The Sounds of Disaster: Comments on the Soundtrack to “The Great Gatsby”

Baz Luhrmann contemplating his work.

Apropos to this terrible article, I recently became aware that people are worshipping Baz Luhrmann as some kind of false idol and are blatantly misreading the source material for his upcoming new movie that you might have heard of (The Great Gatsby):

But just as Fitzgerald peppered his text with references to jazz-influenced pop songs to show how that music became a lingua franca, so this soundtrack aims to show how hip-hop now deeply informs rock, dance music and the Top 40.

Jazz has a rich character to it that dominated the 1920’s and characterized the energy and tension of an entire culture. Truly, music did transcend language as a universal form of communication in an increasingly dissonant world (re: lingua franca), but I wouldn’t say it’s fair to compare Jazz to hip-hop and what they mean to the culture of the time period. Contemporary music is fundamentally diverse; there is no lingua franca any more. That’s the style of contemporary art: to confuse and astound us. While I love hip hop just as much as the next guy, to stake the claim that it represents a universal language and infuse that into a modern American classic seems outlandish to me. To make the connection and force it into the film isn’t paying due justice to Fitzgerald’s work. It’s an exercise in manipulating the fame of the source material to suit one’s own end.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at this other article in which Baz Lurhmann’s detailed ambitions for the movie are exposed. Supposedly, he researched Fitzgerald’s life and history in an effort to fill in a lot of the blank implications in the movie that are only hinted at in the novel. What does Gatsby’s letter to Daisy say? What exactly happened to Nick after the events in the novel? Bad Baz has made a lot of assumptions about what he thinks is going on and what he thinks the novel means. If that’s his prerogative, great, but his treading on ice and can stand to piss off the hordes of purists out there, particularly if the film asks and answers the following questions mentioned in that other article:

Is Gatsby truly in love with Daisy, or is she just another arrow in his social-climbing quiver? Why does Daisy choose to stay with Tom, whom she knows to be a serial philanderer? Would Gatsby and Daisy eventually have ended up together were it not for George Wilson’s bullet? The movie has an opinion about all such questions.

“Just another arrow in his social-climbing quiver.” Clearly, somebody is missing the entire point of the book. The question about Daisy’s loyalty to Tom is, well, a dumb one, and the one about George Wilson’s bullet is pointless. Gatsby is more than just a man. He’s a theme, and according to Nick, something transcendant.

All that being said, I’m beginning to get very worried about the new Great Gatsby movie and figured I’d take the time to break down the soundtrack for you. While I focus on the theatrical soundtrack, you can listen to the entire Deluxe edition here, which includes some bits of dialogue and pieces from the score.

Shit, Jay. That is a badass suit.

“100$ Bill” – Jay-Z

I’m sorry, but this is a terrible, terrible song. Once you make it past the fact that the $ is in the wrong place, Jay-Z stakes the claim that he “writes like Mark Twain”, is a “new Kennedy”, and creates this abomination of a stanza:

Who wanna become my 100th problem?
Semi-automatic or revolver, semi-automatic I’ll solve em
Einstein, my mind, this MC move white squares with my relatives
That cheese made us constipated couldn’t tell us shit
Took that, Taylor Swift to a hundred fucking million, bitch

Did he just compare his mind to Einstein’s? I’m not entirely sure what he said about Taylor Swift, but he might have called her a bitch? WTF? Somewhere – or maybe even everywhere – in this song, he is comparing himself to Gatsby just because he came from nothing and became something. I hate to admit it, but it takes a lot more than just that to equate him with Jay Gatsby. The Dream? The Romance? The Infinite Hope?

“Back To Black” – Beyonce & Andre 3000

“Back to Black” is intriguing, but it includes that dark and sinister tone that Bad Baz has applied to the movie that quite plainly should not be there. I also suppose that I take issue with Jay-Z being in control of the soundtrack and wantonly including his wife several times, just because he can.

