Recorded Popular Music as (Trans)Fiction: The Case of Eminem #arp2015


Serge Lacasse, Université Laval, Canada

Abstract: In 2013, Eminem released the song “Bad Guy” featuring on The Marshall Mathers LP 2. “Bad Guy” is described as a sequel to “Stan,” a song featuring on The Marshall Mathers LP launched in 2000. “Stan” relates the story of a disturbed fan of Slim Shady who murders his own (pregnant) wife in a way inspired by another story, this time related in Eminem’s “97′ Bonnie and Clyde” (from the 1999 The Slim Shady LP). Eminem’s characters, such as Slim Shady, appear and interact in many other songs recorded by Eminem, of course, but also by other artists (such as Tori Amos). How can we account for the relationships within this network of songs? How recording practices can contribute to the cohesion of these related phonographic narratives?

Indeed, although popular music has sometimes been approached as narratives (e.g. Frith 1996, Sibilla 2003; Lacasse 2006), and despite the fact that most popular music is founded on a form or another of storytelling, it seems that no theoretical model has approached recorded popular music from the angle of fiction. Fiction theory is a vast domain that could help us better understand and reinterpret a lot of the practices (including practices of recording) observed in recorded music when considered from the perspective of fiction.

Using Richard St­Gelais’s concept of transfictionality (St­Gelais 2011) the paper will unpack and characterise the different ways in which a group of Eminem recorded songs relate to each other on the level of fiction: “captures,” “sequels/prequels,” “interpolations,” or “systems,” these transfictional practices shed an alternative and revealing light on a corpus that is in need of a theoretical model for better analysing its effects on us. Moreover, recording technologies directly contribute to the establishment of these transfictional relationships, notably in terms of phonographic staging (Lacasse 2000; Zagorski­Thomas 2014).

———

Serge begins by outlining that his approach is based on the fictional stories and characters around which ‘Stan’ is based. It is part of a ‘transfictional network’ (he defines this term) of four songs – Stan (2000), Kim (2000), 97 Bonnie and Clyde (1999) and Bad Guy (2013).

The characters are:

  • Eminem (Marshall Mathers)
  • Slim Shady (Eminem’s darker alter-ego)
  • Kim (Shady’s ex-wife)
  • Hailie (Slim’s daughter)
  • Stan (a fan of Slim Shady/Eminem)
  • Matthew (Stan’s younger brother)

The research will investigate a phonographic narrative, investigating not only the lyrics but the way the performance and technology contribute to the narrative.

A definition of ‘Supradiagetic sound’ follows. He discusses ‘what happens when a character walks through the woods singing and then is suddenly accompanied by instruments in the soundtrack?’. He cites Altman (1987).

We now hear a narrative description of the plot of Kim, the story of Slim Shady murdering the title character and then reassuring their daughter Hailie. The recording ends with the sound of Kim’s body being dragged (a sound that is included in ‘Stan’).

’97 Bonnie and Clyde is a prequel to the song. Stan’s story is based on the title character’s misunderstanding of the story told in Kim (Stan believes that Eminem is Slim Shady).

Serge notes that the Stan narrative is incorporated, sonically and diagetically, into the narrative of the other songs. Because we experience the songs, sonically, in the same way, the diagetic effect on us is similar to its effect on Stan – disconcerting for the listener.

‘Bad Guy’ (Matthew’s story) adds another diagetic/fictional layer, because it requires Matthew to have heard the recording of Stan. It ends with Eminem’s death (he is, like Stan’s girlfriend, murdered by drowning while locked in the trunk of a car).

Next we see an verse-by-verse analysis of the characters and their addressees in Stan, followed by a three-layer sonic analysis (vocal, sound FX and form/bar structure). This leads us to a discussion of duration and order (Stan’s track time of 6:44 is contrasted with the narrative epistolary timescale of around 6-7 months). Structurally, the choruses act as time transitions, and the thunder sound effect has a ‘role’ in the narrative (Serge speculates playfully that Stan may the the victim of some Gothic curse, evidenced by the storm following him around). The thunder hits are absorbed by the supra-diagetic framework.

A discussion of mood and discourse follows, noting the ambient treatment of sounds (the reverb contrast of voice vs. pencil vs. storm in Stan). The uttered voices have different phonographic staging – including treatments of dictaphone (Stan), inside the car (Stan), inside the trunk (Stan’s girlfriend). Serge notes the tyre screeches being on the barline, and the car hitting the water two bars later. In this way the song constantly oscillates between the highest transfictional level and the real world.

In later work Serge plans to apply similar analysis to the other three works in the collection. In questioning he discusses the filtering of the Dido song in Stan’s intro.

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