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High Fidelity captured the snob’s—and the soundtrack’s—waning powers

John Cusack in High Fidelity.
John Cusack in High Fidelity.

“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” John Cusack’s Rob Gordon declares midway through High Fidelity, an admission the obsessive, self-obsessed record collector preemptively defends with, “Call me shallow, but it’s the fucking truth.” In Stephen Frears’ film—as in Nick Hornby’s novel of laddish arrested development that inspired it—Rob already realizes that judging people based solely on their taste leads to superficial relationships, the kind steeped in a constant game of one-upsmanship of the sort he engages in with his Top 5 list-compiling, frenemy coworkers. They also keep him from forming deeper connections with people, like his ex-girlfriend, who could give a shit.

It’s meant to be a mark of Rob’s personal growth that, eventually, he’s able to set aside his arrogance to reunite with a woman who listens to Art Garfunkel’s solo albums. And yet, even as the movie ends with Rob compiling a non-didactic mix-tape for her, filled with songs chosen according to his understanding of her own (implicitly lesser) tastes, his basic philosophy hasn’t totally changed. He’s still a believer that a person’s essence can be boiled down to a playlist—that when it comes down to it, we’re all just walking collections of our interests. And in this kingdom of the shallow, the record snob is king.

When High Fidelity was released in 2000, this idea of “collecting”—and the intimidating power wielded by those who pursued it seriously—already seemed on its way to obsolescence. More and more, you weren’t going to record stores to be chastised by some Jack Black lookalike for not owning Blonde On Blonde. In 1999, the debut of Napster meant you could now hide that secret shame, “discover” an artist and download their entire discography in a matter of hours, allowing you to go from a neophyte to diehard overnight. That same year, Pitchfork began arming even kids in flyover counties with the tools to discover underground bands in faraway cities, then dismantle them in the same breath. And although the iPod was still a year away, there was the growing sense that physical media was about to become superfluous. Your “record collection” was just as likely to be a folder of MP3s. You could still define yourself by what you liked, but it was increasingly easy to fake that—to be, essentially, a burned CD-R of a person.

Into that rapidly changing atmosphere came this movie that posited collecting, the old-fashioned kind, as a deeply intimate exercise, albeit one pursued by emotional imbeciles. Cusack’s Rob is a surly sad-sack composed of equal parts narcissism and self-loathing—a guy who asks himself questions like, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” and who regards his fellow collectors with a mocking disdain manifested out of subconscious shame. Rob may take evident pride in his mix-tape skills at “using someone else’s poetry” to express himself, and amid their endless list-making and quibbling over whether it was Jan or Dean who got into an accident after recording “Dead Man’s Curve,” he and the rest of the Championship Vinyl staff make a puffed-up argument for their intrinsic cultural value as archivists. But as we meet him in the wake of being dumped by his fed-up lawyer girlfriend, left alone with nothing but his wax slabs of other people’s words, we see Rob reaching the limits of curating a life rather than building your own.

Hopelessly romantic and tragically immature, Rob’s been filtering his feelings through other people’s music for so long, he’s fully bought into the way they can make your own suffering seem transcendent and romantic, without having to wonder, you know, if maybe you’re suffering because you’re just an asshole. That’s because the songs always empathize; they’re always about you. And in the care Rob pours into his record collection—even, in one memorable sequence, his sorting the whole thing to be “autobiographical”—we see his attempting to make them into something that can give the whole floundering course of his life some meaningful weight, like the heft of 180-gram vinyl.

In Hornby’s book, set in mid-’90s London, this vinyl obsession feels only slightly anachronistic. Hornby’s Rob (Fleming, in the novel) deals in “punk, blues, soul, and R&B, a bit of ska, some indie stuff, some ’60s pop—everything for the serious record collector,” his stolid opposition to change a winking parallel to his personal life. By 2000, the LP format had fallen even further out of favor, although record stores, and the people who lingered within them, still existed in cool urban pockets like Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood, where the fictional Championship Vinyl set up shop a block down from the original location of Reckless Records, its closest real-world analogue. I myself, living in Austin at the time, also had several independent record stores to choose from, though I spent most of my days hanging out (and not buying anything) at Sound Exchange and 33 Degrees. The fact that such places existed hadn’t changed—although the dynamic between clerk and customer had. More and more, the internet had made music snobbery so easily accessible, no one wanted to admit to any blind spots (something I also witnessed working down the street at the video store). Better to feign familiarity, then bone up in secret. The days of the expert collector imparting their wisdom to the eager felt numbered.

