Agony and Ecstasy in the Music of ‘American Psycho’

Excuse me, I've got to return some video tapes.

Excuse me, I’ve got to return some video tapes. (Photo: Courtesy of American Psycho)

In an especially murderous scene in the new musical American Psycho, the play’s protagonist hits a nightclub at its frenzied peak. He finds himself surrounded by dancers jerking their bodies with spastic rigor. Their moves seem militaristic, involuntary and pained, more duty than dance.

Their actions appear so pleasureless and shocked that, when the play’s homicidal hero (Patrick Bateman) pulls out a large knife and starts plunging it into random participants, their agonized reactions appear no different from those of everyone surrounding them. In this dance of the day, pleasure and pain morph into something uniformly morbid.

It’s a style of choreography anyone who watched MTV in its nascent days in the ‘80s will instantly recognize—a robotic akimbo of limbs, and a Frankenstein swinging of the head, ideally suited to the rigid gait of the top synth hits of the day.

That’s just one of many scenes in American Psycho in which music, fashion and dance combine to underline the main theme in red. Together, they illuminate something deep within the entire era of pop culture the play depicts.

Whether in its original form, as a 1991 novel by Bret Easton Ellis, its next incarnation, as a movie starring Christian Bale nine years later, or its latest guise, as a Broadway musical, American Psycho has much to say about the new wave music and sensibility of the ’80s.

The play’s composer, Duncan Sheik, zeros in on a particular sub-genre of the era—synth-pop. Along the way, the score works in actual synth hits of the day, including New Order’s “True Faith”, Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”.

The new and old songs combined offer a bracing refresher course in the styles of a uniquely reactionary era. Starting in the late ’70s, pop took a hard turn from the fluid sensuality, and free sex, of the ’60s and ’70s to something more uptight, angry and exclusionary.

Like many trends, it started as a subversive joke. In 1978, when Devo released their ground-breaking debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!they evoked the new cutting edge by inverting the erotic daring that had been rock’s earlier raison d’etre. Because such sexual moves had, by then, become hoary, Devo presented themselves as rock’s opposite—consummate geeks.

At the same time, they worked with the least funky rhythms they could devise. Awkwardness became the new cool, a switch most evident in Devo’s brilliant re-casting of the Stones’ ’60s smash “Satisfaction” from an ode to aspiring hedonism to a salute to frigidity. Overnight, the result turned nerds into the new hipsters, elevating everyone from Elvis Costello to Thomas Dolby.

This re-classification of cool dovetailed with the evolving music technology of the day. Synths had become cheap enough to replace guitars as the new, easy-access instruments of garage-rock. Their savviest innovators used the perceived chilliness of computerized sound to appear new, and to hit on fresh themes of alienation. The clearest, and most commercial, expression of this came from ’80s synth-pop. Several of the sub-genre’s hits idealized its message: Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” cleanly divided all humans into two categories—abusers and the abused. Everyone had to take one of those roles, at least according to a lyric so cynically resigned, it remarked with ominous ennui, “Who am I to disagree?”

The Pet Shop Boys’ “Opportunities” operated on a similar binary set of assumptions. In order for a person to rate, they had to be either someone with looks or someone with smarts. And the sole purpose of either was to “make lots of money.”

For a trifecta, Soft Cell seized a song from the ’60s by Gloria Jones, “Tainted Love”—a hit which earnestly mourned lost passion—and turned it into a proud ode to perversity.

Other hits of the day may not have made their darker elements so explicit, but their beats sounded like slaps to the face, and their synths avoided smooth edges at every turn, favoring the forced and the jerky, the jaded transparency of the plastic smile rather than genuine sincerity.

Songs like these offered a clear blueprint for American Psycho’s score. Composer Duncan Sheik came of age in the ’80s, and as evidenced by the score, he knows its clubs and codes. His new songs ably capture characters adept at depersonalizing experience and deflecting emotion.

The ’80s had its reasons—both good and bad—for engendering these reactions. AIDS-related deaths, and the panic surrounding them, were at their peak, making people afraid of not just sex but of any human connection that could end in loss. You could easily see that anxiety reflected in fashion of the day, with styles that fitted women with the defensive shoulder pads of linebackers, or smeared their faces with lacquered-on makeup, making them look, at once, bruised and menacing. Both men and women jelled their hair into architecturally threatening creations, made to resist the human touch.

The hardness of the looks and sounds aptly reflected attitudes and policies of the Reagan and Thatcher era, a time that rebuked ’60s and ’70s idealism with cynicism and greed.

All this isn’t meant to cast either the ’80s, or synth-pop, as forces of wholly sinister intent. Any span as long as a decade holds within it great nuance. And the synth-pop hits of the ’80s shaded their more shadowy elements with ironic layers of warmth, genuine flashes of wit and no shortage of great tunes. Yet, it’s the steeliness of the music’s exterior, and the more subversive elements of the day, which concern American Psycho. The music and lyrics of Duncan Sheik sharpens those elements with a precision that would make Patrick Bateman proud.

Agony and Ecstasy in the Music of ‘American Psycho’