thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“History Don’t Repeat Itself; It Rhymes” – Jay-Z and the Gatsby Soundtrack

In Uncategorized on May 8, 2013 at 1:12 am

Or yes, it is possible to have a PhD in American Literature, to have “actually read” Gatsby, and to be completely supportive of Jay-Z’s masterful new soundtrack.

Melissa Sexton

Note: NPR has taken down the livestream of the Gatsby soundtrack, since the soundtrack was released for purchase today.

I have spent the past two days in an ecstatic swoon, listening to the new soundtrack for The Great Gatsby over and over again. Haven’t heard it yet? NPR is streaming it on First Listen, giving the English majors of the world something to do with their media-time until the film FINALLY comes out this Friday. My love for the soundtrack is not surprising; when the first trailer came out last year, I was elated by its pairing of hip-hop and Prohibition-era glamor. I got that thrill – the one we go to the movies to get – when the trailer opened with shots of fast, glamorous cars careening to Jay-Z and Kanye’s menacing, pounding “No Church in the Wild.”

But not everyone has shared my enthusiasm. And as professional writers and passionate individuals alike began responding to the soundtrack and to early viewings of the film, I picked up on a pattern: to dismiss Luhrmann’s glossy, glittery remake and Jay-Z’s equally sequined soundtrack as somehow “inauthentic” to the original Gatsby – or, more subtly, as missing the novel’s entire point, reproducing the very American Dream that Gatsby was intended to critique (as we all dutifully learned in our high school English classes).

Now. I don’t do this very often. But. As someone with a PhD in American literature, I feel like I have some professional clout behind my own reflections on whether a hip-hop, cinematic orgy of a film can be considered “authentic” or “faithful” to an American modernist novel. And as someone with a developing love of contemporary popular music in general, and 21st century hip-hop in particular, I think I can talk about Jay-Z’s involvement in the project without the kinds of knee-jerk reactions I was noticing all over the comments sections of The New York Times and NPR – comments that were basically the equivalent of “You kids with your hip hop music! Get off my American literature! Now Maud, turn that NPR jazz hour back on!” But for once, I’m going to flaunt the professional clout. Because if I see one more Facebook post snidely asking if “anyone who liked the soundtrack had actually even read the whole book,” I am going to go all George Wilson on their asses. So. I’m not saying that Baz Luhrmann’s and Jay-Z’s take on Gatsby is THE right one, but I think it is A right one. And I want to explain why a trained literary professional can totally get behind this fusion of hip-hop with The Jazz Age.


If you haven’t read the NPR article on the soundtrack yet, do it. Ann Powers’s take on the music really nails it. She argues that Jay-Z’s soundtrack production follows in Luhrmann’s footsteps, refusing to go for either a complete contemporary “updating” or a straight-faced “period” piece. We don’t get rewrites of ‘20s hits with an 808 beat. Nor do we get straight-up hip-hop or dubstep songs that adopt the themes of the novel without any musical nods to the period. Rather, what we get is music that blithely smashes together influences from the ‘20s with the dance music and indie rock of today. In Powers’s words, we get music “Distilling the essence of the Jazz Age though never completely reflecting it.” My favorite such moment is when sassy horns replace Beyoncé’s vocalizations in the remake of “Crazy in Love.” The result is music that seems to resonate in some period outside literal history. If you heard Florence Welch’s scorching “Over the Love” on the radio today, you wouldn’t blink. If you heard The Bryan Ferry Orchestra’s “Love is the Drug” at a swing night, it would blend right in. But together, the mix feels somehow outside of time – in a way akin to the soundtrack of one of Luhrmann’s other projects, Moulin Rouge.

