The most famous art product of the 1920s binge is the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby, a novel about a man trying to recreate an ideal past in a drunken, materialistic present. It is one of those books that almost everyone has a strong impression of whether they have read it or not, which makes it difficult for many to approach the story with fresh eyes.
If you are a teacher looking for interesting and relevant ways to delve into The Great Gatsby, why not try something like this for size? The 1920s were to World War I what the 1970s were to the hippy movement. The unprecedented global carnage that followed the so-called “War to End All Wars” turned disillusioned Americans inward, setting their priorities on money, bootleg liquor and partying. Similarly, after hippies failed to raise global consciousness with peace, love, and patchouli oil, 1970s America drowned its sorrows in disco music, drugs, and polyester pants.
For homework, have your students compare The Great Gatsby to a 1970 song in the same style. Take, for example, The Eagles’ Hotel Californiaone of the best-selling and most recognizable songs from this (or any) era of American history.
Hotel California features some of the most analyzed and memorized lyrics in rock and roll. If the element of mystery means a lot to you, you’ll probably be disappointed to hear Don Henley’s Two Cents: “It’s basically a song about the darkest part of the American dream.” Not that a lot of rock stars knew anything about it. In other words, the symbol of Californian prosperity (when it still existed) is presented as a microcosm of American decline in the 1970s.
The (wink, wink) California “hotel” is no motel 6. It has mirrored ceilings, patios, master bedrooms, pink champagne, and snooty guests. The narrator can’t help but notice the seductive woman with a Benz, a mind that is “Tiffany-twisted”, and many handsome boys following her around. He orders wine, to which the captain replies, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.” Since wine is not a spirit (and we bet The Eagles have a basic knowledge of alcoholic beverages), let’s go ahead and assume that Henley is referring to some other spirit of 69
In a hair-raising turn of events, there is a beast-slaying ceremony involving “knives of steel”, prompting the narrator to “return to the spot”. [he] it was before.” Only when it is too late does he realize that he can “check in” but “never leave.” involved.
So let’s review: luxury, substance abuse, a beautiful temptress, materialism, violence, living in the past and being trapped. Reminds you of someone?
As a general rule, music is one of the best resources for teachers because it can be deeply personal and relatable at the same time. Also, the fact that lyrics are often very open to interpretation means that your students will be working a lot harder than they think.