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10 Years, 100 Songs: #7. “Dear, Mr. ‘I’m Too Good to Call or Write My Fans'”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 21, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

There were a lot of great pop stars in the Naughty Oughties, but only two of them were truly inimitable. One is still to come on this list, and the other was Eminem. At his peak, a mixture of Marilyn Manson, Kurt Cobain, Axl Rose and Tupac Shakur–and a match in talent to any, either in terms of artistic ability or cultural galvanization–Eminem came on like a force of nature at the turn of the millennium, absolutely unparalleled in his commandeering of the musical conversation. If one measures rock stardom by the ability to terrify the parents of America, then Eminem was perhaps the last true rock star this country will ever see–it’s hard to imagine any single artist being able to push so many of the country’s buttons again, while remaining a musically compelling enough figure that the controversy never quite overwhelmed the actual production. For a five year period from early 1999 to the end of 2003, Slim Shady in pop music was like Shaq in the NBA, just bulldozing over everything and anyone in his path. Then, almost overnight, he lost his fastball (sorry for the mixed-sports-metaphor, but “lost his jumper” just didn’t have the same ring), and never scaled anywhere near the same heights again. But for that half a decade, Em not only seemed like the artist of the decade, but putting himself in the running for the status of an all-time great.

It wasn’t Eminem’s most popular single (“Lose Yourself,” which topped the charts for about three months), nor his most definitive (either “The Real Slim Shady,” “Without Me,” or post-insanity, “Just Lose It”), but “Stan,” his 2000 tale of the titular obsessed fan, framed by letters written by Stan to Shady, was probably his best single, and the song which best demonstrated his singular talents.  And it’s not just the number of red flags that the song and its video raised–vivid discussions of self-mutilation, suicide, domestic abuse and murder, as well as more subtle references to homosexuality, none of which tended to fly in the Top 40 in 2000. It’s the way it screwed with conventional pop music, both in its production and its unusual choice of sample. It’s the way it reflected Em’s awareness not only of his public image, but his place in rock history. And it’s the way it tied everything up in a slinking, striking, and disturbingly catchy song, one which became one of his most critically beloved singles and an inextricable part of 00s pop culture.

But first and foremost, yeah, this is a pretty unsettling song. It’s funny, and perhaps not entirely uncoincidental, what a basically nice place pop music became in the second half of the decade without Eminem’s pervasive influence. These days, the only real controversy taking place in the top 40 happens off the court, whether it be for domestic abuse, award-show rudeness or on-stage homoeroticism. What was the last song released by a prominent artist that really fucked with people’s heads? What was the last hit single to really bring out the censors, beyond just turning “bitch” into “chick” in the title? What was the last video that MTV couldn’t play before 3:00 in the morning–assuming, anyway, that it still played any videos before 3:00 in the morning? There must’ve been a couple, but it’s hard to remember too many from the last half a decade. Yet during his heyday, Em was releasing singles like this every year, seemingly every month at times. Some of them may have been more baiting than they were thought-provoking, but they all at least got people talking, and probably none more than “Stan.”

It’s hard for me to know what “Stan” would sound like to kids growing up with the Eminem of today–speaking of Marilyn Manson earlier, there was a time when he seemed like a genuinely scary individual, but in retrospect seems no less frightening than the lead singer of Live in the “I, Alone” video, so maybe in the future, “Stan” will come off to listeners like a slightly less whiny Papa Roach song. But man, listening to it, I still think it’s some pretty chilling shit. Thanks to the backing track, which I’ll get to more in depth later, the entire thing is eerily tense, and the second verse ups the ante with Stan’s unexpected bursts of aggression (“I just think it’s FUCKED UP you don’t answer fans,” “It’s like adrenaline, the pain is such a SUDDEN RUSH to me!”), and takes things to that next level with that “P.S., We should be together too” capper. It’s little insertions like that which always put Eminem a cut above his peers–what other rapper of the time would have acknowledged the semi-latent gayness of his worshipping fanbase, without turning it into the whole point of the song, or a “silly faggot” type dig? (Elton John approved, apparently, helping Mathers partly quash cries against his previously less-apologetic homophobia by performing a version of the song live with him at the ’01 Grammys).

