By now we're used to bizarre TV stunts, but gay basher Eminem and gay crusader Elton John on the same stage? Performing together?
When Grammy honcho Michael Greene teased in an interview that Wednesday's awards show entertainment might include "a major shocker," he apparently wasn't kidding.
The music-world equivalent of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement is just the latest twist in the ongoing tempest surrounding rapper Eminem's 8 million-selling "The Marshall Mathers LP," which grabbed four Grammy nominations -- including one for Album of the Year -- from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
The disc, already named Album of the Year by countless critics, is filled with shocking lyrics, many of which glorify violence against women -- including Eminem's own wife and mother -- and homosexuals. Incensed women's and gay rights advocates say Eminem should not be lauded for spewing such bile, no matter how popular he is.
Led by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, they're planning a Rally Against Hate at Los Angeles' Staples Center before the 8 p.m. telecast.
Cynical Grammy-watchers, on the other hand, regard the nomination not only as proof of NARAS' inability to rise above commercialism, but also as a lame grasp for hipness after years of embarrassing Milli Vanilli and Jethro Tull gaffes.
Rosemary Welsch, program director of local public station WYEP-FM, was critical of the nominations, saying, "This is the academy's attempt to say, 'Yes, we're really cutting-edge and we're not afraid to nominate people like Eminem.'"
If he wins, NARAS's 13,000 voters will get more grief; if he loses, they'll take jabs for not having the guts to sustain their neck-extending position. Grammy-dissing Eminem might lose face among fellow rappers for not "keepin' it real" if he adds more golden gramophones to the two he collected last year for "The Slim Shady LP." Whatever the outcome, he's bound to sell even more discs.
Greene, NARAS president and CEO, admits Eminem's lyrics concern him, but argues, "We have to view the extremities of art, whether it's 'Marshall Mathers' or [Andres] Serrano or Robert Mapplethorpe or whatever."
He says the controversy is spurring public dialogue, something GLAAD spokesman Scott Seomin also favors.
But Seomin says, "Eminem himself has stated that he would never use the 'N' word out of respect for African-Americans, yet both Interscope [his record label] and Eminem find it acceptable to use the word 'fag' 13 times. ... Why is there a lower standard for the acceptability of anti-gay speech?" Eminem claims his usage connotes sissies, not gay men.
Censorship is not the issue, Seomin says, but Eminem's lyrics "could easily lead to violence against gays and lesbians, a group already victimized by hate crimes.
"He can certainly say what he chooses to say, but we believe corporations should ... seriously consider whether they should promote a project that is hateful and defamatory."
Eminem, nee Marshall Mathers, claims the vileness comes from alter-ego "Slim Shady," and his tongue-in-cheek attitude is evident -- to a point.
"I totally get that he's being ironic," Seomin says, "but a 15-year-old adolescent kid who's just forming his opinions about a lot of things in this world, including what he thinks of gays and lesbians, probably doesn't understand what irony is, much less be able to recognize it."
Counters Greene, "I've got three sons, 21, 17 and 15. And when this record first came out many months ago, we talked about it and they just laughed at me. They said, 'Dad, this is theater. ... Look behind his middle finger and you'll see a glint in his eye which basically is, I gotcha. I [ticked] you off.'"
At the time, however, Eminem said in a press release that his last album was "all punch-liney," but this one "was like all right, all jokes aside."
Fellow artist Joseph Arthur buys the alter-ego defense; he suspects Eminem's anti-gay stance is a put-on. While he's not thrilled that Eminem might be "influencing hatred," Arthur says, "he's expressing a character. And whether a character is hateful or not doesn't determine the quality of what he's doing. And the quality is just great. It's undeniable.
"I have a gay friend who loves Eminem," Arthur adds, noting no one assumes an author who creates murderous characters condones killing.
But Welsch responds, "If he was saying that about blacks and Hispanics, there would be a huge outcry, and he would not be getting these Grammy nominations."
Music journalist Dave Marsh, founder of the Rock & Rap Confidential newsletter and an anti-censorship activist, retorts, "I'm trying to figure out how to begin to like Elton John, just for being rational in the face of so much opportunism and stupidity."
Lorraine Ali of Newsweek is more befuddled than offended by Eminem's Grammy platform. "I don't really think he's that controversial or shocking. I think he's incredibly immature."
Ali, who likens his raps to the kind of "explicit potty talk" young boys seem to adore, insists the rapper stands out because it was such a dull year musically.
"Do I think he's a great artist? No. Do I think he's one of the more interesting [artists] of 2000? Yes. Do I think he's good at what he does? Yeah, I think he's really good. But do I agree with what he's saying? I mean, I don't really know what there is to agree with. It's all sort of like fantasy rage.
"It's really funny how everybody's [saying], 'Eminem's so dangerous, he's so controversial.' He's friggin' performing at the Grammys! Right there, that shows you he's not on the edge, he's not pushing the envelope."
Other free-speech-supporting critics are wrestling with their consciences. Writer Anthony DeCurtis, while admitting he finds Eminem's work "fresh and exciting," says in a Rollingstone.com essay that Eminem isn't getting his Album of the Year Grammy vote because he cannot sanction "the gay-bashing and misogyny that is so deeply at the heart of that record."
On Wednesday, will learn if his fellow voters agree.