‘High Fidelity’: Music’s Relationship to Relationships

Music is a part of our everyday lives. People listen to it to drown out the noise of the crowds on public transit or to make a long walk home seem a little more bearable. Still, music does more than provide a distraction from the ordinariness of the everyday. To reduce music to a casual interest is to do a great disservice to the emotional impact of music. After all, how many people share a song with a loved one? Don’t most brides remember the song that played as they walked down the aisle? Music is an undeniably emotional art form, but still people seem to ignore it as such. However, there are films that recognize the emotional potency of music and use their own soundtracks to look closer at the relationship shared by love, heartbreak, and rock and roll. One film that is representative of the complex dynamic of love and popular music is the 2000 Steaphen Frears directed film, High Fidelity. Based on the Nick Hornby novel of the same name, High Fidelity examines self-destructive rock connoisseur and record storeowner, Rob Gordon, as he attempts to recover from a particularly painful breakup. The film follows Rob recounting the five most painful breakups as he tries to make amends with the women who have made him the man on the screen before us. Obviously as a record storeowner, music is an undeniable element of the character. One of the most extreme examples of music defining the character in the film is when Rob says to his girlfriend, Laura, that “liking both Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel is like supporting both the Israelis and the Palestinians.” Frears uses music to explore Rob Gordon in a different way than Hornby’s novel does; a way that is unique to the world of movies. Hornby uses music effectively enough in his novel, but it requires a familiarity with the music in question to be seen as extension of Rob Gordon. Frears, adapting the novel to a new medium, uses music to convey the emotions of the character rather than relying on clunky exposition to do the work for him. He does not entirely disregard Hornby’s practice of using the audience’s possible familiarity with the music to enrich the narrative, but he does not depend on it. Instead, the music itself and, more importantly, the stories behind the music offer insight into the character of Rob Gordon in a way that would be more difficult to depict through dialogue and images, while engaging the audience on another level.
One example of music being used beyond its obvious narrative purpose is the first song of the film, “You’re Gonna Miss me” by The 13th Floor Elevators. The song plays as the film’s title appears onscreen and the camera provides a close-up of Rob listening to the song on his headphones as he considers the relationship between music and misery as he waxes philosophic about the nature of popular music. It polishes and packages such destructive emotions into an EP that record companies try to sell, regardless of the author’s original intent or how it will affect their listeners. As he wallows in self pity, he looks directly into the camera and asks, “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Immediately, Rob credits the music with an emotional power over him. The song itself is interrupted when Laura pulls the plug on his headphones and the music goes quiet. She then explains that she has to leave or it will hurt too much. It is clear that this is a breakup, but at this point, the audience is in the dark as to why Laura is breaking up with Rob. On the surface, the song’s purpose seems relatively clear. “You’re gonna wake up one morning as the sun greets the dawn. You’re gonna look around in your mind, girl, you’re gonna find that I’m gone. You didn’t realize (x5). You’re gonna miss me baby.”” The song uses lyrics like these to talk about how people, in general, don’t know how good they’ve got it until they’ve lost it all. In every sense of the term, it’s the “ideal breakup song” for this character because it hints at Rob’s loss, but also his indignation at being left.
However, there’s a lot more at work here besides how the song fits Rob’s specific scenario. As early as its opening scene, High Fidelity suggests a complex relationship with the narrative of the film and the musical soundtrack. This is demonstrated with “You’re Gonna Miss Me” which, as previously stated, fits the circumstances lyrically, but exploring the music beyond that provides a richer and more fully realized meaning. Audiences would benefit from knowing a little bit about the 13th Floor Elevators and their lead singer, Roky Erickson. Roky Erickson has led a troublesome life since the band’s heyday. Erickson was confined to a mental hospital after claiming insanity when faced with a ten year prison term after he was found in possession of a joint of marijuana. His subsequent detention at a mental hospital, where he was subjected to electroconvulsive therapy among other treatments, changed Erickson, who had already been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. More recently, Erickson’s decline is examined in the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me (McAlester 2007). At the time of the documentary, he was living alone with his mother, living a solitary life. While a direct correlation between Roky Erickson and Rob Gordon may be a little drastic, the movie indicates that Rob is headed down the path of isolation and misery that Roky himself experienced. These types of layered readings, where Frears creates a surface meaning, but also suggests a more elaborate reading for music aficianados, are a staple of High Fidelity. It suggests that Frears may be using the music as more than a mere narrative device, but as an indication of some form of narrative complexity that is often overlooked in casual viewings of High Fidelity.
