“‘Have you got any soul?’ a woman asks the next afternoon. That depends, I feel like saying; some days yes, some days no.”
High Fidelity is about music in the way Groundhog Day is about the weather. Cynically depressed record-store owner Rob Fleming’s life is not about music: as a narrative device, it grounds him, and as a cultural touchstone, allows us to relate our own passions, hobbies and work to his voyage of self-discovery.
Originally a 1995 Nick Hornby novel, but later an Ebert-approved (four out of four!) US film by 2000 – starring Sex and the City-era heartthrob John Cusack – the story is one determined to captivate quietly arrogant self-described alternative types. Rob ranks women like he ranks albums, and is candidly selfish and imperfect; name-dropping artists and pre-compact-disk albums probably, on average, once per page.
The film mentions 66 artists by name, and the novel likely more. Rob is an ex-DJ (the best time of his life, apparently), and a lover of rock, blues, dance, and country. He’s skeptical of snobs, but sarcastically nauseous about Peter Frampton. He meets musicians, dates musicians, talks music, collects music, sells music, and loves music. Metaphorically, his headphones are glued to his ears, for better or for worse.
Music is not Rob’s goal – he’s not in a band dreaming of Top 40 success, nor a budding music critic, nor even exceptionally tasteful – he’s middle-class, unambitious, and painfully aware, like the crooning James Murphy, that the best years of his life are over. Music, instead, ties him to other people; music provokes him to cry and to fall blindly in love, briefly, with an American country singer; music is his tiring work and his cathartic warmth.
In a way, it’s a lesson on how we all ought to fit music, or any of our passions, into our lives. It’s romantic at its heart, flecked with wit and social commentary. Despite its opening pretensions, it’s never a story about music. Music is, despite its huge presence in Rob’s life, merely a stage on which the real plot – love – is played out. We use music: we may love music with our whole hearts, but it’s never our whole identity. To Hornby, music is an anchor to fix oneself to when one feels, otherwise, lost in the world.