If you didn’t watch Eminem’s Oscars performance live on Sunday night, you definitely read about it by Monday afternoon. Media outlets flocked to report on the surprise performance, and confused reactions from various Oscars attendees went viral. The 47-year-old rapper’s rendition of his 8 Mile hit “Lose Yourself” became the top-trending moment from the awards show according to data from Facebook, Billboard reports, beating Joaquin Phoenix’s Best Actor acceptance speech and Parasite’s Best Picture victory.
Eminem earned a standing ovation at the end of his performance, though you would be forgiven for thinking everybody in the audience hated it based on the reaction photos that circulated. (Stars, they’re just like us—their candid moments look bad, too!) The performance did draw criticism from some viewers on social media, including actor Billy Eichner, who called hypocrisy on the Oscars’ decision to book a rapper with a history of using homophobic slurs to perform at a show that ostensibly celebrates diversity. Eminem should be used to this split reaction by now: His music and publicity stunts have been met with a combination of praise, confusion and disgust for more than 20 years now. But whether people love him, hate him or just don’t understand him, they’re still talking about him—and the metrics from Sunday’s Oscars performance prove that Eminem is still pop music’s biggest outsider.
(...) Eminem became the biggest pop star of the 2000s, even as he expressed his contempt for his celebrity peers and the media outlets that clamored to feature him.
Twenty years later, Eminem’s penchant for controversy has lost some of its potency. His new album, Music to Be Murdered By, includes references to the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing (“Unaccommodating”) and Las Vegas shooting (“Darkness”), which dominated headlines and earned divisive reactions on social media for a few days before being replaced by some other outrageous news. Eminem remains a commercial juggernaut, with Music to Be Murdered By becoming his record 10th consecutive No. 1 debut and “Godzilla” peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. But these days, he functions more like a cult hero with a super-sized following than an artist who operates at the epicenter of pop culture or actively shifts the needle of hip-hop.
Consequently, it’s easier than ever for haters to dunk on Eminem and cry “irrelevant” or “trash” whenever he does something new. It was easy for writers and Twitter users alike to get their digs in when he arrived unannounced in the middle of the Oscars to perform an 18-year-old song that has been immortalized on morning run Spotify playlists. But the numbers don’t lie: Eminem had the most-talked-about moment from Sunday’s bloated awards show, and “Lose Yourself” subsequently spiked 2,000% in downloads and returned to Spotify’s global and U.S. Top 200 charts. For an artist approaching 50 and still outselling musicians half his age, that’s about as good as it gets.
Two decades ago, Eminem played outspoken conservatives and vulturous music publications like a fiddle, monetizing his controversy and becoming the bestselling artist of the 2000s. A social media-driven news cycle and Eminem’s dwindling influence as a paradigm-shifting artist have dulled that controversy, but he continues to dominate album sales and headlines through his surprise tactics and sheer name recognition. The music industry is nearly unrecognizable from when the rapper first ascended to superstardom, and he has always existed on its fringes no matter how successful he became. These days, the conversations surrounding Eminem have largely shifted from “I can’t believe he said that!” to “What is he still doing here?” But as long as people keep having either of those conversations, Eminem keeps winning.