This idea of music as an extension of character makes up most of the film, which features over 50 songs in its 113 minute running time. Although music plays a prominent role, it manages to do so without pulling focus from the straightforward narrative of Rob’s look back on his life and his attempts to win back Laura. Instead, it suggests a more elaborate reading of the characters and their relationship with music, but in a way that dialogue cannot describe. This can be seen in many of the discussions of music throughout the film. As Rob, Dick, and Barry waste time at the store, their discussions typically turn to music. From an outside perspective, their conversations about the validity of a given song seem elitist. This idea of rockism, which is a belief that rock music is a pure art form and some artists are more “authentic” than others, is given voice when Barry harasses Dick for stating his preference of “Little Latin Lupe Lu” by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels over the version of the same song by the Righteous Brothers (Sanneh 2004). Truth be told, the versions of the songs are very similar, but Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels features a little more vocalization, whereas the Righteous Brothers is much more “rock by the numbers.” Joanne Knowles suggests in her book Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: A Reader’s Guide that this indicates “a firm belief in the superiority of traditional rock” but Knowles seems to overlook music as a tool of characterization (Knowles, 80). Barry’s preference seems to support Knowles’s claim. Then again, Barry’s musical choices consist of much more mainstream, such as Katrina and the Waves or at the end when Barry performs a cover of “Let’s Get It On” by Marvin Gaye. Dick’s preference for music seems much more concerned with the music itself, rather than its reception. Taking into account these two different characters, the same song sung by two different artists provides a bit of insight into Barry and Dick’s views of “authentic” music.
Although much of the film is dedicated to “rockism” and a fannish love of obscure music, it is worth noting that pop does have its place in the world of High Fidelity. Most of the songs used in Rob’s flashbacks are chart toppers or at least recognizable to modern audiences. For instance, pop is used as Rob is reminiscing about the second girl on his list of top five heartbreaks, Penny Hardwick. The song “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts plays as the film cuts to Penny and Rob making out in a room full of other young couples kissing. Using popular music from another era in this scene serves a few purposes. The first, and perhaps most obvious, purpose is to give the audience an idea of the environment that the narrative is presenting. It is true that a change in scene is represented visually, such as the camera panning away from present day Rob to present a moppish haired younger version of him or a more obvious cut to a different location. The use of music makes the time period more recognizable without forcing Frears to address it in dialogue or with an intertitle.
Furthermore, it indicates a shift in the character itself. It says to the audience that there was once a time where Rob would deign to listen to something as Top 40 as Joan Jett and the Blackhearts version of “Crimson and Clover.” This is not meant to undercut Joan Jett’s significance as a counterculture icon. But considering that “Crimson and Clover” was a hit, even going so far as to reach number seven on the Billboard charts, it reflects differently on Rob that most of his other “rockist” favorites, which tend to be more obscure to the audience (Bronson 2003, 250). Up until this point, Rob’s characterization has been fairly flat as demonstrated by his despondent and/or aggressive music choices. By illustrating him as more than just a heartbroken protagonist, primarily through the use of popular music, the character’s evolution begins. At the same time, the use of “Crimson and Clover” also indicates that the elitism that Rob displays, most prominently in the beginning of the film, is an acquired trait rather than an innate one. Therefore Frears demonstrates the usefulness of music as a marker of character more than anything else.
