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‘The Great Gatsby’ Soundtrack Isn’t Good — But It’s Perfect for ‘The Great Gatsby’

There’s plenty about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby that evokes an instinctively negative reaction — including, to an extent, the whole idea of a Baz Luhrmann adaptation of The Great Gatsby in the first place. So it goes with the film’s soundtrack; if you take a look at the tracklisting, you might blanch at the presence of Lana Del Rey, Fergie, and (gulp), will.i.am. But if you suspend your expectations for long enough to evaluate the way the music works within the context of the film — which also merits consideration on its own terms — you might find it works better than anyone might have guessed.

Somewhere in the production notes for The Great Gatsby, Luhrmann explains that he chose contemporary music for the film because he wanted to evoke what the experience of going to Gatsby’s lavish parties might be like for modern audiences. He’s revisited this idea in various interviews, telling Rolling Stone, for instance, “In our age, the energy of jazz is caught in the energy of hip-hop.”

Luhrmann’s approach works. Whatever your opinion of the artists in question, they make sense in the context of the film. You can imagine that Fergie, Q-Tip, and GoonRock’s “A Little Party Never Killed Nobody (All We Got)” is exactly what’d be playing at a party full of cashed-up Long Island dilettantes, with its big, trance-influenced farty synths and Fergie’s suitably histrionic vocals. At times, the music provides an explicit mix of past and present; there’s a decidedly jazz-age flavor to Bryan Ferry’s reworking of his Roxy Music hit “Love Is the Drug,” for instance. At others, the tracks are completely contemporary, for better or worse; there’s nothing at all retro about the sound of The xx’s new track “Together,” for example, which sounds exactly like every other xx track ever.

In this way, the soundtrack bridges the gap between the film’s opulent period setting and its more timeless themes of the shallowness of materialism and the elusiveness of the American dream. More interestingly, though, it also works as a pretty salutary example of both those things. At the center of it all is Jay-Z, who worked with Luhrmann on the soundtrack for two years.

The parallels between Jay-Z and the film’s hero are obvious and fascinating. Indeed, Jay-Z himself acknowledges them in the soundtrack’s lead single, “100$ Bill,” casting himself as a Gatsby for the 21st century. It’s almost too perfect: here’s a man with a murky past who’s risen from poverty, becoming mega-rich and bestriding the music industry like a cashed-up colossus. In 1993, he was hustling (unsuccessfully) for a record deal; 20 years later, Michael Bloomberg was writing about him for Time and describing him as an example “that the American Dream is alive and well.”

But still, perhaps it is too perfect.The analogy doesn’t entirely fit — for a start, Jay-Z most definitely did get the girl, and there don’t seem to be too many green lights left on his horizon. He’s a man who’s succeeded in kicking in the door in a way that Jay Gatsby never quite could — for all Gatsby’s great influence, after all, he never boasted of having “White House clearance.” Maybe he should have joined the Illuminati.

But perhaps there’s a more subtle meaning here, one that even Luhrmann may not have intended. Or, then again, perhaps he did, because for a man who’s best known for his flamboyance, he’s capable of surprising subtlety at times. Because here’s the thing: for all that the Gatsby experience is about the fashion and flamboyance and wholesale sensory onslaught of the Jazz Age, it’s also ultimately about the vacuity and shallowness of that age.

The soundtrack fits perfectly into this darker vision. Commercial hip hop is most definitely an example of how materialism and superficiality can infect and subvert something that was once worthy — not Jay-Z himself, perhaps, but certainly some of the other artists on show here. Look at the career arc of the Black Eyed Peas, two of whom appear here — their entire last decade has been an ongoing exercise in mortgaging artistic integrity for mega-stardom, just as Gatsby’s foil Nick Carraway tries to do, leaving him disillusioned and burned out.

If we’re looking for exemplars of the shallow materialism of the music industry, then we don’t have to look far on this tracklist. Fergie. Will.i.am. Lana Del Rey. Beyoncé doing terrible things to Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Jack White over-emoting his way through U2′s “Love is Blindness.” In this respect, the music does a better job of evoking The Great Gatsby‘s environment than perhaps anyone expected. It’s a parade of moneyed megastars whose lives have nothing to do with those of the people who consume their output. Looking at this tracklist isn’t entirely unlike standing at the gate of one of Gatsby’s epic parties, or wondering about the lives of the people on the other side of the water.

With Baz Luhrmann’s splashy adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great American Novel contender hitting theaters Friday, Flavorwire is devoting this week to all things Great Gatsby. Click here to follow our coverage.

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