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A few years ago, I kept trying to tell my college students (the great intellectual minds of our future) to think a bit deeper about their writing projects. Not everything had to be about Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Jack London. I would be happier—and more interested in their work—if they wrote about things they cared about. I wanted to read more about Lady Gaga and feminism, about The Walking Dead as a morality tale, and how social media was ruining their productivity. Students would tentatively step into my office and run these ideas by me and I frightened them with my excitement.
“Yes! Write all of it! That’s great!”
To get more of my students on board with the now sacrosanct “write what you know,” I decided to go all in on what I know. I requested Jay-Z’s Decoded from the library, and then I started a class by playing a clip from The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short novel was first published over 90 years ago.
Early in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, our lost hero, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) weaves in and out of traffic with his new friend, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. In this version, the audience is pulled from the nostalgic view of the 1920s and the image of the well-to-do Gatsby played by the adored Robert Redford. Instead, the film presents the former teen heartthrob all grown up, built, tanned, and practically gleaming with the sheen of new money. Passing these two in the opposite direction is another searing convertible, filled with black people, blaring “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” complete with a white driver. Nick is in a whirlwind with his friend and the sudden, profound changes in his lifestyle. He’s enamored by the decadence, the alcohol, and the jazz. The heavily embellished image of Gatsby and the ‘20s is interrupted at the sight of this well-polished bullet of car, practically prancing off Luhrmann’s screen.
And their music, the lush surprise of jazz in the 1920s is juxtaposed and represented here as rap in the 2000s. Their car is filled with things, the same way Gatsby has stuffed his life with excess, designed to attract Daisy, and then to fill the void.
The scene lasts only a few seconds, and the intention was clear: Luhrmann was using rap the way Fitzgerald used jazz. It’s another interesting take on race in this movie, however brief. Tom Buchanan spends another scene wandering around feeling affronted by the idea that his servants might be considered his equal someday. He’s shocked that there are people struggling through life like everyone else, but also reveling in its excesses.
Baz Luhrmann’s films include colloquial, popular music, whether set in Shakespearean England (with the Cranberries) or cabaret France (with Elton John). The scene illustrates Baz Luhrmann’s technique and highlights how music is used to influence audiences today, the same way that jazz influenced audiences in the ‘20s. The music matches Luhrmann’s style, mixing the familiar with the unexpected to make a new kind of film that matches both visual and aural senses. Like Luhrmann’s earlier films, a mash-up of contemporary music in a period setting brings the past and the present together.
Many people aren’t on board with Luhrmann’s plan. And the bad reviews are not only bad, they are unexceptional, because they are expected. A variety of reviews mentioned this scene as “ridiculous,” “overdone,” or “tacky,” clearly missing the point. Their intention is also clear: How dare this man ruin this movie, with rap? Who is this Jay Z anyway? Ironic that people who were not so struck by Beck in Moulin Rouge, or Des’ree in Romeo + Juliet, are so appalled by the sound of Jay Z appearing in their lush 1920s dreams. They do not realize that they are as struck by the presence of “those” people and “that” music as their counterparts were in the ‘20s. Maybe Gatsby will be remade in another 40 years and they’ll take a different stride.
Another read through The Great Gatsby, not in a cold, high school English classroom, will illuminate Fitzgerald’s story: “I’ve been drunk for about a week now, and I thought it might sober me up to sit in a library” (42). This is not meant to be slow. This is not meant to be dull. This is about alcohol and sin and lusciousness and heartbreak.
“Izzo” was released in 2001, produced by Kanye West and is arguably one of Jay Z’s most famous songs. In Decoded, he calls rap “a deceptive form of art” (54). It relishes in talk of money and dreams and also is as encouraging as an anthem can be—both a sign of community and a move toward standardization. If you haven’t figured it out by now, Jay Z is a brand, and “Izzo” is way to make everyone believe in and act on the same things that he loves.
Popular culture has become so attuned to jazz, that people don’t realize now that jazz wasn’t the norm. Luscious parties, with this new, brassy, ballsy music, there’s a feel to it that readers may not even know they’re missing. But that in-your-face, surprising, usurping kind of feeling when that car drives by blasting “Izzo”? That’s what Fitzgerald was talking about. The allure of something new on the horizon.
Just as Gatsby watches Daisy slip away from him, vanishes after a tragic accident, leaving him in confusion and despair, “Izzo” exposes how “We can talk, but money talks, so mo’ bucks,” and even as this music dances around them, Gatsby is unable to see that his new money is not a match for Daisy’s infatuation, her dream-like world of comfort with a philandering husband whose past, and whose money, will never be out of style.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner, 2004. Print.
Jay Z. Decoded. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2011. Print.
—. “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” The Blueprint. Roc-A-Fella, Def Jam, 2001. CD.
Luhrmann, Baz, dir. The Great Gatsby. Warner Bros. 2013. Film.