Image Credit: Will Widmer/Redux
History Reads is a weekly series featuring work from Team History, a group of experts and influencers, exploring history’s most fascinating questions.
The skeletal remains of an industrial city scroll across the windshield of a cruising automobile. Empty highway off-ramps loop overhead while roadside factories spew filth into pallid skies. A guitar strums the opening chords of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” and day blinks to night. A tough voice hails Chrysler’s 200, a ridiculously high-end four-door sedan that somehow captures the spirit of hideously lowdown Detroit, the Motown moldering on the fringes of the United States.
The advertising professionals who chose the Motor City and Eminem to star in their 2011 Super Bowl commercial for the Chrysler 200 did so for their exquisite down-and-out-there-ness. Both were damaged icons. The city was kneecapped by the auto industry’s overreliance on truck and SUV sales, hollowed out by thousands of laid-off workers escaping for sunnier climes and set aflame by the 2008–09 financial meltdown. The rapper, an addict with a taste for pills, knew hard times as well: He spent the 2000s coming to terms with the success he achieved the previous decade. The titles of his last three albums—Encore, Relapse and Recovery—hinted at his troubles.
But Detroit’s status as a car-wrecked municipality and Eminem’s reputation as a flawed human being also make them the ideal prisms through which to reconsider the history of the American West. When placed in the continuum of Americans’ relationship with their frontiers, the Chrysler 200 commercial suggested a break with the past as well as a hold in pattern. The commercial indulged in the American cultural habit of looking to the margins for inspiration, renewal and authenticity. While Americans might abhor and denigrate blighted places and broken people, they often staged their comebacks from the fringes. Thus, Eminem and Detroit belonged to a string of down-and-outs or far-and-aways that rebooted the nation. Think a humble cabin on the Kentucky frontier or a rough inner-city neighborhood slated for redevelopment. Detroit evolved from a fur-trade outpost to an industrial powerhouse, almost single-handedly pulling America from the depths of the Great Depression, to an urban cautionary tale.
Western historians of 20 to 30 years ago organized debates around a set of either/ors. Was the West a distinctive locale, defined by its aridity, its mountainous terrain, its proximity to the Pacific Ocean? Or was it a set of colonial relationships and power struggles that rippled across many landscapes throughout the continent? Did borders and boundaries in time and space define the place and its history—or did line-crossing economies, migrant groups and nation-states explain the past better? Was this history bright and hopeful—or criminal and tragic?
The ruckus has died down. Most Western historians now have agreed to agree. Western history deals with most everything now: place and process, region and frontier, men and women, whites and racial minorities, queers and heteronormatives, humanity and nature; the good, the bad and the ambiguous—especially the ambiguous.
It’s hard to plant your feet in such a vast and poorly bounded field. But perhaps a foul-mouthed rapper from the Canadian-American hinterlands can supply a fresh orientation.
Born in 1972, Marshall Mathers III moved from Kansas City to Detroit as a teenager. In the city’s eastside Eight-Mile neighborhood, he reinvented himself as Eminem, a rare musical concoction at the time—a white rapper who wasn’t a gimmick or a knockoff. Black artists had dominated rap since hip-hop emerged from the urban youth culture of the South Bronx in the late 1970s. In a genre where growing up in poor and violent locations boosted rappers’ reputations, Eminem’s dysfunctional home environment and squalid surroundings became assets. (He was also verbally dexterous, a witty writer and a fierce improviser.) Stardom, though, waited until he teamed with Dr. Dre, a brilliant producer who signed Eminem to a record contract in 1998. A founding member of NWA (“Niggaz wit Attitudes”), Dre came from the crack-infested Compton section of Los Angeles. He and his band mates pioneered “gangsta rap,” a version of hip-hop dedicated to brutal realism.
Eminem’s conquest of the globe’s airwaves and earphones depended on his connection to two hardscrabble places—Detroit’s east side and L.A.’s Compton neighborhood. His fame transcended geographic, political and demographic boundaries, yet his plausibility as a sincere hip-hop artist—a white rapper who people of all races and backgrounds could respect—depended on him staying localized, rooted in marginal places. His edginess only intensified with the 2002 release of 8 Mile, the autobiographical film that chronicled his formative years in Detroit. Eminem scored his biggest hit single, “Lose Yourself,” from the movie’s soundtrack. Chrysler banked on that song’s popularity and Eminem’s Detroit ghetto lineage to restore its brand. The global corporate entity needed him to drive down some very specific mean streets to recapture its customers’ imaginations.
