Pop Music in the Film American Psycho
The film American Psycho explores the mind of Patrick Bateman, portrayed by Christian Bale, an investment banker living in New York in the late 1980’s. The general plot of the movie follows Bateman as his murderous alter ego becomes inseparable from his day-to-day life as an upper class, white-collar persona. The movie becomes more cerebral as the full extent of Bateman’s homicidal tendencies becomes apparent to viewers and remains hidden from those around him. American Psycho is a film solely about appearances – Bateman spends hours working on his physical appearance, each character is heavily invested in what suits they own and what business cards they have, and everyone is obsessed about where they have reservations and who they are with. Throughout the movie, he consistently makes references that he is not human and does not understand how to actively be a human. Thus the only way for him to survive is to take on the characteristics of those around him and to adopt their way of life.
Music plays a small, albeit important role throughout the film. Almost every scene in Bateman’s office has him listening to music on his Walkman. Each deranged crime scene – whether it is his perverse sexual acts or various murders – features extensive analysis of contemporary artists such as Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis & the News, and Phil Collins. Music becomes an extended metaphor for his intense desire to fit in to the culture that surrounds him.
In one scene, he analyses the Huey Lewis song “Hip to be Square” and sees it as a statement both about the nature of the artistic direction of the band and the importance of conformity (a theme throughout the movie). After the killing, the song fades out as Bateman lights up a cigar and watches his latest victim.
Later he references Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” and admires it story of “self preservation and dignity”.
In both instances, he seems to read into his desire to have a uniquely identifiable self. He analyzes his inability to achieve his goal because of who he surrounds himself with and his lack of human qualities. There is also a sense that the music elevates the killing scenes above mindless violence. It adds a certain poetic element that lessens the pure shock value of the scenes.
Bateman is interested in pop-music solely for its appeal to a huge mass of people. He analyzes it to the point of absurdity solely because he is out to find what makes it so popular. To this end he hopes to learn from its appeal to make himself more desirable for those around him. He has an odd talent for reading greater depth into the music than might actually be there, but it has no emotional effect on him and his understanding exists solely to suit his potential social gain.
Music takes on a dual role in the film; like many works set in the past, music serves as an anchor to keep the film within the culture of the 80’s and to place the film temporally. The second purpose is to show the vanity of Bateman and expose the extent to which he has to devour culture in order to have a unique personality. To a lesser extent, his interest in music also serves as a criticism of American popular culture and consumerism. Music therefore weaves in and out of the social fabric of these characters. It establishes Bateman as an iconoclast of sorts while also holding together the timescape and setting of the film
Here are the songs featured in the film in their original form:
“Hip To Be Square” by Huey Lewis & the News
“Greatest Love of All” by Whitney Houston
“Sussudio” by Phil Collins