“Stan” is a murder ballad. A song – not the first or last such Eminem recorded – about killing a woman. If this seems a strange way to look at it, it’s because the record takes pains to make its murder incidental. Its victim is nameless. We know Stan’s name. We know his brother, Matthew’s. We know Slim, the persona Stan is writing to, and we know Marshall Mathers, the man who replies. We even know a possible name for the child the murdered woman is carrying. We do not know her name. That isn’t where we’re supposed to be looking. The spotlight in the song is on the relationship between two men, star and fan. It’s how Stan would have wanted it.

Still, the murder is not incidental: it’s the climax of the record. All through the song, beautifully layered under the vocals, are background noises. They accompany Eminem’s conversational, half-spoken rapping and the unassuming, mid-tempo beat: literal scribbles in the margin of the track, encroaching thunder and rain. In the third verse, the rain is broken up by the wet swoosh of a car windscreen wiper, and, on cue, a woman screaming. Her death, and Stan’s, are what this track has been leading up to.

The presence of a dead woman in the song makes matters more dramatic, certainly. In some eyes, it might even ennoble proceedings. In a somewhat notorious – and slightly tongue-in-cheek – piece for the Guardian, critic Giles Foden poured praise on Eminem as a poet, specifically making a comparison to the “dark” and “ironic” poetry of Robert Browning. I remember studying Robert Browning in school – a teacher was big on the same poem Foden compares “Stan” to, “My Last Duchess”. It’s dark and ironic because, you see, we gradually realise the narrator killed his last duchess. Eminem and Browning, linked across time by brilliance, irony, bodies.

The screams, when they cut into the soundfield of verse three, are visceral, some of the most unpleasant sounds to appear on any number one. Yet at the same time they’re corny, a bit of gruesome theatre to appease any Slim Shady acolytes who’ve been getting wriggly wondering where the funny stuff is. They’re visceral, I thought at first, because they’re corny – ultimately decorative in just this way. A shot of casual sadism, a dollop of murder to make a psychological study just that bit more hardcore. (Or, with a nod to Foden, more prestigious).

But I realised the murder does more than that. Stan’s nameless girlfriend is a sacrifice the story makes. For what? To prevent “Stan” being a particular kind of tragedy. Imagine the song without the murder: it’s a tale of how art can fill empty lives but can’t always save them, tracking Stan through fandom and obsession and finally self-destruction. But, for all his obvious delusion, you’d never have to stop feeling sorry for the guy, whose sympathy Eminem is skilful enough to make sure you lose only gradually in any case. Without the murder, the centres of the song shift. One of them is the moment where Eminem speeds up Stan’s cadences when he describes cutting himself, the urgency and vividness of Stan’s letter spiking up towards a burst of stresses (”it’s like adRENalin the PAIN is such a SUDden RUSH to ME”). Another is the slurred rambling of Stan relating a half-recalled bullshit urban myth about Phil Collins as he drives himself to his death, the mis-remembered song title the most perfect and somehow heartbreaking touch in a song full of astonishing choices.

I have to think about the song that is, not the one that isn’t, and the central narrative choice – the woman’s murder. It stops Stan being a tragic figure; turns him contemptible, an everyday monster. Why is it so important he becomes that? Partly it’s because the collapse in our sympathy for Stan means we might not lose too much sympathy for Marshall Mathers, the reasonable, reply-writing narrator of the fourth verse. Here’s where there’s some real old school irony, if you want it – Eminem’s carefully manicured, offhand, self-portrait as a busy but generous star, befuddled by but polite and helpful to his obsessive fans.

If listeners sympathised with Stan, Eminem’s dismissal of his self-harm – “I say that shit just clowning dog, how fucked up is you?” – would stand revealed as callous. But because we know Stan really is fucked-up, fucked-up enough to kill someone, Eminem has a shot at seeming wise. The same goes throughout his response. We know Stan is a monster, and because of that the song can treat his obsession as monstrous – most famously, the “we should be together, too” kiss-off line of the second verse, which, because the guy turns out to be a psycho, gives “Stan” a gay-panic overtone Eminem got called out on.

Often in stories, writers use a woman’s casual death as a spur to build the hero’s character. Here, it’s a device that makes clear who the hero isn’t, absolves Eminem by revealing Stan as just another murderous guy. Absolves him of what, though?