Why go for such a weird mix-up? Powers again explains it perfectly, suggesting that the soundtrack along with the film is exploring the question: “How did the music in the original Great Gatsby feel to its characters and audience?” How did jazz music feel to the readers of the 1920s? The simple answer is that it felt sexy, a little dangerous, the prelude to a big party. It dragged you out on the floor to dance and it raised eyebrows. No matter how much we like jazz in this day and age, it doesn’t have that feel for us. Well, not for me or many of my generation. When I think of jazz, I think of coffee shops and poetry readings. You have to appreciate jazz, to cultivate a taste. Even the jazz clubs and dives I’ve been to have had a studied air of dishevelment to them: just wild enough. While I’m sure the wider world of jazz has subtleties that I can’t appreciate, some sexy and dangerous, the wider cultural connotation is one of class. Jazz is the provenance of music departments and bars selling ten dollar cocktails, not the go-to start-up sounds for a rager.

While the parallel may seem facile, hip hop does in many ways seem to be the new jazz – intoxicatingly danceable, pushing the cultural boundaries, and (as Powers again argues) permeating the culture, so that its basslines and rhythmic cues have flooded pop and alternative music too. One way to soundtrack the film would have been to ask: What kind of music was prominent in Fitzgerald’s time? But this soundtrack asks: What kind of effects did the music Fitzgerald features create? For the twenty-first century, if you want to conjure that odd tug in your gut – that longing to dance too late and drink too much, to kiss a stranger and pretend the rest of your life doesn’t exist – you’re going to need something with a little more bass, a little more electronic flair, a little more snarly rapping in the lyrics.

I can understand why many fans of Gatsby still might not love the soundtrack, no matter the explanations. They may simply not like hip-hop. Or dance music. Or Lana del Ray. But what I don’t understand is why reactions against the soundtrack rarely boil down to an admission of aesthetic preference. Rather, the charges against the soundtrack (and, by extension, the film) are often moral in nature. Something precious in Gatsby is being tarnished by a soundtrack that celebrates partying and makes modern audiences want to dance.

For instance, Maureen Dowd’s piece in The New York Times  quotes a number of people who deplore the remake of Gatsby for buying into the very glitz and glamour that Fitzgerald’s novel was trying to mock and expose:

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, understands that we’re drawn back to “Gatsby” because we keep seeing modern buccaneers of banking and hedge funds, swathed in carelessness and opulence. “But what most people don’t understand is that the adjective ‘Great’ in the title was meant laconically,” he said. “There’s nothing genuinely great about Gatsby. He’s a poignant phony. Owing to the money-addled society we live in, people have lost the irony of Fitzgerald’s title. So the movies become complicit in the excessively materialistic culture that the novel set out to criticize.”

But the trouble with Wieseltier’s take on the film is its over-earnestness. The assumption seems to be that unless the film pedantically foregrounds the shallowness of the 1920s New York scene, it will lead audiences astray, causing them to adopt all the glamor and ignore all the warnings. A legitimate danger, sure, given the recent Gatsby parties, full of unironic swag. But perhaps the troubling slip between a celebration and a critique of opulence doesn’t stem from film remakes alone but from the novel itself – a novel that paints glamorous and exciting pictures of champagne-fueled parties, drunken orgies, fast cars, and illegal financial gain. Like it or not, the Great Anti-American Dream Novel is as conflicted as a Jay-Z rap song, both celebrating a culture of excess and deploring the emptiness such a culture creates.

