roses singer Axl Rose during a Queen benefit show in 1992 after Rose received criticism over the anti-gay lyrics in his song "One in a Million." Thanks to partnerships like this, John developed a repuation for "reaching across the aisle" and looking past literal interpretations of other musicians' work to find common ground - an attitude for which he was dubbed a gay community diplomat by the media.
- Photo: Mika-photography / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
In The Press, John Praised What He Saw As Eminem’s Musical Talent
Long before their duet at the 2001 Grammys, John openly praised Eminem's music and his The Marshall Mathers LP. John saw Eminem as "the most exciting artist around today" during the early days of his career.
In fact, it was John's public praise that inspired Eminem to plan the performance. As Eminem told MTV in 2001:
People that were interviewing me over in the U.K. started talking about it to me and bringing it up, and it's like, "What do you think about Elton John saying this and that about you?" And I was like, "He did? OK." Then I read the articles where he actually had my back on stuff, and it was cool. I was like, "OK, well, I really respect Elton."