For Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday.
“It got silent, then all these voices said
‘Come follow me into the gates of Hell.’
I heard ’em yell ‘Welcome to the Norman Bates Motel!’
I ring the bell for service and I was greeted by his mother,
Covered in dry blood, head still dented from the shovel.
I said I need a room so I could try to get some rest.
She gave me the keys to the best suite and a bag of cess
And told me that’s just for starters, Satan’ll be in to see me later
To see if I’m interested in being partners.”
— Eminem, “Demon Inside” (1998)
That ^^ is from one of the first songs Eminem recorded with Dr. Dre. It didn’t end up making it onto Eminem’s first (official) album, The Slim Shady LP, and it remains unfinished and unreleased but it is the perfect way to start this post for Alfred Hitchcock’s birthday, a post about Eminem’s lifelong obsession with Hitchcock (he calls him “Uncle Alfred”) and Norman Bates, in particular.
If you listen even casually to Eminem you’ll hear references to Hitchcock everywhere. Even though “Demon Inside” didn’t make it onto the first album, “Role Model” did.
“I’m ’bout as normal as Norman Bates with deformative traits.
A premature birth that was four minutes late.
‘Mother, are you there? I love you!
I never meant to hit you over the head with that shovel!'”
— Eminem, “Role Model”
An isolated weirdo with violent thoughts and Mama issues? A demonic Mama’s boy? Not a stretch to figure out the connections. Norman is the perfect metaphor for him.
Or how about this.
“Don’t come close, don’t run, yo (run),
you can’t hide
We’re in the shadows of the room you got sentenced to
So leave the motel or no sperm cells, go into the doorway and get fucked.
Anyway, it’s Norman Bates.”
— Eminem and 50 Cent, “Norman Bates Motel” (2009)
In 2020, Eminem took the Hitchcock thing next level, using it as the organizing principle for not one, but two albums, Music to Be Murdered By (dropped in January 2020, just before Covid demolition-derbied into our lives) and Music to Be Murdered By, Side B (dropped in December 2020). These two massive albums – one of which was recorded entirely during 2020 lockdown – were inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 spoken-word album Music to be Murdered By, which Dr. Dre somehow discovered and passed on to Eminem, knowing MM’s whole Hitchcock thing. At this point, Eminem drops the albums himself – with no advance press and/or warning. He barely does interviews. But suddenly: here they both were. He is a recluse and a workaholic: the pandemic didn’t halt his work ethic, an engrained habit, but I can’t help but feel he also knew how much everyone out there (his fans anyway) needed it. Needed something from him, if nothing else as a distraction. Entertainers can provide welcome distraction, it can be one of their most important roles, particularly in times of stress/trouble. 2020 was so bad, and he gave us two albums that year.
The cover art on the album was an imitation of the cover art of the original.
I can’t even express how happy this all made me.
Because Eminem is like Howard Hughes at this point, rarely seen, he basically dropped the first album via Twitter, saying: “Uncle Alfred and I have cooked something up.”
The album starts with a clip from Hitchcock’s original album, Uncle Alfred crooning in his “let’s all get deliciously scared” voice:
“How do you do? Ladies and gentlemen. My name is Alfred Hitchcock and this is Music To Be Murdered By. It is mood music in a jugular vein. So why don’t you relax? Lean back and enjoy yourself ….
Until the coroner comes.”
This is then followed by a horrifying clip of a woman screaming, accompanied by what sounds like a shovel hauling up dirt. Ominous. The first song on the album, “Premonition”, is a bragadocious “I’m the best and fuck the haters” song ending in a perfect cadence:
“Only way that you’re ahead of me’s alphabetically
‘Cause if you diss me I’m coming after you like the letter V.
Killing everything, play this tune, it’s your eulogy,
It’s your funeral, prepare to die.
This is music for you to be murdered by.”
Skipping ahead: A couple months after the first album dropped, the world shut down. Eminem performed a show in Dubai (in February, I think). He performed “Lose Yourself” at the Oscars and Salma Hayek spilled water on him backstage. After that, we went into lockdown, and Eminem was literally not seen – not once – for the whole entire year, until he showed up randomly in an SNL sketch in December 2020. Almost an entire year passed without one glimpse of him. (He did guest “spots” on a couple of people’s albums, contributing a verse to a song with Moon Man, with Jessie Reyez), but he was never SEEN. I thought, “Can someone do a welfare check on Marshall? Just for Proof of Life?” In a year when celebrities became so accessible to us we knew what the interiors of their houses look like, Eminem vanished even more completely. There was news though: In April, 2020, a man broke into Eminem’s house in the middle of the night. Eminem woke up and a person was standing over his bed. Eminem said, “Who are you?” The person said, “I am here to kill you.” !!! Eminem somehow defused the situation, and talked to the guy, keeping him calm. We still don’t really know how he did this or what was said, since Eminem has not once addressed it. Eminem led the guy out of the house, where the security detail – who had clearly been napping on the job – tackled the stalker. The guy was arrested. We only heard about all this when the news broke a month later. Eminem, to this day, has never spoken about it. Meanwhile, he was quietly sending food to the healthcare workers at Michigan hospitals, those who couldn’t (and wouldn’t) take breaks from the disaster unfolding. The only reason we know about THIS is because Detroit-area nurses and doctors were posting pictures to Instagram of the food and the notes from “Marshall Mathers”. He was also working on voting initiatives in Detroit, using his clout (quietly: again, none of this was publicized) to convince stadiums to open their doors to voting, so people could come – en masse – to cast their vote while ALSO social distancing.
