Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ is one of the biggest songs of the 21st Century. Why?

If you wanted to argue that Eminem’s 2002 song ‘Lose Yourself’ is one of the biggest musical moments of the century so far, there’s plenty of data to back you up.

Upon its release, ‘Lose Yourself’ spent 12 weeks in the number one spot on the charts in both the US and here in Australia.

It topped charts in another 18 countries and sold millions, reaching Diamond status, which is reserved for songs that sell over 10 million copies, in 2018.

In 2021, music industry data analysis company ChartMasters estimated it has been streamed over three billion times globally, despite being released well before streaming services were part of our lives.

YOUTUBEEminem – Lose Yourself

Data doesn’t tell us everything though. ‘Lose Yourself’ has impact that can’t be quantified by numbers.

It was the first rap song to nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys and the first rap song to win best Original Song at the Oscars.

You’ll hear it in every gym on the planet and blasting from dressing sheds across the sporting world, some teams even crediting it with helping them to their greatest victories.

Its tendrils are all over pop culture of the past 20 years. Say the words ‘mom’s spaghetti’ to anyone under 40 and you’ll get a knowing smile in return.

It’s talked about in TV shows, used in college commencement speeches, and has featured in the Super Bowl more than once. Taylor Swift used to cover it.

Even former US President Barack Obama admitted it was one of the songs that helped him find inspiration in his gruelling 2008 campaign.

“It was rap that got my head in the right place,” President Obama said in an Instagram post in 2020.

“Two songs, especially: Jay-Z’s ‘My 1st Song’ and Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’. Both are about defying the odds and putting it all on the line.”

‘Lose Yourself’ is one of those songs that somehow touches everyone. A song that’s impossible to ignore. The kind of music moment that only comes around once or twice a decade.

“He is a figure of ill repute”: Eminem’s run up to ‘Lose Yourself’

Eminem was an enormous star by 2002. He’d sold tens of millions of records and, perhaps more importantly, made what seemed like tens of millions of enemies.

His work up to this point was almost entirely antagonistic. Eminem was everything polite society hated, the foul-mouthed kid at the back of the classroom who harassed everyone and knew he was too smart and talented for it to affect him negatively.

His lyrics were often detestable, but he spat them with such finesse that his undeniable talent ensured his career could weather even the mightiest storms of outrage.

His persona of the hostile smartarse was, of course, hugely endearing to teenage music fans – especially adolescent men – who voted with their wallets. He was a megastar.

“He is one of those artists people fear create an evil that will, if allowed free rein, destroy civilization and corrupt American youth,” pop culture critic Mim Udovitch wrote in an effusive piece for The New York Times in 2001.

“Despite his enormous popularity, he is a figure of ill repute, someone whose work is, or at least has been called, worthless, exploitative and offensive. And it is offensive. It is very offensive. It is intentionally offensive.”

YOUTUBEEminem – Without Me

Those songs still have currency today. ‘Without Me’, ‘The Real Slim Shady’ and ‘My Name Is’ still rankle, perhaps more than ever, and they’re still popular.

Those songs might make you uncomfortable, and maybe that’s the point.

“For me, music is about making people feel things,” says ARIA Hall of Famer and Australian country music icon Kasey Chambers. “And those things are not always good.”

Chambers, who famously grew up on a diet of country music, counts Eminem as “one of the most incredible songwriters of [our] time”. She felt an unexpected connection to his work, and that connection has stuck with her.

“Around the time that I started hearing his music for the first time, I remember feeling kind of weirded out by it,” she says.

“I wasn’t sure why I was connecting to this music so much that seems such a long way away from the type of music that I had grown up on, and the type of music that I was influenced by at the time. And yet, I felt this real connection to it. I felt inspired by it, and it made me feel things.”

The DNA of a classic
‘Lose Yourself’ was different, though. The song was not written from Eminem’s perspective, rather from that of Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith, the rapper protagonist Eminem played in his 2002 film 8 Mile.

This meant Eminem didn’t have to be that smartarse. It gave him permission to be more earnest than ever.

“I have to make parallels between my life and his,” Eminem wrote in an annotation for the website Genius.

