Wide Angle

Can High Fidelity Survive the End of Taste?

The story of a record-store snob struggles to fit an era defined by shared enthusiasm.

Zoë Kravitz in a scene from High Fidelity, in which she sits at a cash register while a "No CDs" neon sign blares in the background.
Zoë Kravitz in High Fidelity. Phillip Caruso/Hulu

Landmark critiques of social maladies often seem to arrive right when the culture is about to self-correct, which makes their authors look more influential than they really were. William H. Whyte’s attack on postwar American conformity, The Organization Man, gets a lot of credit for its prescience, but it came out in 1956, just when the Beats were growing out their beards, Elvis was rotating his hips, and Rosa Parks was spearheading the Montgomery bus boycott. In 1995, when Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity was published, record-store snobs like its central characters were arguably at the peak of their “alternative” clout. But by the time Stephen Frears’ movie version debuted in 2000, both the alt-rock and golden-age hip-hop booms had gone bust, and Napster was turning scarcity to surfeit, spelling an end to old-school collector syndrome. Soon almost anyone would have access to almost any cultural object, along with the platforms to showcase their opinions about it. When practically everyone is their own curator and critic, it’s laughable to use that status to pull rank, as the figures played by John Cusack and Jack Black do with such obnoxious gusto. (In retrospect, my own 2007 book about the limits of aesthetic snobbery, Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, also reads to me less like the polemic I thought it was than an autopsy of that dying cultural style, or maybe a survivors’ manual.)

That instant obsolescence rendered High Fidelity the perfect period piece. It caught in freeze frame an ancien régime at its late-decadent height, oblivious to the revolution about to displace it. Today, High Fidelity stands as an elegant parable about the way taste operated in between the upheavals of the 1960s and the digital transformation of the new millennium—how the trappings of subcultural cool could serve as a substitute for actual politics or ethics, and function primarily as a weapon of exclusion. Hornby’s white, male, middle-class protagonists are exemplars of what we’d now call mansplaining and toxic masculinity. Record-store owner Rob objectifies and instrumentalizes both his cultural and personal relationships, and it screws up his life—although the story sometimes passes too lightly over how much it also slights and hurts the women around him. (Hornby tried to correct that omission in his later, lesser-known novel about music obsession, Juliet, Naked.) Fetishized taste is the pivotal metaphor for moral underdevelopment in High Fidelity, the way that the monsters in Buffy the Vampire Slayer are metaphors for the agonies of adolescence. The two elements can’t be pried apart.

The challenge facing the 2020 High Fidelity, then, is whether it has anything to say about taste in the 21st century. Showrunners Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West immediately signal that the story is no longer about a (too-slowly) vanishing species of patronizing music dudes by switching the chief protagonist’s gender. In the fourth episode, a woman gushes to Zoë Kravitz’s Rob (here short for Robin) about her music-shop career, saying, “It’s so badass for you to not only occupy but frickin’ own such a historically masculine space.” Rob cocks a skeptical eyebrow, but then shrugs happily, “Yeah, I guess it is kinda badass.” None of the core trio at the record store now is a straight white guy: Jack Black’s role has been taken by Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the ebullient Cherise (rechanneling the energy of her breakout role in last year’s music-history-mythologizing Dolemite Is My Name), and the third musketeer is Simon (David H. Holmes), a gentle geek who dated Rob briefly before he came out of the closet as gay.

So far, the racial dimension hasn’t been mobilized as clearly as gender and sexuality (Kravitz’s Rob is bisexual as well as biracial) in replying to the franchise’s inherited themes. As Chris Rock’s Hornby-indebted 2014 movie Top Five depicted, fervent debate about who’s on top and who’s the GOAT is hardly alien to black music fandom—in rap, it’s not only a fan sport but a leading lyrical preoccupation. But that pastime doesn’t surface in this High Fidelity. There’s a viable version of the show that could feature, say, a set of hip-hop crate-diggers or podcasters intensely focused on rising artists and microtrends, but the series is plainly out for a broader viewer base.

The easiest way to update the satire would have been to change its milieu, making it about video gamers, for instance, or hardcore comics and superhero fans—or YouTubers, for damn sure. It’s all too evident there are toxic preference patterns to be skewered in those realms, set for processing through High Fidelity’s patented epiphany-and-redemption filters. But since it sticks to music, the show has to reckon with the fact that music fandom isn’t what it was 25 years ago. So it’s worth scrutinizing the paths this High Fidelity chooses not to follow, along with those it does.

