I'm a huge fan of American Dream distortion stories. It was the basis for my American Dream blog post series. It was also the theme for an honors class I had the opportunity to teach. It's the reason I love Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, American Gangster, The Wire, and--especially pertinent to this discussion--The Great Gatsby.
The dream of rags to riches has never been as simple as the American narrative of hard work and big dreams. For far too many people, "riches" are never accessible at all, and for those who manage to truly break the mold by rising out of poverty, it often requires an element of criminality or underhandedness that we don't tend to associate with the rosy perception of ingenuity and work ethic.
I went to see The Great Gatsby today, and I was set to be disappointed because so many reviews I had read as well as so many of my own friends had complained about its vapidness and empty characters. Since I hadn't seen it yet, I reserved too much protest, but inside my head I kept screaming "Have you read the book? Vapid? Empty? Check and check!" See, I was an English and creative writing double major in college, which basically meant I took every literature class offered as an undergraduate. Adding in the times I read it in high school, I have had to read The Great Gatsby no less than six times for a class. Six! Then I read it once on my own for good measure. In that time, I started out hating the story as stupid and pointless, looped to loving it, disliked it again, and ending up deciding it was brilliant commentary on the American Dream distortion.
I had high hopes that Baz Luhrmann (whose work I have always loved) could deliver, and I was not disappointed. What I didn't know about until after I got into the film was the Jay-Z connection with the soundtrack.
After the film, my husband and I were talking about it. He said to me, "See, I see Kanye West like Nick Carraway." I cut him off and said "And Jay-Z is Gatsby!" He apparently hadn't thought that far yet, but once the words were out of my mouth, it was all I could think about. The Throne's presence is not merely filler for the film's soundtrack; their public personas are characters within it, characters that parallel the 1920's saga and give it a contemporary resonance that takes it further than the book could go. (Textual purists, don't hate me. I'm not saying the movie is better than the book, but in this particular way, the book just doesn't have the ability to connect.)
Setting the Stage
I've written in some detail about how Kanye and Jay-Z both use and play against American Dream narratives in their work. Without rehashing all of that here, I'll just say that both of them play up their lavish lifestyles as a measure of success and constantly pit it against the image of their "rags." Consider Kanye's works like "Spaceship" and "Good Life" and Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind."
Together, though, the two of them have also made some fairly sophisticated commentary on how the American Dream narrative is not as simple as it may seem, and--even if they appear to be success stories within it--they are dismantling it through their social commentary.
Kanye's new song "New Slaves" is full of this same kind of commentary:
Lyrics like Ya'll throwing contracts at me/Ya'll know niggas can't read/Throw 'em some Maybach keys/Fuck it, c'est la vie highlight his disenchantment.
It's no secret that there's a difference between being rich and being wealthy, and it's no secret that many of the people who rise from poverty to richness never make it to wealth. Take, for example, the lack of success that many lottery winners report after their windfall. Consider the fact that many professional athletes are completely broke when they stop playing. (78% of NBA players are having financial difficulty after they stop playing. 60% are broke within five years.)
Considering that entertainment (be it music, movies, or athletics) is a major way that African Americans gain fame and fortune in American culture, we can't ignore the intersection of race and class in American Dream narratives.
Wealthy people make investments and influence things like political policies. Rich people buy jewels and cars. Kanye and Jay-Z seem very, very aware of the perils of richness, and their music suggests an attempt to--if not fix it--at least illuminate it.
Jay-Z and Kanye as Gatsby and Nick Carraway
The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Carraway, a fairly well-off young man with a love for writing who has set that passion aside to follow the dreams of the 1920's high by playing the stock market. He becomes enamored with his next-door neighbor, Gatsby, and is soon entangled in a crazy dramatic ride of love, lust, greed, and pain. He is always, as he says repeatedly, within and without: a part of the plot, but also an observer.
Kanye West has always been--well--a little obsessed with Jay-Z. If you haven't heard it before, listen to his somewhat pitiful homage in "Big Brother."
He has pieced together a narrative where he models his own aspirations of greatness off of Jay-Z's and knows that if only they could come together they could skyrocket to even greater success than before. Jay-Z could be his ticket to the American Dream. It sounds like a sad little fanboy's fantasies, but then he kinda did it, so I guess we can't really hate on him for it.
Kanye's obsession with Jay-Z of course garners media attention. Take this article claiming that Kanye's "bromance" with Jay-Z is getting in the way of his relationship with Kim Kardashian.
Then read this Salon article that speculates that Nick Carraway is gay and in love with Gatsby.
In addition to the paralleled adulation and superstardom of the two pairs, we also have some major parallels between Jay-Z and Gatsby.
Both earned their money through secretive, illegal means. Gatsby bought up drugstores which served as his cover to bootleg alcohol. Jay-Z reminds us about every third song that he "sold kilos of coke, so [he's] guessing he could sell CD's."
Both surround themselves with images of luxury and success. Gatsby bought custom-built cars and hand-woven clothes and threw parties so outlandish that even Baz Luhrmann couldn't really take them to excess and Jay-Z (at least early in his career) can frequently be seen in furs, jewels, and expensive cars.
Both men create media speculation and a flurry of paparazzi. Reporters frequently hover outside Gatsby's gates and headlines question everything from what woman he's sneaking into his estate and where his fortune came from. When Jay-Z and wife Beyonce had their daughter, the media speculated that they bought out an entire floor of a hospital for privacy. People believe Gatsby to be a German spy and a murderer. People suggest that Jay-Z is a member of the Illuminati.
Gatsby's story, of course, ends tragically, but Jay-Z seems to be adapting to his fortune and fame just fine. What's the difference?
When Daisy suggests to Gatsby that they just run away, he tells her it wouldn't be "respectable." He needs to believe that she never loved her husband. He needs her to be a "legitimate" bride for him because he has spent so long investing in the image of richness. He has practiced wearing the right clothes and speaking the right way. When he loses his temper in the confrontation with Tom, he is thrust back into a realization that he does not really belong to this world of old money and wealth. It's a weakness that Tom leaps on immediately, telling him that he will never have what they have, that wealth is in their blood, but all he has is money and things.
Jay-Z rode his lack of respectability all the way to the bank. He never shied away from the image of himself as a drug-dealing thug, and--in fact--reminds his fans of it quite often, even as he's made the buffer between himself and street life stronger and wider. Owning the reality of his past allowed him something that Gatsby could never have: an authentic sense of identity.
This is what Lurhmann had to say about bringing Jay aboard:
“And I was about halfway through it, and Jay [seemed really into it]. And I said, 'Maybe you'd be interested?' And he looked up like, 'What are you talking about interested? We've got to do this!'”There's no wonder that Jay-Z was so excited to take on the project of The Great Gatsby; he was telling a piece of his own story, only he gets to write a happier ending.