Coincidentally, the same could be said for the movie soundtrack. As we’ve talked about since this feature’s first entry, the ’80s and ’90s were a boom time for these professionally curated compilations, before anyone with a T1 connection could throw their own together in minutes. The High Fidelity soundtrack thus felt like a capsule of a fading era on several levels, something abetted by its emphasis on ’60s garage rock, which was enjoying a then-renaissance thanks to the turn-of-the-millennium revival around bands like The Strokes and The Hives, as well as Wes Anderson reintroducing The Who and The Creation to the new, umpteenth generation of mods. But whereas Anderson’s Rushmore soundtrack had a feeling of timelessly renewed rebellious energy, High Fidelity carried the weight of age, sagging with the kind of sad songs and singer-songwriter deep cuts beloved by, as Hornby put it, “serious record collectors,” of the sort that seemed like a slowly dying breed.

“The film has 70 song cues, and we probably listened to 2,000 songs to get those 70 cues,” Cusack told The New York Times around the film’s release, joking, “We used our Rob and Dick and Barry dispositions a lot.’’ Putting on their snobbiest guises had certainly paid off in Cusack’s previous collaboration with producers D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, high school pals with whom he spent his formative years combing Chicago-area record stores and arguing over punk 7-inches, and who brought that crate-diggers’ knowledge to bear first on 1997’s Grosse Pointe Blank. As in High Fidelity, the diegetic possibilities allowed by its high school reunion setting and Minnie Driver’s DJ character enabled the trio to cram in dozens of songs, enough to fill two successful soundtrack volumes. There they had the useful parameters of being limited to mostly ’80s new wave, punk, and ska to work within. With High Fidelity, they literally had the entire record store to pull from, as well as the expert guidance (and legal wrangling assistance) of music supervisor Kathy Nelson, who’d already overseen hit soundtracks to movies ranging from Beverly Hills Cop to Pulp Fiction to Armageddon.

While High Fidelity the film reflects that liberation in its rollicking mix of genres, blasting everything from Stiff Little Fingers to Eric B. And Rakim to The Chemical Brothers, High Fidelity the album pares it down to just the songs that have the strongest parallels to Rob’s romantic wallowing. In other words, it’s heavy on “old sad bastard music,” as Jack Black’s character sneers, with no one busting in to shake things up with a little Katrina And The Waves.

It’s also, for lack of a better term, exceedingly white. “One of the things different is the adoration of all things black American, which is such an English thing,” Hornby said of his novel, where his Rob regularly drops references to the likes of The O’Jays and Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes while schooling people on the finer points of funk and R&B. “We’re great curators of black America. But the filmmakers transferred their sensibility.”

Transporting things to the streets of Chicago, might have opened the possibility for Rob to obsess over, say, The Impressions and Frankie Knuckles, but—while the movie’s cues does include cuts by Ann Peebles, Jackie Wilson, and Aretha Franklin, and Rob at least name-checks Howlin’ Wolf—the soundtrack limits its own soul excursions to a single Stevie Wonder track, the wedding-and-Josh-Groban-friendly “I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever).” Meanwhile, it gives Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” over to Jack Black’s manic, karaoke-ringer version. As a customer asks Rob at one point, does it have soul? That all depends.

This is by no means a condemnation of the movie or album, by the way. High Fidelity is, for all its expert Massive Attack references and subtle Six Finger Satellite posters, still a mainstream romantic comedy starring John Cusack. The demographic it most appeals to is, to be blunt, white guys who fancy themselves as lovably sensitive smart-asses in the John Cusack mold, and the girlfriends who wish that were true. Marketing a soundtrack to them naturally required honing in on the genres and artists that was most likely to mirror their existing tastes, while also introducing them to songs that won’t be so challenging as to raise their hackles. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one the album easily accomplishes by sticking primarily to people with guitars singing about love.