Yet, despite the fervent wishes of ad agents and auto execs, the gears of American frontier worship never shift smoothly. Eminem’s America balanced on a precipice of global dimensions: The rapper, the 200 sedan, Chrysler, hip-hop, the Super Bowl, even the song “Lose Yourself,” weren’t contained by one nation. They spilled across an information network that mocked lines on maps. For successful businessmen-rappers, staying put brought obscurity, and thus poverty. They wanted their products to migrate like a disease, to go viral.
Meanwhile, the Motor City sat still while its workforce retired to Arizona, its factories relocated to China and its corporate leaders drifted to the Caymans on golden parachutes. In the virtual world of 2011, real places were for losers. And Detroit and Eminem were surely losers, albeit lovable and instructive ones. They embodied the resurgence of frontiers in a globalized United States.
In its own way, the 200 ad scripted a new ending for the American West, by unsettling the margins that used to contain the region. “The West” (both as a space between the Pacific Ocean and the Mississippi River and a vague geopolitical notion, the obverse to “the East”) flourished in a world of global superpowers where clear lines and boundaries held allies together and kept enemies apart. (Think Berlin Walls and DMZs.) When the Soviet Union crumbled, geographies and ideologies based on cardinal directions collapsed as well. The West, one could argue, won the Cold War and utterly lost itself in the process. The East / West world fragmented politically even as the internet—a Cold War invention—triggered a communication revolution that eroded boundaries of all kinds. The result was a globalized culture in which place mattered a great deal and not at all. The West became a niche among niches, a site in a web of connections.
In past tellings of the history of the American West, the region modeled national trends and disappeared into those trends. It pioneered things like the military-industrial complex, hot tubs, illegal immigrant panics, fast food, energy-based derivatives, big Cabernets and Unabombing. It led the nation towards planetary dominance and then withered sometime in the 1980s or 1990s, when the United States achieved maximum homogeneity. Basically, the West got Starbucked to death.
With high-end java available on almost every American street corner, it’s hard to argue with this conclusion. Western enterprises, politics and caffeinated beverages have infected the country, muting the differences between regions. Yet the same communications revolution that sped the westernization of the mainstream also strengthened the margins. The internet both linked and fragmented people; it aided globalization and spurred localism at the same time.
No event symbolized the clash of these opposing forces better than the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Activists of all stripes (and gripes), from sea turtle conservators to antihormone vegans to NAFTA-hating teamsters, coalesced to halt the proceedings. They rejected the neoliberal argument that globalization—symbolized by free trade—represented an unmitigated good. Marginal people, bound to locations, suffered when protections fell, to the benefit of corporations and their first-world government enablers. To underscore this argument, anarchists tossed car batteries through the glass storefronts of the downtown chains. Starbucks’s green-and-white mermaid logo proved an especially inviting target.
Since 1999, regular folks have networked through social media to topple dictators and organize flash mobs. They have spread videos of kittens and leaked classified torture documents. The internet has opened a universe of choices. Confronted with a smorgasbord of information, people satisfy their tastes with preferred delights. Do you enjoy knitting or conspiracy theories? Then you need not consume anything but knitting and conspiracy theories. The end result: a population united and blown to pieces by the same media.
The 200 advertisement cruised in this reality. It linked geographic, social and cultural margins in a chain of associations that sold overpriced cars to a cash-strapped audience with flashes of industrial decline and a hummable song. The ad celebrated an authentically fringe setting even as it conjured a magical ride out of the Motor City’s grime. So diametrically opposed, Detroit and the 200 only synched in a split-screen format that accounted for both the power of place and the joys of dislocation.
Such is America in the 21st century.
For those still unconvinced by the frontier credentials of Eminem, Detroit and the 200, I offer Chrysler’s follow-up 2012 Super Bowl commercial as further proof. In that spot, a whispery voice touted what the city, the company and the country supposedly represented. Once on its heels, Chrysler was fighting back. Detroit too had regained its feet. If America followed their example, stopped squabbling and took heart, the nation could once again mount a comeback from the margins.
Given the gridiron setting, the ad’s “halftime in America” sports metaphor struck a chord. But Chrysler didn’t hire a Knute Rockne to deliver its win-one-for-the-Gipper speech. They enlisted a movie star instead, an actor famous for his western roles. Clint Eastwood, the squint-eyed gunslinger, kicked the country out of the doldrums with a boot to the rear, underscoring the connection between frontiers real and imagined, past and present.
Jon T. Coleman is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and author of Vicious: Wolves and Men in America and co-author of The American West: A New Interpretive History (Yale University Press), from which this essay is adapted.