There was rampant speculation this whole time that he was working on a second album, a part 2 of Music to Be Murdered By. In the fall, a couple of photos leaked, one of him in a hat with a bird on his shoulder that appeared to be from the same photo shoot for the cover of Music to Be Murdered By.
Also: black bird? Plus Hitchcock? People felt like something might be coming. There was then the aforementioned surprise SNL “appearance” in mid-December.
Right on schedule, if you had been sifting through all these tea leaves, Music to be Murdered By, Side B arrived a couple days after the SNL appearance. The fortune tellers had been right.
So let’s discuss.
The lead track of the Side B album is an extravaganza called “Alfred’s Theme”. It’s over 5 minutes long. It is … not a song you’d bump to in the club. Casual listeners would be like “wtf is this?” It’s not melodic, there’s no real beat, and … it isn’t really “about” anything, except for re-capping the strangeness of life in quarantine (including singing “Happy Birthday to you” as he washes his hands), as well as bragging and word play, just for the fun of it, all set to Charles Gounod’s “Funeral March of a Marionette” (the theme song of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Eminem plus Gounod is a VERY strange mix on the one hand, but makes perfect sense on the other: Gounod’s song has a circus–y jangle to it, similar to Eminem’s use of dark-spooky-circus background tracks, which gives his work a mischievous sound, a sort of “I am tiptoeing up behind you with my Silver Hammer and about to yell BOO and bop you on the head” kind of sound. (See: “My Dad’s Gone Crazy”). “Alfred’s Theme” sounds like hip-hop as filtered through an organ-grinder in 1884. Hip-hop as played in a vaudeville theatre in 1911.
Early on he chants:
Yeah, and I’m buddies with Alfred, we about to
Disembowel them, gut ’em and scalp ’em, yeah.
This is ’bout to be the bloodiest outcome
‘Cause we gon’ make you bleed with every cut from this album.
The whole conceit – the whole “double”, as hip-hop heads call it – is that “murdered” means violent death and is also colloquial for a successful performance. “You MURDERED the crowd tonight.” There’s Nas’ famous dis to Jay-Z: “Em murdered you on your own shit” (in regards to the Jay-Z Eminem collaboration “Renegade”, technically Jay-Z’s song with Eminem providing a guest verse. People are still arguing to this day who “murdered” who on that track. In this context, Nas, a legend, saying “Em murdered you on your own shit” is brutal.)
Word on the Eminem-street is that “Alfred’s Theme” was supposed to be on the first album, but there were extremely complicated rights issues to maneuver, and this held up the process. This is a strange thing when you consider “Funeral March for a Marionette” was written in 1872. Who the hell is going to put up a fuss if Eminem samples it? Regardless: it was all sorted out, so Eminem led off with “Alfred’s Theme”.
A couple months after the second album dropped, a video was released for “Alfred’s Theme”. There is so much to discuss. It’s a “lyric video”, as they say, where the words appear alongside the images. The visuals are the thing here: the video is Saul Bass-inspired animation, a perfect choice considering all of the memorable Saul Bass opening credits Hitchcock used in his films. Even more fun, the video is crammed with references to Hitchcock’s movies as well as deep cuts from Hitchcock’s TV show.
Here are the references I clocked:
Notorious (the binoculars with mirror-like glass)
The 39 Steps
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
I may be reading too much into it, but I think there’s a ref to an episode from his TV show: “Glass Eye”
Young and Innocent (a super deep cut)
Plus there are dancing skeletons.
I’m probably missing some! Let me know if you clock any others.
This Eminem/Hitchcock thing was so much fun, in a year (2020) where fun was hard to come by. And I found it disheartening on another level: This rich detailed nerdy 30-track double album – inspired by Alfred Hitchcock – came out and… crickets from film critics.