As in the movie, the soundtrack kicks off with a song that falls squarely in that sweet spot of underground curio, yet instantly familiar-sounding: The 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” Roky Erickson’s lysergic shriek against a woman who doesn’t appreciate him, so he’s about to leave her twisting, wondering where he’s run off to. The ’60s psych-rock Nuggets nugget, with its primal-fuzz guitars and burbling electric jug, is just the kind of semi-forgotten almost-hit that would be in Rob’s collection, and its aggrieved, defiant wail is exactly the kind of cut he would reach for the moment his relationship crumbles. In addition to establishing that this guy knows his music history, the lyrics also cleverly lay up the subtext of the whole film to follow: In Rob’s mind, he’s the one who’s been mistreated, and really it’s him who’s leaving her.

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem,” Rob says near movie’s end, in another self-aware nod. “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch.” High Fidelity’s own mix accomplishes this by following the manic wails of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” with The Kinks’ pep-rally love song “Ev’rybody’s Gonna Be Happy” before the mood begins its slow settling into semi-permanent melancholy.

It’s followed with “Always See Your Face,” a soulful cut by Arthur Lee’s baroque psychedelic pop group Love taken from 1969’s Four Sail (Forever Changes presumably having been deemed “too obvious”). It’s a song whose woe-is-me plea for help in a cruel world turns midway through, like “You’re Gonna Miss Me,” into something of a threat—that no matter where the woman who left him happens to go, she will always see his face. Also like with The 13th Floor Elevators, the inclusion of Love—a band championed by critics and fellow musicians, but with little mainstream traction—is crucial to establishing that “serious record collector” credibility. (And hey, Arthur Lee was black, so it’s a technical win in the “not just white guy music” column.)

Those same old sad bastard musos can also tell you that nothing scores a bout of romanticized despair like The Velvet Underground. Befitting its status as the bedrock on which all music snobbery is built, the band appears twice on the soundtrack (both of them cuts from the commercially minded, Doug Yule-heavy Loaded, something Rob and his cronies would no doubt have fun debating). The ironically poppy “Who Loves The Sun?” scores the scene where Rob looks up the old junior high girlfriend who, as the song echoes, first broke his heart, its airy wistfulness lightening up what is, in reality, a rather stalker-ish moment involving unresolved feelings for a 14-year-old girl. Like the later use of “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’,” that sweet, lovely refrain for the disaffected—its tales of used and abused street hustlers soundtracking a scene where Rob pouts over his ex-girlfriend having sex with Tim Robbins’ gross new age guy—it triggers a natural audience empathy for Rob. There is nothing so petty that it can’t be rendered artfully poignant by setting it to the Velvets.

Choosing two later-period cuts from respected songwriters like Elvis Costello, represented by the jazzy torch song “Shipbuilding,” and Bob Dylan’s “Most Of The Time,” from 1989’s Daniel Lanois-ified Oh Mercy, is another classic record store clerk move, championing releases from venerable artists after most fans have checked out. Of course, drawing a parallel between the Falklands War and a nasty break-up is thematically dicey, to say the least. But to be fair, Costello’s Bacharachian “Shipbuilding”—its jazz club smokiness aided by a Chet Baker solo—is primarily used as wallpaper in the film, its sentimental ode to lost soldiers and the revived British naval industry really setting the mood as Cusack’s Rob puts the moves on Lisa Bonet’s bohemian folk singer.

Dylan’s regretful “Most Of The Time,” on the other hand, is practically musical exposition: “I don’t even notice she’s gone / Most of the time,” Dylan sings during the scene where Rob finally gives up on pretending like he’s in the right, confessing to the camera that he realizes now all the mistakes he made by keeping his ex-girlfriend at arm’s length, his and Dylan’s intertwined voices all but equal in volume. It’s a cinematic ploy as cliché as the rain pouring down on him, but look, I’m not made of stone.