Then in the third verse, all hell breaks lose with Stan’s murder/suicide with his girlfriend, and his frenzied darts of anger at Shady (“WHEN YOU DREAM I HOPE YOU CAN’T SLEEP, AND YOU SCREAM ABOUT IT! / I HOPE YOUR CONSCIENCE EATS AT YOU AND YOU CAN’T BREATHE WITHOUT ME!”), interrupted only by the muffled screams of his girlfriend, tied up in his trunk–yikes. Amidst the resounding negativity and violence (usually self-directed) of the nu-metal boom, the genre still had no real answer for the intensity of Eminem, who at once seemed both more unhinged and far more credible than any of the Hybrid Theory howlers. I made the rather sizable mistake of doing the song in a karaoke outing with a group of people I didn’t really know, and who were presumably listening to more Good Charlotte and Shaggy at the time than Eminem–none of them seemed to know the song, and when I was done, they all looked at each other wide-eyed like “Uhhh…that was interesting.” It totally killed the evening, and needless to say, I have not been invited back to further karaoke expeditions. (For the record, though, I knocked the song out of the fucking park. Trust me.)

The key to the song’s uneasy vibe, and one of the great coups of 00s pop, is the “Thank You” sample. It was an insanely inspired choice of sample, mainly because it’s one that makes absolutely no sense on paper. Until Colbie Calliat’s “Bubbly” came around, “Thank You” was easily the warmest, sweetest love song of the decade, even used by an episode of Scrubs as the punchline for one of its patented J.D. Is Wussy jokes (“If my heart could write songs, they’d sound like these”). Little would suggest that it could provide the core for such a disturbing song as this. Credit to Em and co-producer the 45 King for realizing the hip-hop potential in the beat’s laid-back shuffle (and the understated hooting noises in the background, a deceptively nice hook), and just making a tiny, tiny adjustment–adding two minor-sounding notes to the bass part at the end of the verse, which are already sort of musically implied anyway–which makes all the difference in bringing out the creeping malice of the groove, an ominous cloud shading the song’s overwhelming sunshine. Not to mention that without the song’s chorus to offer release to all the tension, the resigned despair of the verse’s lyrics (“Wonder why I got out of bed at all,” “Your picture on my wall, it reminds me that it’s not so bad, not so bad…”) start to sound more like clinical depression. It’s such a brilliant interpolation that it made “Thank You” a massive song in its own right–one of the very rare instances in pop history that an obscure song was sampled by a hit, and subsequently became an even bigger hit than its sampler.

Almost as important to the song’s success, though, is another nifty production triumph–the use of pencil sounds as a percussive element throughout the song. Using everyday noises as the basis for beats became an oft-recurring theme throughout the electronic underground in the early-00s, as artists like Herbert and Matmos tried to turn the sounds of farts and liposuction surgeries into stereophonic nirvana (with predictably mixed results), but what Eminem achieved here was arguably more impressive than anything those guys put out on their often-gimmicky masterworks. In addition to helping construct the song’s letter-correspondence frame, the pencil sounds add an inscrutable element to the song’s already hypnotic beat–just that little added “woah, haven’t heard that in a pop song before” hook to lasso your attention, and hold it the rest of the song. The first time I heard “Stan,” it was the pencil sounds–not, say, the gruesome depiction of harrowing obsession and unchecked homicidal rage–that really grabbed me about it, that intrigued me to keep listening. (The only downside? In ten years, when pencils are officially obsolete, it’ll sound completely alien to future listeners–Em may as well have been scribbling with a quill and ink.)

