Viewing culture through Eminem

Anthony Bozza met Eminem in 1999 when the milky rapper’s fame was “still a whiff on the air.”

While writing a cover story for Rolling Stone, Bozza shadowed Marshall Mathers III before he won the Grammys and the Oscar and moved from trailer park to gated community.

Eminem must’ve smelled the pungent odor of his own impending success. While he was still scrubbing pans in Detroit, Mathers changed his stage name to his initials M&M, and then to his current moniker so as not to be sued by the candy makers.

In the years to come, everyone from Lynn Cheney to Maureen Dowd to Frank Rich would be throwing elbows at the bottle blond with the brilliant rhymes and white-trash pedigree. With last year’s turn as a down-and-out talent in “8 Mile,” Eminem went from reviled target of the Parents Music Resource Center to the darling of the SUV set.

But Bozza began mining the expansive, pop cultural landscape that is Eminem before anyone else even knew there was gold in them thar hills. That early prospecting has won the writer enviable access to the artist for “Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem.”

Make no mistake: the author is an ardent fan (Bozza blows Eminem a big wet kiss early on when he dedicates the book to his subject). It’s a surprise, then, that his open adoration doesn’t lead to the whitewashing of Eminem’s woman-hating, gay-bashing lyrics. (Eminem says he’s “just kidding, ladies,” and Elton John thinks the real Slim Shady’s “sweet.”)

Nor does the writer sidestep the fact that Eminem’s sales and mainstream popularity have as much to do with his race as with his prodigious talent.

Those hoping for the juicy dish of “E! Hollywood Story” should stick to the unauthorized bios of other Michigan natives Diana Ross and Madonna. There are no lingering accounts of Eminem’s charges for gun possession, his mother’s defamation lawsuit or his ugly battle for custody of his daughter Hailie Jade with Kim, the ex whom he murders in song.

Bozza deserves props for sticking to the critical high road. Still, it’s frustrating that he doesn’t indulge in the simplest journalistic Q and A about the nasty headline-grabbing episodes that cast Eminem as a jealous thug who pistol-whipped a man outside a Michigan club for kissing Kim.

The author glosses over such tabloid fodder in favor of more cerebral explorations. The result is less a biography of Eminem than a trenchant critique of the mores, music and politics of gender and race in America as it sloughed off the political correctness of the late 20th century and slouched into the “Girls Gone Wild” permissiveness of the 21st.

While consumers of rap have historically been teenage boys, Bozza and those he interviews offer some intriguing insights into Eminem’s unlikely popularity with women of all ages. Girls weaned on MTV’s “Spring Break” and CNN’s coverage of Monica’s stained dress aren’t bothered by a guy who brings a blow-up doll on stage and leads the audience in a chant of “Kill Kim.” Thirty- and fortysomethings who cheered on Anita Hill as she testified against Clarence Thomas want to cuddle the fatherless boy who claims his mommy made him crazy in the Freudian sense because she “had a different boyfriend every day of the week.” They forgive his sonic misogyny because he grew up hard and had the good sense to rap about it. “America adopted Eminem like a troubled foster child who could no longer be ignored,” Bozza writes.

More than anything else, Bozza makes a compelling case that Eminem is the perfect voice of the post-Sept. 11 generation: jaded but vulnerable, damaged and complicated, desperate to be understood.

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