High Fidelity and the Never-Ending Age of the Music Know-It-All
The reboot's protagonist isn't a womanizer, but she's still a grade-A snobPhotos courtesy of Hulu Music Features High Fidelity
For as long as I can remember, men have informed me of which music is right and good. This counsel isn’t necessarily delivered haughtily, nor is it always unwanted (As Sally Albright once said, “I have a number of male friends,” many of whom have enviable music taste). But, on the whole of my admittedly short (as-of-yet) life, uninvited opinions about music have come my way via the mouth of men far more frequently than that of any woman.
This phenomenon can likely be traced to the centuries of patriarchal ideals and systematic misogyny that are either consciously or subconsciously embedded inside each and every one of us, no matter the gender. Men, more often than women, typically feel less shy about taking up space and speaking their minds. But Rob, the record store owner and certified music snob at the center of Nick Hornby’s novel (and, now, two screen adaptations) High Fidelity, is especially obnoxious when it comes to his deep knowledge of classic pop and rock music (not to mention his desperate, at-times creepy romantic endeavors). Both the original character in the source material and John Cusack’s interpretation in the 2000 film are your classic case of my-way-or-the-highway, know-it-all “music guy”: They relentlessly rank their favorite albums, their desert island discs and the best of classic pop, and anything that’s not already primed for their specific demographic’s enjoyment is not worth the time. And they’re never hesitant to let you know.
In the 2020 version of High Fidelity, a Hulu series starring Zoë Kravitz as a female version of Rob, the Championship Vinyl employees are no less annoying about their internal musical databases. There’s some delight to be found in this new interpretation, just for the sheer reality of seeing the stylish Kravitz in such a offbeat role, but there’s also a lot to dislike—starting with the fact that we probably didn’t need this reboot in the first place, as Jillian Mapes pointed out over at Pitchfork. As was the case with movies like Ocean’s 8 and the all-female 2016 take on Ghostbusters, this new-age High Fidelity begs the question: Why do studios continue to invest time and money in new versions of old stories, instead of just prioritizing new, original content made by and featuring female creators? As Mapes also argued, it just feels counterintuitive.
However, it’s important to show portraits of imperfect women on screen, no matter the source material, and Rob is certainly not perfect. But she’s also still an asshole. Hornby’s list-making, loud-talking Rob is still alive and well in this new High Fidelity—he’s just hiding beneath the facade of a queer woman of color.
It would be one thing if the show’s producers made the creative decision to give this new Rob (and her goofball record store employees) an appropriately new musical palate, but instead of considering what an actual queer woman of color living in Brooklyn in 2020 would be listening to, the show frames her as yet another classic rock/pop fan. Blondie. Talking Heads. Stevie Wonder. David Bowie. They’re all undeniable greats, yes, but given this unique opportunity to reinvent a beloved, potentially problematic (at times) character and—maybe, just maybe!—introduce audiences to a culturally significant soundtrack of up-and-coming independent artists, why would Hulu creatives not take it?
Like any average “music guy,” Rob takes every opportunity to flex on anyone and everyone in her vicinity. While on a blind date (one that she attempted to flee), Rob hears Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” on the speaker at the bar and proceeds to break down Rumours track-by-track for her date (played by perpetual “nice guy” Jake Lacy). And in an always classic move from the “music guy” playbook, Rob divulges that she prefers the band’s lesser-known follow-up (Tusk) to their more popular material (Rumours). I, too, enjoy the ever-living heck out of “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac, but would this scene not have been more effective if that decades-old song had been replaced by, say, a Mitski song? (Someone Great, another movie about music snobs from rival Netflix, had the right idea here) Or, God forbid, a modern pop artist, one that the stuffy John Cusack Rob would’ve scoffed at? This show is so anti-poptimism it hurts. It just reinforces the idea that rock music made by men is artistically superior to pop music typically enjoyed by women and queer folks.
Rob and the rest of the Championship Vinyl crew run an outpost in Brooklyn, N.Y., for crying out loud. They would naturally be selling Sharon Van Etten, Phoebe Briders, The National—the major indie acts of our day. Would they be wearing Lauryn Hill and Cheap Trick t-shirts? Maybe, but they would hopefully be less pretentious about it, and not describe a piece of music as “Frank Ocean with a hint of Jeff Buckley” (an actual description from the show!) Later in the season, a few teens stroll into the store and comment that something playing over the loudspeaker is “tight.” Rob responds with “I know.” And pretension takes the cake yet again!
At one point during the show, record store employee (and Rob’s ex-lover) Simon makes the remark that “The things you like are more important than what you are like.” That sentence could work as a thesis for this entire story that we can’t stop telling. Maybe Rob has received a freshening up by way of Zoë Kravitz, and maybe she’s not the womanizing loser from the original novel, but she’s still stuck-up. Snobbery knows no gender, I suppose. But remember this, even if the media refuses to remind you: If you love something, then it’s worth loving. And you’re so much more than your taste.