This idea of the purposefulness of pop is further indicated when Barry, one of Rob’s employees, comes into work late. “Seymour Stein” by Belle & Sebastian is playing over the stereo when Barry comes in. The music lingers in the background as Rob and Dick are organizing the store. The only time it is brought into the foreground for viewers is when Rob specifically asks Dick what song is playing right before Barry makes his first appearance. The song is soft and melancholy, with only a bare bones guitar and basic drum beat accompanying the vocals. It only plays for about 15 seconds, so the song itself isn’t very well established in the scene. The calm of the store and the music is shattered when Barry enters into the scene. Barry storms into the store, obnoxiously loud, and only stops momentarily to listen to the mellow sounds of Belle & Sebastian. Barry is the most vocal about his rockist beliefs. In most of the scenes that he is in, he picks a fight with either Rob or, more often, Dick about musical tastes. Based on his loud and over the top entrance alone, the audience almost expects him to reject “Seymour Stein.” Barry turns off the music right away; despite Rob making a point to say they were enjoying the song, before turning to Dick and throwing the cassette at him.
Barry begins to blast Katrina and the Waves “Walking on Sunshine” throughout the store. “I used to think maybe you loved me, now baby I’m sure” are the first words that the audience hears, which definitely provides a stark contrast to the previous music but also Rob as well. At this point, Rob has been dumped, but he has not told anyone yet. Therefore, his melancholy and frustration are very much internalized, but expressed by the music he listens to in the film. Rob immediately rejects the song even before it gets to the refrain. It is true that the moods and tones of both of these songs are alarmingly different, but High Fidelity suggests that the tones may not be the only reason for Rob’s objection. Returning to the concept of high art and low art and its existence within the pop genre, there is more than one way to look at Rob’s dismissal of Katrina and the Waves. “Walking on Sunshine” makes a number of appearances in popular culture, racking upwards of $200,000 annually for the rights to use it in commercials and films even today (Blair 2010). Although the most obvious objection to song would be Barry’s presentation, it is worth returning to the idea of rockism and this concept that accessibility makes a song more pedestrian and low brow. Rob effectively banishes the song as seemingly too obvious to modern audiences in a film where musical exclusivity is prized. Therefore, in the simplest terms, Rob rejects pop for a few reasons. One reason would be his rockist tendencies to reject the trendy, as evidenced through the music selection of the film from relatively obscure bands at the time, such as Stereolab and The Beta Band.
More importantly, though, the rejection of “Walking on Sunshine” introduces Rob’s dominance over the record store as well as the audience. After Rob rejects Barry’s Monday morning mix tape, which consists of “Walking on Sunshine”, Barry throws a temper tantrum and tells Rob to go back to listening to his “old sad bastard music.” Rob says that he wants to listen to something that he can ignore. This introduces two different interpretations of the same music. Barry’s reading is dismissive of the music because it isn’t what he wants, which is obnoxiously loud and upbeat. Meanwhile Rob appreciates Belle & Sebastian for how it fits his mood and the general feel of the music as something he can tune out. The audience is practically forced to side with Rob, who has been the audience’s guide and emotional anchor throughout the film, rather than Barry, who has just been introduced in this scene and is barely developed as a character outside the role of comic relief. Once again, Rob establishes his dominance by rejecting all music that is not tailored to his character, and it seems the audience is supposed to side with him. This brings the idea of Rob as the undeniable protagonist of High Fidelity to the surface. Rob is read as the protagonist because of his undeniable influence over the audience.
Not only does he directly commune with viewers through breaking the fourth wall, but also all characters are established through him (Nelson 2004, 27). For instance, the audience is first introduced to Ian, Laura’s new boyfriend in a fantasy sequence of Rob’s. Ian comes into the store and begins to tell Rob to leave her alone because she’s chosen him over Rob. The film provides a variety of scenarios for how Rob deals with the situation, including yelling at him and even getting together with Dick and Berry to beat him up. This is pretty solid evidence that Rob has hostility towards Ian and, as our emotional anchor in the world of High Fidelity, Rob’s feelings towards Ian resonates with most viewers. This is achieved by showing Ian as duplicitous. As Ian explains to Rob that Laura would like to be left alone, it seems as if Ian is enjoying the pain he is putting Rob through. After this scene, Ian is rarely heard from again, but when he is, the audience is supposed to be positioned against him. Through visual examples, like the introduction of Ian in Rob’s fantasy sequence where he is able to beat up Ian, as well as dialogue, such as Rob’s objection to Katrina and the Waves, Rob maintains control, effectively controlling what the audience hears and values.
