30
Jul 00

Not Hip To Be Square

Do You See + FT/Post a comment • 278 views

American Psycho seems to be a film about pop music, among other things. Its anti-hero, Patrick Bateman, is a handsome and successful man desperate to retain his standing among other men, often a sliver more successful or handsome than he. To manage this, his lifestyle has to be both minutely detailed and very elastic. He has to be able to calibrate precisely the effects that a certain woman, a certain choice of restaurant, a certain tint of business card might have on his rarefied social standing, and he also has to be willing to discard any of his own choices at any point in order to keep up. In Bateman’s hypercapitalist world, Mary Harron’s film is saying, there is no room for personal taste, because personal taste implies an inner life, and to succeed in Bateman’s arena you have to make sure your aesthetics are as public and sharp as your suit.

Of course, Bateman does have his own tastes. He is a music lover. He believes, as passionately as any High Fidelity character, in the beauty and power of pop music, and it follows him everywhere: he works to it, he fucks to it, and ultimately he murders to it. His friends, crucially, don’t share or even respect his tastes that much, and frankly neither do we, because the tracks Bateman so adores are by Phil Collins, Huey Lewis, Robert Palmer and Whitney Houston. Bateman joys in the eighties’ most notoriously hollow music, that gassy blend of big keyboard-led sound and studied post-soul mannerisms which coincided with the arrival of CDs. He will happily argue for the primacy of Collins-led over Gabriel-led Genesis, he will dismiss early Huey Lewis records as “too black”, his paean to Houston’s “Greatest Love Of All” is as rapturous as any Radiohead review you’ll read. What makes the scenes where he does so funny aren’t just his ghastly choices, but Bateman’s reasoning. For anyone who has ever heard the records and thought, “How on earth can anyone like that stuff?”, Bateman’s rantings are a satisfying confirmation of some deep-held suspicions.

So what would you expect to find on the American Psycho soundtrack album? Huey and Whitney? Nope. The songs Bateman so reveres are nowhere to be found. In fairness, Lewis was asked and withdrew permission, and it’s hard to imagine Houston or Collins thinking differently. But artistically, it’s a big let-down. Instead of the authentic sounds of Yuptopia, we get a cover of “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)” by someone called Dope, and a host of revival-ready late-80s club trax by M/A/R/R/S, Eric B And Rakim, New Order and Daniel Ash. Oh, and a trip-hop remix of something off this year’s Cure album, which stiff-backed Patrick Bateman would have been entirely disgusted by.

Film soundtracks (as opposed to scores) can go one of two ways. The ‘music inspired by the film’ route, where the album consists of a theme tune and a grab-bag of ‘exclusive’ tracks which may or may not reach for tenuous thematic unity, or an album collecting tracks which you actually hear in the film. For recent period pieces like The Wedding Singer, The Virgin Suicides, and now American Psycho, there’s an expectation that the compilers will take this latter route, and so films fill up with little scenes where characters listen to the radio or put a record on. Scorcese is probably to blame. Anyhow, American Psycho has a lot of such scenes, which as I say don’t and can’t make it to the soundtrack. So the compilation people fall back on a favourite scam: in the film there is a scene where Bateman and his friends visit a club. In the club cool music is playing. Hence, an excuse for cool music to appear on the CD.

(You can have cruel fun with this trick. We made a dub of the Reservoir Dogs soundtrack for a friend and put on Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman” and EMF’s “Unbelievable”. When he quite reasonably objected we alleged, poker-faced, that they were ‘in the club scene’, and he responded with a sage nod. Ah, yes. The club scene.)

The problem with all this is two-handed. On the one hand, you surely buy this kind of soundtrack to remind you of a film you enjoyed: American Psycho, the CD, isn’t going to do that given that the club scene takes up, ooh, three minutes of the film (as club scenes invariably do). In that sense it’s a dishonest record. But also there’s a slight smugness about the choice of replacement tracks – indie disco classics and loping up-to-date beatfests. It feels like a cowardly sop to alternative tastes at best, a crass presumption of victory at worst: look, look how dreadful the music of the 80s was, before we discovered ‘club spaces’, alt.culture and irony. Patrick Bateman, meet Nathan Barley, he’s come to replace you.

Which wouldn’t matter, except that having a vaguely groovy soundtrack serves to weaken some of what makes the film good. It makes the movie less of a satire, more of a cheap-laughs time capsule along the lines of Boogie Nights. Anyone who thinks that Bateman and his paranoid, self-obsessed ilk aren’t stalking the 00s metropoli – albeit with stock options and customised iBooks instead of charcoal-and-cream business cards – will still get a big chuckle out of American Psycho, but anyone else may feel it’s an opportunity missed.

The other problem is that holding up some Good Music like this, in opposition to the Bad Music
that Bateman listens to, strips away one of the film’s more fun subtexts. If the point is not that Bateman is a music geek, but that the awful music he listens to reflects his debased and soulless worldview, then that makes American Psycho, as a pop movie, much less intriguing. What entertained me was the similarity of Bateman’s deranged Collins and Lewis exegeses to a hundred music conversations I’ve had about ‘cool’ bands like the Pixies, and it seemed like Harron was playing an evil trick, inviting us to laugh at Bateman’s ridiculously anal opinions when really the joke was on us. Indeed the crucial scenes where Bateman sets up a threesome and choreographs matters to the smooth bumpin’ sound of No Jacket Required seemed to me partly a dig at the very idea of music as a sexual soundtrack. But no, Bateman’s just a pitiful geek who likes lousy records, and we can go home and shag to whatever we want to. In the end, when it comes to pop, American Psycho is an act of music criticism rather than a movie about music criticism, and as such it doesn’t work nearly as well.

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