Equally as connected—though not quite as stirring—is John Wesley Harding’s “I’m Wrong About Everything,” whose germane lyrical musings on self-doubt and regret, and the way they line up with Rob’s own, the English singer once called “a bizarre coincidence.” That’s a tad dramatic for what is a fairly universal sentiment about relationship drama, laid over a loping midtempo rock beat and some whirling Hammond organ (one that, frankly, isn’t done any favors by being in such close proximity to Costello). Still, Harding’s contribution is far more interesting than that of Sheila Nicholls, whose “Fallen For You” is a generically pretty, lugubrious piano ballad only distinguishable from Sarah McLachlan and a million American Idol contestants by Nicholls’ clipped British pronunciation and the legendarily awful lyric “Did you ever touch me / Floating through your potpourri?” (Um ... Yes?)

The mopey, middlebrow bloat of all these songs—especially when combined with the fellow adult-contemporary vibes of the Stevie Wonder track and the funny-once novelty of “Let’s Get It On”—are what keep High Fidelity from being a truly classic soundtrack, one that can be played from beginning to end in polite snob company without getting bored or embarrassed. The U.K. edition solved for this a bit by swapping out the Harding and Love tracks for the more upbeat likes of The Jam’s “Town Called Malice,” Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady,” and Barry White’s “I’m Gonna Love You A Little More Babe.” I’m sure there were (and maybe still are) Robs, Dicks, and Barrys who argue that the European import is the definitive version.

Still, while it isn’t always spot-on with its recommendations, the most useful purpose the High Fidelity soundtrack had—like the record store clerks it both lampooned and lionized—was turning fans on to (relatively) lesser-known artists, a function that was, again, rapidly becoming redundant. Even at the time, there was already something faintly quaint about the scene where Cusack’s Rob looks around his crowded shop and whispers confidently, “I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.s by The Beta Band.” Sure you will.

Yet when he puts on the Scottish “folktronica” group’s “Dry The Rain”—and skips right over the slow-build, narcotized groove of its first four minutes to get to that triumphantly catchy outro—Rob makes this assertion of the record clerk’s svengali power seem totally plausible, responding to a customer’s assertion that “hey, this is good” with a Han Solo-cocky “I know.” And hey, while that power may have been diminishing in the real world, replaced by Pandora algorithms and blog-fed self-assurance, this fictional record store clerk’s endorsement worked: The Beta Band sold a hell of a lot more than five copies after the film’s release, quadrupling its numbers, touring with Radiohead, and becoming indelibly associated with the film. (Sadly, its upper trajectory was short-lived: The Beta Band released one great album, 2001’s Hot Shots II, and one okay one, 2004’s Heroes To Zeros, before calling it quits.)

Like The Beta Band, Bill Callahan’s Smog had already been a critical darling thanks to a decade’s worth of Drag City releases, but the film’s use of “Cold Blooded Old Times” similarly brought him his first mainstream exposure—even if Callahan himself wasn’t exactly a fan of the source novel. “It didn’t really do that much for me,” Callahan told MTV around its release. “I thought it was really kind of breezy.” But if High Fidelity didn’t stimulate Callahan’s yen for deeply metaphysical self-reflection, it definitely raised his profile, bringing widespread attention to his most fully realized album to date, 1999’s Knock Knock, by which time he’d fully shrugged off the murky experimentalism of his early work and begun embracing the sort of wry and weary Americana that would put him alongside fellow indie troubadours like Will Oldham and Cat Power’s Chan Marshall. The song that turned so many people on to this phase, “Cold Blooded Old Times,” is built on a High Fidelity-friendly Velvet Underground guitar chug, over which Callahan recalls a scene of domestic abuse in his mordant baritone—and though most of it’s lost in the movie, buried beneath one of the Championship Vinyl crew’s many arguments, on the album it’s a catchy standout.