“That was the trick I had to figure out — how to make the rhyme sound like him, and then morph into me somehow, so you see the parallels between his struggles and mine.”

Struggles. Everyone has them and nobody likes them. The idea of rising above the struggle is perhaps the one thing about ‘Lose Yourself’ that resonates most consistently among those who love it.

“The story about being able to dig deep and create your own fate is powerful, because I believe in that wholeheartedly,” Chambers, who released a cover of the song last year, says.

“I have those conversations with myself, and this song just gives that message tenfold.

“It’s so powerful. A lot of people maybe don’t even know that it’s within them and a song like this can spark that in someone, which is just so beautiful.

“It stirs things within me that I didn’t know were there and there’s something really powerful about that.”

YOUTUBEKasey Chambers – Lose Yourself
It’s not just Eminem’s words that tug at our emotions, the music in ‘Lose Yourself’ is deliberately grandiose, with a big, swelling arrangement that underpins the song’s gravity.

“There’s a lot of parts in that song – it’s a little symphony,” the song’s engineer and mixer Steven King told Rolling Stone in 2003.

“Every verse has different woodwinds and little horn fills. We want to keep the listener engaged with different sounds and textures.

“There’s lots of vocal layering, sound effects in the background, ad-libs – if [Eminem] thinks he needs to get the message across stronger, he’ll add an ad-lib.”

‘Lose Yourself’ helped legitimise Eminem in the eyes of many who’s written him off as a mere potty-mouthed edgelord.

Critics, whose appraisals of his first two albums were mixed, were kind to the song. Even a scathing review of his 2004 album Encore in The New Yorker praised the song as “close-to-perfect”.

“‘Lose Yourself’ could be a hip hop ‘Eye of the Tiger’, if only it weren’t so paranoid,” Rolling Stone’s Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his 2002 review.

“A chugging guitar builds anticipation for a triumphant climax that never quite comes. Instead, there’s a frantic description of every performer’s worst nightmare:

‘He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out/He’s choking, how? Everybody’s joking now/The clock’s run out, time’s up, over – blaow!/Snap back to reality- oh, there goes gravity’.”

You don’t have to be a performer to understand the brutality of buckling under pressure though. The fear that comes with leaving your comfort zone is a universal one.

That anticipation that Sanneh mentions is one of Kasey Chambers’ favourite things about the song.

“It feels like it’s building up the whole time,” she says. “That’s one of the most incredible things about the songwriting side of ‘Lose Yourself’. Every verse – every line, really – it takes you to a new place.”

If the inspiring message is too overbearing, there is still one key line that all music lovers connect to.

‘You better lose yourself in the music,’ Eminem says in the first line of the song’s chorus.

“I can certainly relate to getting lost in music,” Chambers says.

“The ironic thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever gotten so lost in a song that I have covered – and I’ve covered a lot of songs over my life – as I do when I perform ‘Lose Yourself’.”

Why is ‘Lose Yourself’ massive? How long do you have?

If there were a formula for what made ‘Lose Yourself’ such a boundary-breaking hit, it’d be cracked by now.

If there were one single reason why it has connected with a bigger audience than just about any other song in the 21st century so far, this article would’ve been over long ago.

There are plenty of reasons as to why it resonates.

The fact that it played a key role in 8 Mile, which was a box office smash in 2002, clearly helped.

The absence of coarse language (Eminem limits himself to just two F-bombs) meant the song was easily co-opted for radio, TV, film, and public broadcast.

It’s an Eminem song you can play your young children or elderly grandparents without much concern.

Perhaps the strongest argument for the enduring power of ‘Lose Yourself’ is that, among Eminem’s tawdry catalogue of often ill-advised rhymes, this is a song of genuine hope.

It shows us there’s light at the end of the tunnel that anyone can reach, whether they’re an aspiring footballer, a fictional battle rapper from Detroit, an actual superstar rapper from Detroit, an Australian country music legend, or a regular Joe in a suburban gym.

They just have to own the moment. Make the most of their one shot. Lose themselves in the music, and not miss their chance.

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