Even with all these clever production tricks, “Stan” doesn’t work with any other rapper raving over it than Eminem. If 20th century media was all about the breakdown of the barrier between artist and audience, then Eminem may as well have invented post-modernism in popular music. No artist before him had responded so quickly, so willingly, and so honestly to both his critics and his fans (and the overwhelming majority of Americans who fell a little into both camps) in his music. Keep in mind that “Stan” was recorded barely a year after the  breakout of “My Name Is”–in which time, Eminem achieved popularity enough to achieve both a legion of posers (responded to in first single “The Real Slim Shady”), a major mainstream backlash (responded to in second single “The Way I Am”), and an obsessive fan base that occasionally took their personal connection too far (third single “Stan”). Before the rise of live journals, blogs, Twitters, and every other conduit that allows a public figure to better interact with its constituents, here was Eminem, basically using his hit singles as an opportunity to engage in dialogue with his listeners–which, by the way, was making him more popular than ever. Ahead of his time, to say the least.

But for such a dangerously volatile artist, Eminem always seemed a little too smart to ever let his public persona really get away from him, either. By playing both Stan and himself (Em shows up in the last verse to offer a too-late letter in response, only to realize that he just watched about Stan killing himself on the news), Eminem sort of acknowledges that he understands both sides of the story, that he probably used to be a semi-obsessive fan of other rappers he was envious of, and that he probably bore a few self-destructive tendencies himself (even though he’s now mature enough to shrug that off as “clowning, dawg” and basically tells Stan to get a life). What’s more, he also seems fully aware of the power and mystery of the song itself, demonstrated by Stan’s referencing Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” and the widely-circulated/yet-unconfirmed myth that Phil wrote the song about witnessing a closer onlooker neglect to save a man from drowning.  I think Slim knew that “Stan” would eventually court such myths itself (“Was there actually an Eminem fan that killed himself because he wouldn’t answer his letters? Did Em write this as a dis to some rapper who wanted to be like him? Is “Stan” actually Stan Frazier, drummer for Sugar Ray?”), and brought up the Phil Collins thing to insert the song into that lineage. (Don’t think he wasn’t savvy enough to do this on purpose–you don’t get as huge as Eminem was for the first half of the 00s by accident.)

So what happened to Eminem, exactly? How do you go from being Artist of the Generation to a pop music afterthought, a shadow of your former self? Well, I already went over in semi-redundant detail the ten-step program that Marshall underwent towards complete irrelevancy, but I’ll try to condense it for space purposes here. Basically, Eminem hit career overload in late-2002 / early-2003–a period during which he had gained as much commercial success, respect from peers and critical acclaim as he (or any other artist, really) was likely to achieve in his lifetime. After that, he just sort of lost interest, and perhaps more importantly, he lost having much of anything to write about. His regression as an artist from there (and I mean regression–most of his post-’03 singles sound like they’re written by and for 14-year-olds) was so blatant and unapologetic that one wonders if it was purposeful, like Em was so tired of being such a lightning rod that he decided to go back to picking on easy targets and making poop jokes.

After the release of the massively disappointing Encore in 2004, Eminem unofficially “retired,” but like Jay-Z, he still popped up from time to time on mixtapes and guest appearances, and each time it was a disappointment. Then with the release of comeback album Relapse last year, it confirmed that Em was just a shell of his former self (physically as well as artistically–dude looks fucking freaky these days), content to just go through the motions of his earlier successes, over mediocre, tired-sounding beats. Only twice have I really seen the old Eminem shining through since he peaked six years ago–on “The Warning,” a nasty, old-school series of shots at Mariah Carey for the “Obsessed” video, on which he actually sounds sort of motivated for the first time in ages, and on “Beautiful,” where Marshall basically admits to being out of things to rap about and acknowledges that maybe it’s time to hang it up, something that the Slim Shady we know and love probably would have and should have owned up to a half-decade ago.