The first few episodes roughly mimic Hornby’s template, but as the series finds its own footing, it starts to feel more like a workplace rom-com/dramedy—quite a good one—that just happens to take place in and around a record store. It could as easily be set at a tech startup or a craft brewery or a vintage clothing shop, anywhere a group of somewhat aimless, attractive young millennials might be drawn together to share the pitfalls of coming of age. Kravitz and her diverse co-stars are more pleasant company than any previous denizens of Championship Vinyl, which is now located in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, rather than London or Chicago. But that pleasantness is part of the puzzle: Their flaws are so much less severe than their predecessors’ that the show doesn’t need to invoke their devotion to music to explain them.

As the token white-albeit-not-straight-guy here, Simon is the closest thing the main cast has to a traditional record collector. His first scene in the record shop finds him giddy to have scored an original edition of Gallop, a 1985 album by the Greek electronic music innovator Lena Platonos, and a little put out when Cherise takes it off the turntable in order to start a “Come On Eileen” dance party. Simon is also the one to point out, for instance, that Rob’s records are going to get warped if she leaves them stacked in piles all over her apartment. But Simon’s issues with his bad boyfriend have nothing to do with his tastes, for instance, and he is just as enchanted as Rob and Cherise when they hit a club and hear a Scottish musician (a Rob love-interest-to-be) covering Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” on guitar. It is Simon here who, very early in the series, voices a variation on the original Rob’s misguided taste credo: “The things that you like are as important, no, more important, than what you are like.” Yet it quickly emerges that Simon is also the most sensitive and compassionate person in Rob’s life. He obviously cares more about personal character than any purity-of-taste test. So, having made the metareference, the show then swiftly abandons it.

The showrunners have suggested in interviews that Rob’s vocation as a purveyor of vintage vinyl is symbolically linked to her nostalgia and inability to move forward from her past (especially her past love life). But I don’t really get that from watching the show. It’s true that most musical debates in the series pivot on older music—there are painful moments when it seems to be trying to convince us that Prince and David Bowie are somehow still the province of connoisseurs. Still, I think this is just the show striving to be accessible, not any kind of thesis statement. The packed soundtrack includes plenty of more contemporary needle drops, including hip-hop and electronic ones. And more importantly, the decades-spanning references don’t seem out of step with the way people listen now. The west Toronto café where part of this essay was written, for example, was streaming old gospel when I arrived, then transitioned to vintage ska, soul, and then “Glitter” by 20-year-old New Zealand pop newcomer Benee. It did not make me worry that the millennial espresso puller behind the counter was in some crisis of arrested development.

A general trend toward aesthetic eclecticism was already being noted by sociologists who study cultural taste before Hornby’s book came out. Surveys of previous generations found that people tended to share both their preferences and vehement distastes with other members of their social classes and backgrounds. Their tastes tended to follow, along class lines, the old model of “high art,” “middlebrow,” and “low culture.” But by the 1990s, elite cultural consumers were sampling widely across categories and creating more bespoke taste profiles—somebody might be an equal aficionado, for instance, of Asian art films, graphic novels, and WWE wrestling. Even in the original High Fidelity, the Championship Vinyl boys are well aware it would be lame to confine themselves too much to any single genre. While specialists still argue over how to read the data, it seems likely to me that the internet’s democratization of distribution has made this omnivore eclecticism the popular default (Exhibit A: “Old Town Road”), and it encompasses eras as well as styles. Through the “universal jukebox” of streaming, it’s as easy to give yourself an instant education on classic late-1960s Brazilian Tropicália—the new High Fidelity features a conversation about an Os Mutantes box set—as it is to inhale Young Thug’s whole discography in an afternoon.

Mind you, Rob dislikes her neighborhood’s own hipster coffee shop and doggedly procures her own caffeine fix at the same bodega every day. And there are a few more flashes of the characters having misgivings about the way their generational peers interact with media and culture. Rob uses Instagram, at least to stalk an ex’s rumored new girlfriend, but feels duped and hostile when she discovers that the dinner party she’s at (the same one where she gets her feminist-badass compliment) is actually a Korean-soju-sponsored influencer “meetup,” and none of the people there are friends IRL. But the show doesn’t pursue much further how today’s online self-stylizations might compare with the music-snob posturing of old. There’s a scene in which Rob frets about whether her favorite local live-music venue might disappear, grazing the issue of gentrification—a pressing one in its Brooklyn setting and everywhere else in which outrageous rents threaten, among many other things, arts scenes’ survival. (As I was writing this, an 83-year-old Toronto bar where I’ve attended countless shows and arts gatherings abruptly announced it was being shut down.) I could imagine a storyline, for instance, in which down-market Championship faced competition from a more upscale vinyl emporium, the kind where customers seem less interested in music per se than in acquiring vintage equipment and record sleeves as chic objets d’art to scatter around their condos. But so far the story hasn’t really taken up any of these themes in earnest.

