The first ever YouTube Music Awards ceremony live-streamed online last Sunday, and it was as anarchic, eclectic, and unpredictable as the website itself. Selected by the votes of YouTube users, the range of nominees was slightly offbeat. MTV awardees Macklemore and Ryan Lewis competed for Artist of the Year, alongside those with more limited YouTube fame like Peter Shukoff and Lloyd Ahlquist of Epic Rap Battles of History.
But while Macklemore and Ryan Lewis are among those mainstream hip-hop artists challenging the genre's deeply entrenched problems with homophobia, the award for Artist of the Year ultimately went to Eminem, arguably one of hip-hop's most persistent offenders.
It's not just a past history of homophobic lyrics in tracks like "Criminal" that are an issue here. Eminems latest single, "Rap God," has recently come under reasonable criticism with lyrics such as "you fags think it's all a game" and "Little gay-looking boy/ So gay I can barely say it with a straight face-looking boy."
Now Eminem can argue, as he did while defending "Rap God" to Rolling Stone, that he uses the f-word to mean something different. When he boasts of how he'll "break a motherfucking table over the back of a couple faggots," he's talking about his ability to destroy his rivals, not to physically assault gay people. He can voice his support for equal marriage as he did to the New York Times magazine in 2010, saying that "everyone should have the chance to be equally miserable." And he has been defended by collaborators, such as openly queer artist Sia, who, when questioned by Keo Nozari for the Huffington Post, responded via twitter that, despite being troubled by "Rap God's" lyrics, she knows personally that Eminem is not homophobic.
But lyrics about physical violence or speculation about Eminem's personal beliefs aside, the problem remains. Eminem still seems to think that 'gay' is an insult. That 'gay' can be used as a synonym for 'weak', 'pathetic', 'contemptible'. That, as he said back in 2001, "'Faggot' to me just means ... taking away your manhood. You're a sissy. You're a coward." And no matter his declared support for equality, that is inescapably homophobic.
In the past he might have argued that it was just the kind of language tossed around all the time when he was growing up. But such an excuse wasn't convincing in his 2010 in interview with Anderson Cooper, and it won't hold water now. As a 41-year-old man who has been in the business for over a decade and who has been called out for homophobic language before, Eminem knows what his words mean, and he's made it very clear that he's aware of the effects that his choice of language can have.
The YouTube Music Awards were selected by popular vote. And Eminem's continuing popularity is understandable. "Rap God" amply displays the lyrical talent and rapid-fire flow that made him one of the most successful rappers of our generation. But the widespread criticism he's faced for his continued use of anti-gay slurs — even from those lauding it as a brilliant single — shows that both hip hop and the wider music community are less and less prepared to uncritically accept homophobic language. It's time Eminem woke up to that fact. Last century can have its lyrics back.