A few of the song lyrics on the soundtrack for the new Great Gastby film relate as much to American Panopticons as the story itself. I’ll call the idea of Gatsby’s obsessions with not only Daisy but in climbing the social ladder his visions of love. In this short essay I will analyze a part of two songs from the soundtrack, and include a bit of related artwork with additional description of what I mean by these visions.
Jay-Z/Kanye/Frank Ocean/The Dream “No Church in the Wild”
In the vein of “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley the song begins by questioning the nature of the social construction of legend and of authority.
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, who don’t believe in anything?
In The Great Gatsby we find the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg on the billboard overlooking the city. This can be taken to somehow represent a shifting tradition- from God and religion as the ultimate panopticon, to institutions like science and advertising. Either way, the story of Gatsby reminds us that someone is always “watching.”
The song then goes into detail about the religious ecstasy-esque power of desire over the contemporary body. In the end, the song might just be a representation of the postmodern wandering throughout a life that is centered around pleasure- from sex, drugs, pop culture…
I live by you, desire. I stand by you, walk through the fire.
In the “spiritual depression” that is our lives (a quote from Fight Club) it is easy to get sucked into thinking that something like material possessions will complete what we perceive to be our “wholeness”, something defined by the structural institutions of American culture. The story of The Great Gatsby makes that idea of finding this wholeness problematic, by showing that Tom- who has both love and old-money wealth- is unfulfilled.
Lana Del Rey “Young and Beautiful”
Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?
Will you still love me when I got nothing but my aching soul?
Ah, the American valuation of youth as a necessary characteristic of beauty. These lyrics, like the Gatsby story, question the fleeting nature of what can be considered beautiful, especially in the sense of the valuation of newness as part of the reason why one might love something. In that sense, physical appearances becomes a panopticon of love.
In the film Gatsby exudes trendiness and loves all that is contemporary- he has a flashy car and he adores his musician friend who plays with the conventions of classical music. And yet he wants so badly to be seen as “acceptable” by societal standards rooted in traditional America (great wealth, lovely possessions, a respectable marriage). He cannot reconcile a deviation from that vision because it is all around him.
Similar to Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, beauty in The Great Gatsby is very specifically (de)constructed as something that unfortunately not everyone achieve. And in both stories not being beautiful is equatable with not being loved.
As Gatsby gives Daisy a tour of his extravagant home it becomes obvious that he intends to capture her heart by showing her that he too has accumulated what has been expected of a modern American. In the book we find Nick describing the scene: “He hadn’t once ceased looking at Daisy, and I think he revalued everything in his house according to the measure of response it drew from her well-loved eyes.” After a full tour of his house and a highlighting of his favorite possessions, Gatsby playfully tosses around his stash of trendy European shirts. But Daisy begins to cry. He stops to ask her about her mood. She exhales the melancholic:
They’re such beautiful shirts.
Why exactly Daisy is so sad eludes me, but I do have some thoughts. Maybe she knows how only being obsessed with shallow distractions like clothes have failed to fulfill her, but she still loves them nonetheless? Or is she just upset that she cannot leave her own husband for Gatsby because that would go against the expectations that have been set forth for her? But it is also possible that she is just feeling overwhelmed that she had in the past forsaken Gatsby when now he has everything she thinks that she desires. I’ll have to continue thinking about that one.
Continuing on with the discussion of representations, when (**SPOILER ALERT**) Gatsby dies and no one but Carraway attends his funeral readers/viewers are forced to think about several things.
1. The nature of being “used” for one’s possessions.
2. The idea that one can be shunned when one is not being what is expected in life (“lively, entertaining”).
3. The way Gatsby was exposed for one action considered a “misdeed” (faking being of the ‘old stock’ and really being a gangster/bootlegger) and then quickly assumed to have been responsible for other misdeeds (the affair, the murder).
So, “what does it matter what you say about people?” (a quote from Orson Welles’ film “Touch of Evil”) It matters, especially in America- where we always have eyes on us. This language, these visions, affect how people are perceived, how they perceive themselves, how they are (mis)treated, and what they pursue in love and in life.