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Grammy Duet by Elton John, Eminem Puts Spin on Uproar

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The stage is set Feb. 21 for the most controversial moment in the 43-year history of the Grammy Awards: Eminem, the rapper whose obscenity-laced music often drips in venom for gays, is scheduled to perform a duet with Elton John, the iconic pop singer who is viewed as a leading champion of the gay community.

The duet, rumored for weeks but confirmed only Friday by John in an interview with The Times, is earning the British superstar the renewed wrath of the gay activist groups that initially railed against Eminem’s four Grammy nominations--including a nod in the premier category of best album--and plan to protest the Staples Center gala.

The National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, which endured a storm of protest over the rapper’s best album nomination, and CBS, which will broadcast the Grammy ceremony, also are being criticized.

John said the duet concept originated from Eminem, an overture that the British superstar views as “an olive branch” to gays from the mercurial rapper whose music has been perhaps the most hailed and reviled recordings in recent years.

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“I’m a big fan of his music, and I said I would be delighted to,” John said. “I know I’m going to get a lot of flak from various people who are going to picket the show. . . . I’d rather tear down walls between people than build them up. If I thought for one minute that he was [hateful], I wouldn’t do it.”

To Scott Seomin, entertainment media director for the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the move by John is dispiriting. “It’s hurtful. It’s embarrassing.”

Last year, GLAAD honored John’s lifetime achievements fighting homophobia with its Vito Russo Award, named for the organization’s late founder. “Elton’s actions now totally violate the spirit of this award,” Seomin said. “I think if Vito Russo were alive today, he would be appalled and disgusted by Elton John.”

The plan to have John perform the backup vocals to Eminem’s harrowing song “Stan” promises a bizarre new chapter in the unfolding pop culture story of Eminem, the 28-year-old Detroit rapper born Marshall Mathers III.

Eminem is the first white rapper to enjoy huge critical and commercial success in a genre that is largely defined by the urban, African American experience. His Grammy nomination for best album marks the first time any hard-core rap album has been considered for that lofty industry totem. The rapper is also the poster boy for controversial content--the whipsaw-fast rap songs on his Grammy-nominated album “The Marshall Mathers LP” are humorous in delivery but also relentlessly obscene in their images of murder, rape and drug excess. Eminem also has dark themes surrounding his private life; he faces felony assault and weapon charges in Michigan, and his wife attempted suicide last year.

Some hear a gifted and bold satirist, a sort of Lenny Bruce with a backbeat; others hear only a thug with a gift for rhyme and a penchant to shock. “Mathers LP” was the second-best-selling album of 2000 and has sold 8.1 million copies to date.

One of those “Mathers” copies belongs to John, an elder statesman of pop who has 57 Top 40 songs, second only to Elvis Presley, and the bestselling single of all time with his 1997 rendition of “Candle in the Wind.” “I want to work with him because he’s the most exciting artist around today,” John said. “I’m looking forward to the evening.”

The song they are scheduled to perform, “Stan,” depicts a zealous, violent fan who becomes increasingly unhinged when Eminem does not return his letters. In the song’s final sequence, Eminem patiently tells the fan to seek counseling, treat his girlfriend better and not take violent rap lyrics literally. John will perform the portion of the song that, on the recording, was a sample of a song by British singer Dido.

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The duet concept was broached, John said, by Universal Music Group Chairman Doug Morris and Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine, the executives atop the record company that distributes Eminem’s albums. Interscope officials declined Friday to comment.

NARAS President Michael Greene had said that an Eminem performance on the CBS broadcast of the Grammys would cost the show as many viewers as it adds. On Friday, Greene said that he’s certain some artists and sponsors are grappling with the idea of being associated with a show spotlighting Eminem.

“It certainly raises issues with a lot of the people that are even participating in the program,” Greene said. “We have artists’ representatives and sponsors that are certainly having issues with it. I haven’t had anybody say they are going to actually pull out yet.”

CBS executives have been supportive of booking Eminem on the show, according to network spokesman Chris Ender, who added that “if history is a guide, controversy tends to generate higher ratings.” Ender said that the Grammys are a coveted vehicle for reaching young viewers and that no advertising backlash is expected.

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In fact, Greene said there are prospective advertisers “lined up 40 deep for every 30-second spot” on the broadcast. Several activist groups have threatened boycotts of the show and its advertisers, but Greene believes sponsors will not view Eminem’s performance as an endorsement of his musical messages.

“I think people understand that what we’re doing here is not elevating the message of Eminem,” Greene said. “What we’re doing here is [acknowledging] that the membership has made a decision that they felt this recording was important enough to deserve a Grammy best album nod. . . . It’s a democracy, and we’re basically just going by the wishes of the membership.”

That point, however, was strongly rebuked by Seomin, the spokesman for GLAAD, who said the Grammys are now “an accomplice” to Eminem’s musical hate crimes and have showed that their desire for ratings exceeds their interest in doing the “right thing.”

Grammy officials on Friday announced a town hall meeting co-sponsored by GLAAD on the eve of the Feb. 21 gala to address violence and hate in music. Sources in the activist community said that the event was ready to be announced early in the week but that Greene insisted on reserving the announcement to coincide with--and perhaps blunt--news of the Eminem performance.

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Kim Gandy, executive vice president of the National Organization for Women, said the town hall meeting is too little, too late.

“This call for dialogue by NARAS, but I think it’s a day late and a dollar short,” Gandy said, “I believe that if they had done it a month ago, they would not have invited Eminem to perform. . . . If Eminem gets a Grammy for this dangerous and abusive use of music, it will devalue the meaning of a Grammy.”

The Family Violence Prevention Fund on Friday repeated its call for CBS to run at least one public service announcement during the broadcast and to compel a presenter or the host to comment on the Eminem issue. Jeffrey Betcher, spokesman for the fund, said the network has not responded, and Ender declined to comment on any contacts with activists.

The Grammys are no stranger to controversy, but attacks in the past had been for avoiding the cutting edge, not dancing on it.

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The awards show has strived in recent years to shake a reputation for stodgy, bland nominations by policing its picks with a blue-ribbon, quality-control committee, but the gala also covets a stately and high-minded aura. The debate now is whether Eminem helps the former cause or seriously endangers the latter.

Eminem, on tour overseas, told MTV Europe last week that he is underwhelmed by the prestige of the Grammy nomination but, in a riff peppered with obscenities, described how he would sit next to the youth pop group ‘N Sync and “flick pennies at them.”

Greene said he is not worried that Eminem’s recent antics--"his theater for fans"--foreshadow a stunt during the live broadcast. “‘We have more contingencies and concertina wire around his performance--just emotionally--than you could imagine,” he said.

The broadcast airs live on the East Coast (tape delayed on the West Coast) with an eight-second delay to allow the show’s producers to excise profanities. While “Stan” has obscenities, Eminem has performed “clean” versions on television shows such as “Saturday Night Live.” The song has been singled out by many critics and musical peers as evidence of his artistic heft.

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Eminem’s “Mathers” competes in the best album field with discs from Beck, Radiohead, Paul Simon and Steely Dan--four acts that are safe, critical favorites, and all have been previously nominated for the prestigious award. A victory for Eminem would only escalate the furor.

“I’m spending a lot of time thinking about that in my own reflections,” Greene said, “and wondering how the academy would ultimately respond.”

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Times staff writer Rachel Uslan contributed to this story.

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