The introduction of Marie DeSalle, a singer/songwriter, presents a counter to the audience’s understanding of Rob up until this point. Most of High Fidelity has consisted of Rob mourning the women who have gotten away from him, but that changes in Marie’s first scene. Dick has convinced Rob to come out and see Marie perform in an attempt to help Rob forget about Laura. Rob begrudgingly accepts. He is just finishing a tirade on the evils of women, when he arrives at the door of the club. Marie is singing “Baby I Love Your Way”, which Rob only hears faintly before turning to a man outside the club and asks, “Is that Peter fucking Frampton?” This returns to the idea of Rob’s rockism. Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” is, arguably, his most famous song and an example of the overly sentimental songwriting Rob hates. His dislike of the song tells the audience nothing knew about the character, but presents a well-known song that most viewers would recognize and verbally rejects it. Obviously Rob’s aggression is still a problem for him, but he continues to walk inside. The camera examines Marie closely as she sings, before returning to Rob, Dick, and Barry. They watch dumbfounded before Rob says “I always hated that song. Now I kinda like it.” This is perhaps the most obvious character change that Rob undergoes in the film. For instance, he says that he had always hated “Baby I Love Your Way” before hearing Marie sing it, much like he had grown frustrated with women until he sees Marie. Rob excuses pop music because it elicits an emotional reaction from him. Kristina Nelson, author of Narcissism in High Fidelity, suggests, “Rob knows she’s a rock cliché, but she’s so cool”, implying that he is not concerned with her music as much as he is entranced by her (2004, 67). Although it is unclear to the audience what is different about Marie or her music, except for Rob’s obvious physical attraction to her, her music becomes secondary to Rob’s romantic interest in her. In fact, it is worth noting that even the audience is expected to remove themselves from her music. Bonet’s version of “Baby I Love Your Way” cannot be found on the soundtrack and has supposedly never been professionally recorded besides this film. Although many people may recognize the original song or other renditions of it, Bonet’s version is virtually rendered secondary in the film’s soundtrack Regardless of the treatment of Bonet’s music on the soundtrack, it is clear that the few seconds of her rendition of “Baby I Love Your Way” is an obvious turning point for Rob, as he opens himself up to the possibility of dating again after seeing Marie play.
This particular scene also serves another purpose that may easily be overlooked by the casual viewer, particularly in reference to the movie as a whole. The idea of music evoking a time and a place for listeners was already addressed with “Crimson and Clover” but the introduction of Marie helps to formulate a different connection between music and meaning. Rob’s fascination with Marie is indicative of the films ability to create new meaning for a song. While it is difficult to say whether or not Rob would have fallen in love with Marie’s music if it had not been for her physical beauty, her image is a necessary component in their relationship. Furthermore, it is the exact same that the audience is doing by watching High Fidelity. For example, most people have probably heard “Walking on Sunshine” before this movie. However, its use in High Fidelity allows for audience members to re-contextualize the song in the setting of the film. The same can be said of when Rob walks in on Marie’s set to hear her playing “Baby I Love Your Way.” Even moments before he sees her, when he looks at the man outside the club in disbelief, he has a clearly formulated opinion on the song. It is clear to the audience that he does not like the song, but when he sees the woman playing it, something changes. This scene does not feature a lot of dialogue, nor does Rob break the fourth wall to let the audience in on what he is thinking, so what changes is unclear. However, judging by how the camera lingers on close ups of Marie as she sings, it is clear that her appearance is a factor in Rob’s reevaluation of the song. The camera examines her face closely before returning to Rob’s dumbstruck face. Nevertheless, the way Frears privileges the visual in regards to music, at least in certain instances, for both his characters and his audience suggests a complexity that most people may overlook when watching High Fidelity.