Which is why I remain firmly convinced that having Jay-Z produce the soundtrack was an inspired move.  Jay-Z is a present day artist who, like Jay Gatsby or F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, has to comment on the benefits or pitfalls of the good life while he’s living knee deep in it. He too is a celebrity that the nation watches, envying his excess, greedy for more details about what he does with the life so many of us secretly long to have. And like Fitzgerald, though unlike Gatsby, Jay-Z both revels in and questions the good life. What was Watch the Throne other than a dizzying oscillation between political critique and celebratory decadence? The album was self-described as “luxury rap,” an image that carried through to the gilt gold cover. And yet its usual hip-hop celebration of success and profit was frequently tempered by self-reflection – Kanye rapping about the emotional price of his publicity stunt-driven fame; Jay-Z wondering how he can help his children avoid the long road he took to success. Perhaps the album’s opening track, the very song pounding along in the opening of the first Gatsby trailer, best captures the sense of despair that runs through both Gatsby and Watch the Throne. It describes the futility of hope and social climbing: “Human beings in a mob? What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a god? What’s a god to a non-believer that don’t believe in anything?” Meanwhile, the verses describe hung-over partiers, immersed in and indifferent to a life of constant partying and sex. This is what we do, the song seems to say; we ball until we get above the mob, then we throw ourselves into a new partying mob to forget. The album as a whole depicts a world where people murder and steal to get to the top, then find the top to be unsatisfying and have to celebrate like hell to mask that fact. The album, like The Great Gatsby, asks what it means when you’ve succeeded by all standards but still feel unfulfilled. Sometimes you swagger. Sometimes you ponder. Sometimes you party and try to forget.


That conflicted morality is what I want to preserve in our readings of Gatsby. I don’t want a CliffNotes summary that pegs the novel squarely as a a straight-faced rejection of the American Dream. As a professor of literature, I feel I have the clout to say: when we get sanctimonious about preserving the purity of our literature, we end up worshiping a thing that never existed. When we take the lewdness out of Shakespeare, the eerie menace out of Emily Dickinson, the sarcasm out of Jane Austen, or the debauchery out of Fitzgerald, we end up with a sterile substitute that never existed in its own time – the great and peerless bard, the crazy poet recluse, the dainty English lady, and the noble, tragic narrator of the failed American dream. We get a fantasy in period clothing, When you complain that a new Gatsby film featuring hip-hop and dance music is wasting a good chance to feature jazz, what you’re really lamenting is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a period fantasy, a 1920s-era reenactment. Which is fine. Period pieces are great. And if that’s what you want when you turn to literature, that’s certainly one way to read it. It’s not a wrong way to read it. But it’s also not a more right way to read it than to focus on emotions and reactions, to try and contextualize the way a text would have sounded to the audience who was its original target. Which is what Luhrmann’s films do.

Read this way, Fitzgerald becomes less a Puritanical critic of  wealth and more a conflicted celebrity, the “shimmering American chronicler of corrosive glamour and crushed dreams” Dowd describes. I understand all the commenters hell-bent on defending Gatsby as one of the great works of American literature. I just think it’s great because it’s full of all the sex and drugs and despair and desperation and desire that are also in some present-day hip-hop. Yes, Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream, alright – but it’s a hesitant one. I agree with Leon Wieseltier – the “great” in Gatsby is supposed to be ironic. But it’s an irony spoken by someone lost within the mad, glittering whirl.

Maybe there is nothing truly “great” about Jay Gatsby, but the genius of The Great Gatsby is its recognition of that little piece in all of us that longs for what Gatsby did achieve – for what Jay-Z did achieve: for the glitter and the flash and the effortless coolness, in all our cool shirts. Maybe pairing Fitzgerald with Jay-Z takes away the easy moralizing that we’ve become comfortable assigning to Gatsby, because it challenges the notion that Great Literary Heroes are somehow more morally nutritious than hip-hop mega-stars. But Jay-Z and Fitzgerald alike paint for us morally complicated worlds; and both recognize the seductive power of music, which can let us forget all that complexity by inviting us to dance. I don’t want to reduce The Great Gatsby to a morality tale. And I don’t want a soundtrack that locks conflicted excess into the 1920s, making it a period problem rather than a problem we still ponder and dance around today.

  1. […] S: Melissa made a thorough defense of the contemporary, hybrid soundtrack. How did you think the music worked in the actual film? How about the CG? The general […]

  2. I finally watched the great Gatsby and love live this post!

  3. […] “History Don’t Repeat Itself; It Rhymes” – Jay-Z and the Gatsby Soundtrack […]

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