Callahan certainly wasn’t alone in being relegated to the background. In fact, somewhat surprisingly for a movie about people who are constantly playing and discussing records, only two other indie groups get the full Beta Band treatment. Most memorably, sexy-cool cosmopolitan pop band Stereolab gets a name-drop when Rob encounters a comely local music critic, who impresses him with her ability to identify the early rarity “Lo Boob Oscillator” as it plays over the store’s P.A. (Though really, with Laetitia Sadier’s French coo over that krautrock drone, who else could it be? Set your standards a little higher, dude.)

And while it’s never mentioned by name, the seminal scuzz-rock duo Royal Trux plays a pivotal role by contributing a heavily remixed version of its own “The Inside Game” to stand in for The Kinky Wizards, the band composed of two skateboarding, shoplifting, Sigue Sigue Sputnik-listening punks who briefly gives Rob new purpose in life. Of course, “Inside Game”—in keeping with every Royal Trux release—is pretty much like nothing else in Royal Trux’s catalog, by design. As Jennifer Herrema put it to MTV, in a quote bearing least two different levels of hilarious (though probably unintentional) shade, “They wanted more sampling, because the British guy who was in charge of putting all the stuff together thought that was the best way to indicate the year 2000.”

Anyone who went looking for more of that sample-heavy, futuristic Y2K sound of Herrema shriek-rapping about basketball, or another song that resembled Ween doing a Chemical Brothers cover, was likely to be confused, depending on where they started with the group’s ever-shifting catalog. Nevertheless, High Fidelity gave Royal Trux its greatest exposure since that time Kurt Cobain casually handed a Spin interviewer—and thus every kid who hung on his words—a copy of Cats & Dogs.

Of course, back then Cobain’s endorsement was worth a three-record major label deal. By 2000, those heady days probably already seemed like something out of Vinyl, with some Bobby Cannavale-type blowing rails off a Stone Temple Pilots CD. The hangover was evident in a 2003 interview with Billboard where High Fidelity’s music supervisor Kathy Nelson was asked about the soundtrack’s steep decline and “what will turn it around”—a question Nelson answers, with an optimism rendered sardonic by hindsight, that the “government” was working to combat online piracy and that the soundtrack would surely rebound once those perpetrators “realize they’ll get punished and possibly go to jail.”

As naïve as Nelson sounds about morality saving the music industry, she sounds positively deluded about the format’s future. Even if FBI agents had busted into the home of every kid with OiNK’s Pink Palace in their browser history, nothing was going to bring back the soundtrack’s heyday. In fact, the relatively gentle waves of High Fidelity (an “underrated soundtrack,” Nelson was already lamenting) marked one of the last few times a soundtrack would have any kind of impact. A few years later, Garden State—another movie centered on a self-pitying, perpetual adolescent in the golden era of them—took High Fidelity’s RIYL advocacy to the extreme, subbing Natalie Portman’s, “it’ll-change-your-life” gushing for Cusack’s aloof nods. Sure, it drove downloads of The Shins and Frou Frou, but it became a punchline in the process. And while Wes Anderson continued to keep money in the The Kinks’ coffers, and TV shows like The O.C., Grey’s Anatomy, and Gossip Girl would make sure Ben Gibbard stayed fed, the movie soundtrack eventually became a lot like the record store clerk: there for occasional guidance, but hardly the omniscient oracle it once was.

As for me, I distinctly remember downloading “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Dry The Rain,” then changing the file name to erase all connection to the soundtrack, the MP3 snob’s version of fronting like you’ve been a fan all long. And while I’ve certainly been driven to seek out stuff after catching it in movies and TV shows since then, High Fidelity may well have been the last time I felt like a soundtrack did that kind of curating for me. I don’t think I’m alone there: More than a decade and a half later (and outside of the occasional anomaly like Guardians Of The Galaxy or, God help us, Suicide Squad), soundtrack sales—and common sense—tell us that most people simply don’t need someone to make them mix-tapes anymore, no matter how lovingly compiled. The internet has turned everyone into Rob Gordons now, lording their Wiki-ed knowledge over a world overflowing with Top 5 lists, rifling through endlessly overflowing bins of streaming music. What you like continues to matter, but—as pertains to soundtracks, especially—how you come by it matters less and less. Call it shallow, but it’s the fucking truth.