“Bang Bang” –

A deliciously cacophonous mish-mash of Jazz sounds, modern beats, and raunchily delivered lines. The word “Bang” is repeated so many times that the word loses any semblance of meaning, reminding us that meaning itself is compromised in a modern world. The most intellectually compelling lines include “got ’em with a bang,” “shot my baby with a bang,” and “bang bang buh-bang bang BANG BANG BANG!” There is also the gem of “Stupid is what stupid do / Tom, Jerry, and Scooby Doo” in addition to Bill Cosby-impression gibberish that is characterized by a subtlety of character that might rival Gatsby’s own mystery. And the blatant use of the “bang” as onamonapia is a clever reference to the climax of the novel which happens when Gatsby is shot with a gun while swimming in a pool. Despite that happening near the novel’s end, having “Bang Bang” be at the opening to the soundtrack is a delightfully ironic twist.

Just kidding. This is one of the worst songs on the soundtrack.

“A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)” – Fergie, Q-Tip & GoonRock

The second track of the album continues the irony of “Bang” by referencing how partying can kill people. With a sweeping taste of bombast and heavy, lusty beats, we feel as if we are right there at one of those lavish parties. The lyrics are deceptively substantive, inspiring classic carpe diem ideals. Fergie embodies all of the vigor and gusto that traditional jazz singers employ. And I’m only half-joking with this.

“Young And Beautiful” – Lana Del Rey

This song is probably the best on the soundtrack. “Young and Beautiful” has a haunting melody that reminds us how fragile youth and beauty are and all the burdens that come along when you’re fortunate enough to still have them. You can sense the fear in Lana Del Rey’s voice: “Will you still love me when I am no longer young and beautiful? Will you still love me when I have nothing but my aching song? I know that you will.” Does Daisy have the same fears? Is she even aware that in some ways, all she has is her youth, beauty, and money? What if she no longer had one or more of those longs and was no longer adored? I do actually enjoy this one.

“Love Is the Drug” – Bryan Ferry with The Bryan Ferry Orchestra

This track’s got a lot of class and genuinely feels like it might have come from that era.

“Over the Love” – Florence & The Machine

See what I said about “Young and Beautiful”. This one’s Daisy Buchanon all the way, particularly with lines like:

Now there’s green light in my eyes
And my lover on my mind
And I sing from the piano
Tear my yellow dress and
Cry and cry and cry
Over the love of you

The inclusion of the green light is a great touch, but the sense of a delicate and tragic sadness incapsulates a lot to Daisy’s character.

“Where The Wind Blows” – Coco O. of Quadron

Why is this song even on the soundtrack? Skip.

“Crazy in Love” – Emeli Sandé and The Bryan Ferry Orchestra

*sigh* Beyonce’s jazzy fizzle here does little more than fizzle. The original song really isn’t bad at all, but when it’s sampled with a mediocre jazz tune in the background, there’s just too much going on in your ears. And again, it seems like Jay-Z is tossing Beyonce in the mix just because he can. Don’t get me wrong: she’s one of the best female artists out there today, but I take issue more with the overall stylistic choices for this film’s music.

“Together” – The xx

I love The xx and this is a pretty great addition to their already stellar discography, but it still feels out of place to me.

“Hearts a Mess” – Gotye

Obviously Gotye is very popular these days with “Somebody That I Used to Know” (I would almost prefer that song being on the soundtrack). It’s beginning to seem like amidst trying to compare himself to Gatsby and hip-hop to Jazz, Jay-Z simply picked random alternative artists and told them to write generic songs about love being a painful struggle. How does any of this inform the story or transcend the sensationalism of it all?

“Love Is Blindness” – Jack White

I like this one. It’s chaotic and energetic and surprising. The lyrics employ a series of sometimes jarring images that inform the more painful parts of love. Fitting. Too bad it didn’t include something like, “Love is a bullet in the back / A bloody, muddled pool”

“Into the Past” – Nero

The song sounds epic but is deceptively simply, especially in the lyrics. “I’ll follow you” is repeated over and over. Seeing light in darkness is also mentioned, which might just be a cheap inclusion of the book’s most obvious and blatant symbol. If you look at the light as The Dream of Gatsby then having a female voice struggling to follow that enigmatic “you” works in a great way.

“Kill and Run” – Sia

Let me guess: does this reference Wilson? It also mentions dirty guns and a bullet through the heart. Yup. Definitely Wilson.

Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby opens nationwide on Friday, May 10.