To answer that we have to remember how chippy and defensive “The Real Slim Shady” was behind its bonhomie, how keen Eminem was to promote himself as both a scourge of pop culture and a man besieged, with everyone from “feminist women” to Christina Aguilera trash-talking him, trying to pull him down. At the centre of the criticism was his misogyny and homophobia, the impact on his young fans of songs like the venomous “Kim” or “Bonnie & Clyde 97”, where the trunk murder motif first showed up. “Stan” is born from those traits too. But it’s also just as much a creature of its battling context as “Real Slim Shady” was. A key line – hidden in mid-rant, slurred mockingly by the drunk, desperate Stan – is “see Slim, I ain’t like you”. It’s more heavy irony – Stan has finally become exactly like Slim. But it’s only Slim he’s like – who never could have replied, because he’s not real. If “The Real Slim Shady” was Eminem trolling his critics, “Stan” comes on as him taking them in absolute earnest. He imagines their worst nightmare, the fan so deranged he actually does imitate Slim Shady. He plays the scenario out to its inevitable, horrible end, and then turns to camera and says, look, if anyone did this, it’s because they’re a psycho.

That’s Eminem’s point, one you might recognise from the weary defenses popular culture has to mount, time and again, against its censors. No, Grand Theft Auto doesn’t cause violence. No, heavy metal doesn’t cause suicide. No, Slim Shady isn’t an accessory to murder – Eminem getting his arguments in here before the media can find a real-life case to pin on him. It’s a familiar defense because it’s right. But long before “Stan” was released, a more nuanced criticism grew up alongside these simple-minded parades of direct cause and direct effect. Cultural influence isn’t the thunder and lightning, its the rain, falling steadily, eroding and altering things so gradually. “Stan” is a narrative, made up of authorial choices: one of those choices is to kill a woman to make a point about the men in its story. And as women were pointing out long before “Stan”, the rain of female bodies in so many stories, treated so incidentally, makes normal an idea that they are props, adjuncts to the story of a man. Just as his girlfriend is to Stan, whose motive may be unlikely, but whose crime is all too familiar.

“Stan” ends on a pratfall – Eminem’s “it was – damn!” which tilts the whole track into being a dark shaggy dog story or cautionary tale, if that’s how you want to take it. While he might have been surprised how the song took off, it’s obviously no throwaway. He takes immense care over the performance and its bravura execution. It’s undeniably a hip-hop track, and the hip-hop community picked up on it, taking “stan” into the language as a dismissive marker for fans committed beyond reason. But it also doesn’t sound very much like hip-hop. The tether of Eminem’s flow to the beat is gossamer; he’s using his skills as a rapper but never so you notice he’s rapping. The ancestry of “Stan” includes much rap storytelling but also older country and pop spoken novelties – cornball yarns like Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear”, and the death stories so popular in the 70s. Eminem’s skill lets him be far subtler, of course. The epistolary mode – first time at number one since 1966! – means we don’t need a unifying narrator to dilute the psychodrama, and his mastery of internal rhymes lets Eminem keep control of the rhythm while hardly ever drawing attention to it. I don’t particularly enjoy listening to “Stan” – the final verses are a little too cynical and voyeuristic for me. But every time I do play it I hear something else in Eminem’s performance. In execution, it’s peerless: no other record does what this does.

That performance – and the novelty – quickly made “Stan” Eminem’s most famous track. But it goes deeper, too. The relationship between star and fan has been the centre of pop for decades. It’s the dream of becoming someone else, and maybe becoming yourself through that. An inherently chancy process. Still, anyone from Bowie to Madonna, from Presley to Gary Barlow, might have told the story of their number one fan, and with dozens of different outcomes, most less cruel than “Stan”. Eminem’s fortune is to find that story at the start of a time when the barriers between everyone are thinning – where almost anyone might have an uncomfortable fan, an obsessive enemy, an awkward request or confession landing in their laps at any time. No wonder a song which explores, verse by verse, how much identificaton is too much can still sound uncomfortable.

We are all sometimes Marshall Mathers now? Maybe, but we are just as likely to be Stan, not the murderous Stan but the Stan who has a shitty day and drifts away and puts songs on. Marshall was that guy too, which is why those verses sound human, not just ominous – why “Stan”, like the best ballads, is a song you can hear and hope maybe this time it’ll turn out better. It’s important to Eminem that he dash our sympathies for Stan, but it’s important that not all the song’s tenderness be wrecked alongside them. Which is where the second woman in “Stan” comes in.

Dido’s refrain, threaded through the song like a flyleaf between each chapter, was the first most listeners – to Eminem or anyone – heard of her. It’s sweetly sung, but with a slight reserve, a disengagement from the cold-tea despond of life she’s describing. Her detachment is designed to resolve, in the chorus of “Thank You”, into gratitude: a stock songwriting contrast, not too far in tone from All Saints’ “Black Coffee”. In “Stan”, of course, that chance of resolution is cut off. The only source of release is the picture on the wall, and the cycle begins again. Even though Dido’s voice is a lull and her interludes narcotic, her “not so bad” is the portion given to hope in this bleakest of great hit records. It’s not much. The endless drizzle, the numbed delicacy, and that glimpse of imaginary empathy – these are what precede, and survive, Stan and his girlfriend’s catastrophe. The same anomie, and the same rain, introduce Marshall’s reply as introduced Stan’s first letter. What was accomplished? Nothing.

Score: 8

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