My own critique of the “omnivore” model, especially in the age of streaming, is that it risks moving so far away from using music and other aesthetic tastes as any kind of badge of selfhood and affiliation that it empties some of the meaning out of the way that art moves us. And this change of attitude coincides with a time when music and other art forms have plummeted in economic value, except as the means to marketing clothing lines and platforms and personalities, making creators’ livelihoods ever less sustainable. There’s no doubt that catholic tastes are less blinkered than cultural snobbery. But from a lowercase-marxist perspective, it strikes me—and I realize this is a stretch—that being a cultural magpie, more noncommittal and contingent about which ever-changing suites of tastes might suit your moods and situations, roughly parallels the kind of flexibility and adaptability that’s demanded by today’s gig-and-hustle economy. We need to be able to change jobs, switch loyalties, move cities, update skill sets and personal images, to suit the ever-disruptable, often geographically and even physically disembodied labor marketplace. Being too strongly wedded to an identity becomes a liability.

In the new High Fidelity, the minimally profitable record store that Rob somehow, at 29, has owned and operated for years offers itself as a semi-utopian zone that escapes all that harsh market logic. And here, the characters’ fealty to music isn’t the problem but a partial solution, a redeeming inner idealism. Kravitz’s Rob can be flippant and moody, but she has an enduring passion that she’s generous and magnetic in sharing, as long as nobody—like the boomer collector she encounters midseason—tries to gainsay her right to have it. She’s happy to hold forth about Fleetwood Mac, for instance, for the benefit of her white-bread date Clyde (Jake Lacy) but checks to make sure she’s not rambling on too much. And despite having met, and verbally crushed, the mansplaining boomer, Rob ultimately turns down his wronged wife (a stupendous Parker Posey) who’s trying to offload his valuable record collection for $20, because it would be bad musical karma. Likewise, Cherise can be a whole lot as a person, but instead of screaming at a customer who dares to ask for an uncool record the way Jack Black’s character did, she cusses out a guy who uses his phone to Shazam the track playing on the record-shop speakers (“La Forêt” by the French retro-synth artist Lescop) rather than simply asking her. She wants to use music not to assert superiority and distance but to forge human connections—ultimately, despite her ragged insecurities, about being a music-maker herself. This might be where the new High Fidelity picks up the thematic thread from the original, in its radically different context, suggesting that it matters less what the characters’ particular tastes are than the ways they cultivate and care for them, along with one another. It isn’t what you like. It’s how you like it.

That said, the show could stand to mix more downtempo friction into its upbeat humanism. There’s a hint of how to do it in a second-episode scene, when the record-store trio momentarily does debate music fandom as a moral issue: They argue about whether it’s OK for them to sell a customer a copy of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall, given the recent revelations about the late star’s crimes (“allegedly,” the blond client adds). Cherise is staunchly opposed. But Rob is torn—would it be right, she asks herself, to sacrifice Quincy Jones’ “Mount Olympus” horn charts alongside Jackson’s side of the recording? She also brings up that Cherise still listens to Kanye West, despite his recent MAGA-hat-sporting political apostasies. Cherise objects that West has “a mental health issue,” to which Rob parries back, “You don’t think Michael Jackson had a fucking mental health issue?” Simon, meanwhile, worries that requiring artists to have “unassailably perfect ethics” would leave them with nothing to listen to, except maybe Bono.

Now here is a conflict that’s alive and hard kicking in 2020. Perhaps today’s iteration of “what matters is what you like” would be “what matters is your cultural-politics stance.” Plenty of people can be just as unyielding, partisan, and pushy on that level as Hornby’s shouty record clerks. It would be a fraught area to satirize. But with the series’ likable and sympathetic ensemble well established in the first season, it’s a clue to how another season of High Fidelity might capture its cultural moment as vividly as its inspiration once did.