Eminem has every right to portray the character of a serial killer, as he does in his new "3 A.M." video. But does he bear any artistic responsibility to explore, in even the most remote way, why that character is doing what he's doing? Motivation? Context? Anything? At one point, he sing-songs, "She puts the lotion in the bucket / He puts the lotion in the bucket," referencing The Silence of the Lambs in a half-hearted attempt at a psychosexual one-liner. But it just seems random and embarrassing.
In the video, Eminem plays "a hooligan who's used to usin' hallucinogens," a shirtless, homicidal basket case who flashes back to scenes of mass slaughter that he can't remember committing. Rapping in an overly pinched, not quite playful, off-handedly glib whine, he admits: "I guess I must've killed them / Killed them." And oh yeah, he kisses naked mannequins and jerks off in his living room to Hannah Montana. And apparently, according to a recent XXL interview, this is how he pays tribute to his deceased best friend, D12 cofounder Proof: "I wanted to go back to [Proof's] idea of saying the most fucked-up shit that we can."
Problem is, that particular light-bulb moment happened, oh, a decade ago! Back when Eminem was a broke, hungry twentysomething nobody who was desperately trying to get anybody's attention with his lyrical ingenuity. Now he's a 35-year-old superstar promoting a new album with lyrics that feel like they could've been outtakes from The Slim Shady EP, where he first developed his then-hilariously excoriating alter ego.
"3 A.M." reminds me of another depiction that actually does capture the unspeakable horror and banality and emptiness and rationalization that must ravage the mind of a would-be serial killer. It's from the 2000 movie version of Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel American Psycho, which is centered on the desperately social-climbing, yuppie-drone character Patrick Bateman. (Note: After the movie's release, Eminem coproduced two unremarkable songs, "American Psycho" and "American Psycho II," for D12). In the scene, Bateman is with two women -- Christie, a prostitute, and Elizabeth, an acquaintance who seems to know Bateman better than he knows her. After many glasses of wine, the women are eventually coerced into making out with each other, and Bateman begins a painfully pompous, emotionally demented commentary on pop music.
Bateman: Did you know that Whitney Houston's debut LP -- called simply Whitney Houston -- had four No. 1 singles on it? Did you know that, Christie?
Elizabeth [Cackling in a drunken haze, rolls off the sofa on to the floor]: You actually listen to Whitney Houston? You own a Whitney Houston CD? More than one?
Bateman [Ignoring her, drones on]: It's hard to choose a favorite among so many great tracks. But "The Greatest Love of All" is one of the best, most powerful songs ever written about self-preservation and dignity. Its universal message crosses all boundaries and instills one with the hope that it's not too late to better ourselves. Since, Elizabeth, it's impossible in this world we live in to empathize with others, we can always empathize with ourselves. It's an important message. Crucial, really. And it's beautifully stated on the album.
Afterward, Bateman has sex with the women and kills them. The scene climaxes with him running down the hallway of a Manhattan high-rise, naked, holding a chainsaw, covered in blood, and screaming like an animal. Sound like a certain Shady character you know?
Of course, nine years after the film of American Psycho was released, it still stands as one of the most chillingly absurd dissections of the 1980s' consumptive delusion. "3 A.M.," on the other hand, is just a faint footnote in the career of gifted MC who is struggling to find the plot.