As we kept our social distance from the rest of the world in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, my wife and I binge watched the Hulu Original series High Fidelity over the past couple of days. The 10 episode first season of the series is a remix or reimagining of the Nick Hornby 1995 book and the 2000 movie starring John Cusak as the protagonist Rob who owns a record shop. Rob recently breaks up with his girlfriend and in his effort to deal with the loss, goes on a journey of self-discovery by getting in touch with five former girlfriends who comprise his most memorable breakup list.
The 2020 B-Side, in true millennial fashion, turns everything on its head. Rob is now Robyn, but in conforming to non-binary naming conventions – or is it not conforming to binary naming conventions; those double negatives can be confusing – the main character played by Zoe Kravitz goes by Rob. Interesting factoid – Zoe’s mom, Lisa Bonet was actually one of the five ex-girlfriends in the 2000 movie.
Kravitz’s character lives in a spacious Brooklyn apartment and has a lifestyle that belies the amount of business that seems to be coming from her cash register. Yes she has a cash register which she locks in a safe and even more interesting or shall I say surreal is that every transaction shown throughout the season is made in cash. Vinyl has indeed surpassed CD’s in sales over the past couple of years, but I can assure you that folks are not harkening back to greenbacks no matter how ironic it may be to do so – but I digress.
Rob is also queer. One of her former five is a woman and another one is gay. He (Simon) is actually one of her best friends who also now works for her at the record store. Her other employee/friend, Cherise is a woman who looks like she could be Tracy Morgan’s twin sister and sounds like she abandoned an advanced degree in philosophy because of the sheer lack of opportunities to keep it 💯.
As a music lover, the show appealed to me on a base level. The music played throughout covered a representative swath of the spectrum of what many music nerds would consider to be good music.
But music really takes a backseat to the love life of the characters. Rob is a self absorbed borderline narcissist who thinks that the source and the answers to her problems are found in life’s inbox as opposed to her sent messages.
The only time that she feels compelled to pull out her cracked screen iPhone – of course all really hip millennials have a phone with a cracked screen – to check her moral compass app is when she is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to purchase a vinyl collection worth at least six figures for a mere 20 bucks from a scorned wife looking to hit her scumbag cheating husband in the only place where it would really hurt him. Somehow or another Rob couldn’t find it in her heart to do that to him no matter how big of a monster he was made out to be. Music may well have saved his life the same way it did for her and who was she to take that away from him.
I realize all of this serves the purpose of the development of a character arc so that she could be redeemed in the end, but it’s all a little too exhausting. Don’t get me wrong, Kravitz kills the role as the ultra hip, not hip, antidisestablishmentarianism, aloof anti-hero gazing into the eyes of others looking for self awareness. She successfully suspends herself over a moat of the viewers emotions swinging between the safety of “I hope she finds her prince(ss) and lives happily ever after” and “to hell with her I hope she drowns and dies”. That’s not an easy task for an actor.
The real problem for me, however, is that the subtext of the show took something that I love and made it into a sport. It was interesting to listen to the characters wax poetic about a song that was recorded before they were born and even call their elders to task about the facts of said song . Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t have to have experienced something at the time that it was presented to the world to have an expanded knowledge or appreciation of it. However, having experienced the social, political and cultural context of the moment when a piece of music was released does give you something special that can’t necessarily be acquired on an historical basis. And to me that is much more meaningful than the mundane metadata.
Sometimes in our culture, knowledge is valued more than understanding and wisdom. For example, a few years ago I saw a little eight year old boy on TV who had memorized every single word of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. Juxtapose this against illiterate 85 year old Mr. Johnson. He was actually in DC and heard the speech live. Mr. Johnson has no idea what the 8th word of the speech is, but the little boy does. While Mr. Johnson may not “know” the speech like the little boy, he has something that the little boy will never have.
That’s not to elevate Mr. Johnson over the little boy or to denigrate those who know and love music that was recorded before they were born. It’s just to say that art may be timeless, but it is also of a time and the experience of it in that time can lend something to it that is not only important but also fleeting.
Music is one of the most powerful mediums in the world. Like the matrix, music can unlock memories buried deep inside your mind. Hearing the first few notes of a song or a bridge that you forgot was there can transport you to the exact time and place you were when you first or most frequently experienced that tune.
I agree with Duke Ellington’s take on music,
“There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind … the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed. “
However given the transporting power of music I would like to add one caveat. “The other kind “of music can transport you to a blissful place in the same way that the “good” music can transport you to a torture chamber. So in that regard music just is…
But in my opinion, it shouldn’t be the fodder for a self-aggrandizing debate show among friends and foes the way we hear and see on sports radio and television everyday. Knowing the chordal structure of a song and what it was based upon or what happened in the studio while it was being recorded or having the rare album that has a misprinted label on it does not grant one a license or even access to something more than a musically illiterate or factually ignorant person.
And if you were wondering, yes, I am talking to myself here.
The real beauty of the show for me was that it made me realize the above and how as a result I had in a way abandoned music pretty much how Mac (# 5 on the All-Time Breakup List) left Rob in the first episode. Like Rob, I needed to do some soul searching to find out what happened. The show helped me to do that. The difference is that I know that the source and the cause of the split was solely on me and that she was and is always willing to take me back.
At that I gotta go. I got somebody I gotta call. Not text, not DM, but call.
PS – If you don’t like the way that I kinda purposely wrote parts of this piece, you’ll absolutely hate the TV show.