2013 isn’t even half over, but I doubt I’ll hear anything weirder — more inexplicably, fascinatingly bizarre — than André 3000 and Beyoncé’s contribution to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby soundtrack: a husk of a cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” The original was arguably the late Winehouse’s signature track (as opposed to “Rehab,” which is Winehouse’s signature track to those who like to make drunk jokes). Produced by longtime collaborator and retro-fetishist Mark Ronson, it’s a picture of heartbreak shading into codependency shading into depression, modern enough on the surface (the jarringly slangy “kept his dick wet” shows up in verse one) but staidly traditional in structure. It’s joyless, but in a stately, canon-friendly, Ronson way; it is the sort of song that invented the phrase “exquisite sadness.”
There is nothing exquisite about André 3000 and Beyoncé’s cover, though it is sad. Nothing remains of Ronson’s arrangement or, one suspects, of any working instruments. All that remains are sparse wubs and synth cowbells, like a dubstep generator running out of gas, and a guitar line from a Nine Inch Nails deathscape. André comes corrupt, the villain of the piece, flipping Winehouse’s words into audible taunts, pitch-shifted shrugs. Playing Winehouse, meanwhile, is Beyoncé in breathy “Baby Boy” mode: singing sultry about feeling like a lost penny and dying a hundred times and doing coke — a change from the original lyric, i.e. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter went out of her way to sing the words “I love blow” — and generally everything that would tarnish her brand under any other circumstances. It has no ending; maybe they just forgot. It is also joyless, but in a different way — a little less Method, one might say; a little more self-demonstrating. It’ll end up in no canons, except perhaps the canon of Worst Covers Ever. Yet it fascinates me somehow — more bluntly, I can’t stop listening to it. It reminds me of Portland electronic artist Natasha Kmeto’s deconstruction of Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down,” or maybe of Cat Power or Stina Nordenstam (another Luhrmann alum)’s covers albums where they purposefully suck the life out of the Stones and the Doors.
What it isn’t is tasteful. It’s gauche, loudly so. It’s garish enough to get people criticizing André 3000, cult hero, and Beyoncé, the closest figure music has to being uncriticizable. It is not a thing you will become popular by defending. (One message board has already deemed it “the Gatsby soundtrack from hell”; even the good reviews come with caveats.) In that, at least, it’s consistent with the rest of the Gatsby soundtrack artists: thinkpiece incarnate Lana Del Rey, warbling another song about being young and beautiful; hashtag incarnate will.i.am, retrofitting the Charleston with his will.i.amps; British brosteppers Nero, sounding like brostep; LMFAO accomplice GoonRock, sounding like LMFAO. Even the more “respectable” acts are off their peaks: Florence + the Machine and Sia, known these days either for dramatics or for singing on Calvin Harris songs; the xx and Gotye, who’ve fallen off the hype cycle; Emeli Sande, who never quite got on. Depending on how much you’re stretching, you could throw in Luhrmann, whose opening week is beginning to resemble a surprise roast, or executive producer Jay-Z, who’s fielding so much earnest criticism about being moneyed or ostentatious it’s like that whole Watch the Throne era just never happened. (His track being called “$100 Bill,” to be fair, doesn’t help.) Everyone is either very serious about their source material (in the album’s climax, Florence Welch mourns Gatsby’s beloved green light with billboard-like symbolism) or taking the piss, incongruously modern or obviously retro. There are a hundred perfectly sound reasons to hate this album if you’re out to.
Lots of people are out to, and it’s hard to blame them. Music fandom can look a lot like curation: latching on, at least in public, to the artists who make your taste look good. The obvious stereotype involves indie music, everyone does it — pop fans, rap fans, country fans, laypeople, critics, musicians, listeners, you, me. (Critics especially; the best line in one “guide to music journalism bullshit” piece that made the rounds earlier this year tweaked a PR’s touting of someone’s “innovative blend of Fleetwood Mac, nineties R&B and Sade,” which is so precisely on blog trend that I’m not even sure which act it’s skewering.) The Internet didn’t cause this, but it didn’t stop it; you get people deleting “Gangnam Style” en masse from their public last.fm pages, or arranging their public personae to best “[revel] in the understated complexity of liking both Nicki Minaj and My Bloody Valentine,” or making Nixonian use of Spotify’s incognito mode. This reaches critical mass pretty quickly, and then moral judgment that’s almost a meme; it seems perfectly normal to say a certain act is inherently a punchline, or inherently makes you a bad person to like, and someone like Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump comes off bizarrely open-minded when he espouses the radical notion that hating’s bad.
Soundtracks are the big-budget version of this. Not the soundtracks in name only, hastily assembled bundles of song tie-ins and interstitial music, and not the soundtracks that are big mainly because their franchises are (like The Hunger Games, say) but the Event Soundtracks, the ones people ever talk about: your Empire Records, your Garden States, your Romeo + Juliets or Moulin Rouges. (If at least one of those made you wince, it just goes to show how fickle taste is.) They set a musical scene (and make great time capsules; the best pop compilations are soundtracks to teen movies), but even more so, they’re statements of taste, and go down in history as classic or embarrassing mostly on those grounds.
Gatsby is fairly obviously an Event Soundtrack, by an Event Soundtrack Guy, for an Event Movie based on an Event Book about an Event Lifestyle, but something’s gone awry in the event planning. The album aims for “opulent Gilded Age” and lands on “slightly eclectic major-label sampler bundled with complimentary flip-flops.” It doesn’t make for good press — but perhaps it works. It’s oddly fitting with the novel — East Egg thought Jay Gatsby had terrible taste, the way anyone is bound to when new money mimics old. (It’s fitting in a meta sense, too — declaring you like The Great Gatsby, in the U.S. at least, is less likely to imply you’re a well-read scholar than that you did your high school English homework, or that you like theme parties.) Once you accept that, you can accept the soundtrack on its own merits. Suppose Gatsby was booking acts for some party — a thing he would probably do. Lana Del Rey would totally headline, in full chanteuse getup and remarkable form. Jack White would definitely do the invites. Will.i.am would take notes on the band (even if he eventually stepped in to play things his way.) Fergie and GoonRock would crash it. They’d probably all end up enjoying themselves — it’s telling that even the book and movie’s harshest critics acknowledge Gatsby has some of the best party scenes around. Sometimes bad taste is just more interesting.
Music From Baz Luhrmann’s Film: ‘The Great Gatsby’ is out now via Interscope Records.