Thursday, February 17, 2011
Chrysler’s recent advertisement, featuring Eminem, has been getting considerable attention. Detroiters have apparently embraced its portrayal of their city as tough, gritty, and determined. Detroit, after all, became infamous in the 1980s and 90s for Devil’s Night, the week before Halloween, when gangs of itinerant youth roamed the city, burning random swaths of buildings, just for the fun of it.
Eminem, of course, is well-known for his roots in the Motor City. The quasi-autobiographical film, 8 Mile, featured him and Detroit underground hip hop artists. It also celebrated the eight mile stretch between downtown Detroit and the border crossing to Windsor, Canada, an area that had long been abandoned by industry and residential community.
That eight mile strip, was, by the way, also the birthplace of techno. Three African-American teenagers, the sons of Detroit autoworkers (the Belleville Three) set up shop there in the 1980s, drawn by the cheap rental space. Their experimentations with early digital drum machines and keyboards helped move the previously arcane world of electronic music from small recital halls into club spaces and onto dance floors.
The advertisement, which is hawking the Chrylser 200, a luxury car, circles around the concept of luxury itself and suggests that it’s not just “who it’s for, but where it’s from.” “We’re not New York City,” the resonant voiceover states, “We’re not the windy city…and certainly not the empty city.” The sound track features a sample of Eminem’s “Losing It.” At the end, he steps out of the car, into an auditorium that has a full gospel choir on stage. He turns to the camera and states defiantly: “This is Detroit, and this is what we do.”
It might seem a bit strange for an automobile corporation, like Chrysler, to embrace someone with Eminem’s pedigree. At one time he was among the most vilified popular musical performers in the U.S. And his latest CD, Recovery, marks the return of his old sexist, homophobic, alter-ego, Slim Shady. In any event, he has lost little, if any, of his capacities for spewing vitriol and deletable expletives, although now softened with the occasional expressions of regret. (And I say this as a fan.)
But that seems to be the point of it all. Detroit, like Eminem, has been in recovery—economic recovery. A long time coming perhaps, but now it’s returning to form, unapologetic and as badass as ever.
This is all in good fun. And I certainly don't begrudge Detroiters their fifteen minutes in the pop cultural sunlight. I would love to see the city undergo a true renaissance. But it's not clear that the route to Detroit's success is a new line of Chrysler luxury cars. And it would have been nice if the ad had alluded at least once to the multi-billion dollar bailout package that the corporation received from taxpayers to keep it afloat (for the second time). While originally a Bush initiative, support for it contributed to Democratic congressional losses in November. Some of the same money helped presumably to offset the costs of broadcasting a high-end television advertisement, featuring a global pop superstar, on Superbowl Sunday.