I wrote about it on my site and Tweeted about it. I was the only one. I pitched a piece about all these connections to Film Comment, for my column (RIP), and they were intrigued, but then Film Comment shut its doors in the late spring of 2020. Rolling Stone published a snooty review of one of the albums – or maybe it was just an essay, I don’t know – but it sounded like it was written by one of the “pick a little talk a little” ladies in The Music Man, horrified that the librarian “advocates dirty books”. It’s so strange to hear a pass-the-smelling-salts tone in Rolling Stone for God’s sake, written by someone who isn’t 75 years old. From one of the comments made in the review, the critic clearly did not know of the existence of Kamikaze, Eminem’s 2018 album, released right on the heels of his – unfairly scorned – album Revival. Inexcusable. After being bombarded with reader complaints, a correction was appended to the review. How can you write on Eminem if you don’t even know his discography? The reviewer led with a disapproving tone, fact-checking one of the lines from “Gnat”, where Eminem joked about all of the adjustments everyone has had to make during lockdown. The reviewer corrected Eminem’s joke about getting Covid from a bat-bite, and accused Eminem of spreading harmful conspiracy theories. Since the reviewer was clearly not familiar with Eminem’s work, I suppose he missed Eminem’s guest spot earlier that year on Moon Man’s song “The Adventures of Moon Man and Slim Shady” which started with:
Fuck’s going on, man?
Bunch of half-wits up in office.
Half of us walking around like a zombie apocalypse.
Other half are just pissed off and
Don’t wanna wear a mask
and they’re just scoffing.
And that’s how you end up catching the shit off ’em
I just used the same basket as you shopping.
Now I’m in a fuckin’ casket from you coughin’.
It was so irritating to read a review where the critic spent half the time pompously correcting Eminem’s “incorrect” information about Covid (complete with links to CDC pages), when CLEARLY what Eminem was doing – Eminem, the only artist I am aware of who received a visit from the FBI, wanting to ascertain whether or not Eminem’s public rage at Trump posed a serious threat – was lampooning Trump’s campaign of misinformation. The reviewer also mentioned the “disturbing” image in the “Gnat” video of Eminem coughing into the camera. My God, guy, haven’t you heard of irony and satire? Or, at the very least, lightening the mood in a universally serious and scary time? Why is a critic for Rolling Stone scolding an artist for being “disturbing”? Are you familiar with rock ‘n’ roll at ALL? You think the Sex Pistols or Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard WEREN’T “disturbing”? Disturbing the complacent status quo is how rock ‘n’ roll was born.
Considering this young critic’s attitude, maybe writing for Good Housekeeping would be a more appropriate gig.
At this point, Eminem doesn’t need accolades or critical approval. Both albums were on the top-selling albums lists of 2020 (and the usual suspects huffed and puffed in indignation because no one THEY knew listened to Eminem. “Nobody listens to Eminem” someone said with a straight “face” on Twitter.)
So this is my post about Eminem’s use of Alfred Hitchcock as an inspiration.
You’d have to tiptoe into Eminem’s body of work in order to perceive the overlap between Hitchcock and Em, so if you’re not willing to do that, here, off the top of the dome, are the connections I perceive, sometimes explicitly used by Eminem, others implicitly:
— Hitchcock’s glee at making people squirm in their seats, his joy at causing fear in others
— the catharsis Hitchcock felt from expressing his own inner nightmarescape, sharing what terrified him in the hopes that others will share that terror
— Hitchcock’s innovation with cinematic language in what was already a well-established genre
— Hitchcock’s creation of characters who have entered the cultural lexicon as a kind of shorthand (can you say “Stan”? “Stan” is a cousin to “Norman”)
— Hitchcock’s films are frightening, yes, forays into the darker corners of the human psyche … but they are also unapologetically popular entertainments. Hitchcock wasn’t going for a niche audience. He was going for everyone. And he “got” everyone.
— Hitchcock suffered from anxiety, dating back to his childhood. He remembered every trauma, and put it into his art.
— Hitchcock was 1. an exhibitionist and 2. socially awkward. An anxiety-provoking combo.
— Hitchcock was a one-woman man. Maybe not a HAPPY one-woman man, but a one-woman man nonetheless.
— Hitchcock was a devoted father, often including his daughter in his work.
— Hitchcock was one of the most successful artists of his day, racking up an awe-inspiring number of awards.
— Hitchcock was celebrated in his own time and ours. He directed hits. But in the critical world, this is often a strike against you. It was a strike against him as well. (It took the French to show Hitchcock should be taken very seriously indeed.) Critical consensus often celebrates not the serious, but the SELF-serious. Wanting to be entertaining is seen as low-brow.
Everything said about Hitchcock in the above paragraph could also be said about Eminem.
“You’re all hitched to my cock.”
— Eminem, “Alfred’s Theme”