But you know what? Eminem’s spectacular flame-out doesn’t really leave me as frustrated as it probably should. In a weird way, I think his drastic plummet from grace over the last five years has kind of served to validate just how meteoric and phenomenal his first five were, and to demonstrate that even if he seemed like he always knew what he was doing, he was never really all that calculating, either. I’m glad that he’s done such a poor job of phoning it in recently, because if he had done a better job of faking it, it might’ve raised questions about how much of Em was ever genuine when he was at the top of his game. Five great years of Eminem still beat ten good years from just about any other rapper this decade, and if that’s all we’re going to get out of Marshall Mathers going forward, that’s fine with me. Em can continue to take cheap shots at Tony Romo and act humorlessly at MTV award shows, and I’ll just think back to doing “Stan” at karaoke and smile. “It reminds me, that it’s not so bad, not so bad…

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque
21. Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down
20. The All-American Rejects – “Move Along
19. OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)
18. Interpol – “PDA
17. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body
16. Vanessa Carlton – “A Thousand Miles
15. The Clipse – “Grindin‘”
14. Cam’Ron f/ Juelz Santana & Freekey Zeke – “Hey Ma
13. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge
12. Soulja Boy – “Crank Dat Soulja Boy
11. StainD f/ Fred Dusrt – “Outside
10. Rihanna f/ Jay-Z – “Umbrella
9. Sum 41- “Fat Lip
8. R. Kelly – “Ignition (Remix)
7. Eminem f/ Dido – “Stan”

6 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #7. “Dear, Mr. ‘I’m Too Good to Call or Write My Fans'””

  1. MBI said

    With this song and the song before it, you’ve knocked out two of my last three remaining sure-to-be-on-the-list artists.

    I remember distinctly thinking around the release of 8-Mile that Eminem was no longer the biggest pop star in the world, but the only pop star in the world. His dominance of the music industry will be difficult to understand by anyone who wasn’t there.

    “Beautiful” may be my favorite song of the year. That’s a gutsy move, man, starting a song with the lines “I’m just so fucking depressed.” For what it’s worth, though, I really liked Em’s verse on “Forever,” even though it’s still not vintage Slim Shady.

  2. Leslie said

    I can fully get behind this one. Stan is an amazing piece of song craft. One aspect that you didn’t mention that I thought was particularly ingenious was the way that “Stan” (and Stan the character) references Em’s earlier songs, e.g., “I just drank a fifth of vodka. Dare me to drive?” from “My Name Is” and lifting the entire concept of the song “Kim.” It fits with the “I created a monster” lament of “Without Me.” If the idea of an impressionable young fan turning to violence through listening to rap doesn’t terrify parents, nothing will.
    On the other hand, I think you give him a little too much credit for self-awareness. But overall, very well-put.
    And you are a frighteningly intense karaoke-er no matter what the song.

  3. Jason Kirk said

    Always felt the song’s key was what it did with the sample’s bassline. Glad you brought that up.

    It might have more staying power than we realize… “Stan” is surely neck-and-neck with “Ether” for the song most often quoted in rap blog comment sections.

    And technically you mixed three or four sports metaphors (“in the running,” “scaling heights”) in the first paragraph there, which is impressive.

  4. Tony Mendocino said

    For numerous alt-rock stations in 2000, “Stan” was the only non-novelty hip-hop song to grace the playlists. This audience was still unfamiliar with Em, and it was pure joy to observe their psychology when processing the contrast of this song amidst Creed and Days of the New. The smarter stations employed “Stan” as the final tune before a commercial break (How do you follow that song – maybe PJ Harvey’s “Big Exit”?)

  5. ZD said

    This is a good call, tho Lose Yourself is what I would’ve picked. It happens.

    I’ve always figured Eminem would be a surprisingly doting and present father — and out of love as opposed to seeking to hone Hailie Jade’s flow prowess a la My Dad’s Gone Crazy. So maybe that’s what’s happened here?

    Anyhow, I’m still holding out hope that the Debbie Mathers rap remix will be on the countdown, tho that may have been from the late 90’s.

  6. Mixmastermind said

    This is kind of a funny essay to read now in light of Eminem’s resurgence in the last couple of years.

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