Eminem’s new album has seen him criticised and cancelled for a lyric about the Manchester bombing: “I’m contemplating yelling ‘bombs away’ on the game/ like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting.” Many people, including the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have expressed disgust, with some others saying they will never listen to Eminem again. In response, Eminem has explained that these are simply words, and that his Alfred Hitchcock-inspired album was intended to shock. People have also pointed out that, in his defence, he tweeted his sympathies after the 2017 attack, encouraging people to donate.
Some will undoubtedly see the cancellation of Eminem as censorship, and an example of how easily offended we have become. But the truth is that nobody is stopping Eminem from saying exactly what he wants. If anything, the furore has done him a favour.
He has a track record here. On The Slim Shady LP, he included a song about killing the mother of his child, putting the body in the boot of his car, and then driving his daughter to the sea to dispose of the body. The Manchester lyric might be shocking if it came from Little Mix, but Eminem trades in controversy.
What is true is that offence and its implications have been amplified, and that people feel increasingly righteous about being offended. When I was warming up for my tour, I did a show during which I discussed the environment. The routine was going over fine, until a girl interrupted to tell me that my jokes were undermining the seriousness of the situation, and that she could not bear to listen any more. She left, with her boyfriend apologising as they went.
She may well have been right, and she had every right to leave. But what I found incredible was that she had the courage to interrupt a routine that the audience were all laughing at to express her disgust, and make a show of walking out. In my opinion, the correct response is to be quietly offended, and then decide whether you want to see that show or person again. But people don’t seem to “do” quiet offence any more.
I admit that being a comedian doesn’t make me the best judge of what is acceptable. Comics are so used to making jokes about anything and everything that they stop being offended; anything goes, as long as it’s in the form of a joke. Your wiring gets realigned. My social media timelines are full of people making jokes about my lazy eye: they are frequently woeful, but I am never offended.
Eminem is an often brilliant rapper, and he does clever offence better than almost anybody. But I have to admit this particular lyric feels like a reach, even to me. It doesn’t really work as a simile, and you can see the workings, which is unusual for someone of his talent. (If you are going to defend people’s right to say what they want, you also have to accept that sometimes the quality won’t be that great.)
There’s also an argument that we are targeting the rapper for the wrong reasons. If we really want to bring Eminem down, we need to focus our energies on the ways in which he has been most offensive: his collaboration with Ed Sheeran, for one, and his absolutely dreadful facial hair.
• This article was amended on 31 January 2020 to give the full title of Andy Burnham as the mayor of Greater Manchester.