However, one of the final songs of the film is the most telling. After Laura’s father dies from angina. Rob shows up to pay his respects to Laura’s deceased father and his remaining family. In a mix of desperation and despair, Laura and Rob end up having sex so that Laura can feel something other than grief. Their reunion ends up being more permanent than either had imagined, resulting in them moving back in together. The final scene shows Rob in an armchair, telling the camera how to make the perfect mixtape. He then explains that he is making one for Laura. Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe (When I Fall in Love)” blares as the credits begin to roll.
This scene is significant for a number of reasons, most notably as an expression of Rob’s reform. Throughout the movie, Rob discusses music in relation to his own life. He tells the audience the songs that he likes and the songs that he can’t stand. Even more directly, most of the songs that Rob plays are songs of heartbreak and misery. This is not to say that the whole soundtrack of High Fidelity is made up of these types of songs, as exemplified in Marie’s version of “Baby I Love Your Way”, but most of Rob’s music is a musical manifestation of his own thoughts and feelings. At the films end, Rob says, “Anyways, I started to make a tape, in my head, for Laura. Full of stuff she’d like. Full of stuff that’d make her happy.” Rob even accentuates Laura’s name and words like “her” which provides a clear demonstration that his focus has shifted from his own wants and needs. He now recognizes that part of being in a relationship means taking care of the other person as well, in this case Laura. Furthermore, when this song is compared to Rob’s previous musical selections, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love)” is the most blatantly optimistic song featured on the soundtrack. The song title alone references its positive attitude, but the way that the movie presents the song is important as well. His narration obscures the beginning of the song, which is largely about the heartbreak of losing love but he pulls the headphones out as the music swells and blasts the refrain “I believe when I fall in love with you, it will be forever.” The rest of the song is filled with Stevie Wonder’s musings on love and how he will never give up on love. This overly optimistic song illustrates a change in the character that is expressed powerfully through the use of music, rather than a jumble of clichés and platitudes about love. Once again, the lyrics and the music itself present information in a way that dialogue couldn’t have without coming off as maudlin or overly sentimental.
However, ending this film with a Stevie Wonder song also serves as an in-joke for the musically aware. In an earlier scene, a customer comes in looking for “I Just called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder for his daughter. Barry ridicules the man, even going so far as to say “it’s sentimental, tacky crap” before the customer storms out. By including ‘I Believe”, Frears returns to engaging the audience, but only those who are knowledgeable enough about Stevie Wonder’s work to make the connection between Barry’s tirade and Rob’s mix tape. Factoring in the previous scene, High Fidelity assigns more meaning to the song selection than Rob’s desire to make Laura happy. In essence, it is Rob’s total surrender and even dismissal of his former rockist views. This is a neither a positive nor a negative thing, but rather, an example of Frear’s ability to demonstrate the evolution of Rob over the course of the film.
Music is used in a variety of ways throughout the course of High Fidelity. It allows viewers to get into the mind of Rob in a way that can’t be put into words without ruining the rhythm of the movie. It is a crucial element of the story world, but it also manages to engage the audience outside of its narrative purpose. On the surface level, there are obvious meanings to most of the song selections But by exploring the stories behind the music and how the songs unfold within the movie, it becomes clear that High Fidelity has a great deal going on that may not be understood in a casual viewing. High Fidelity stands as a testament to the intricate relationship between pop music and ourselves as well as pop music in the world of film.

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4 thoughts on “‘High Fidelity’: Music’s Relationship to Relationships

  1. Love love love High Fidelity! And I’m not a music afficionado… But it’s so interesting to read this so I’ll have another context when watching it again (for the 20 or 30th time).

    • I like those numbers haha
      It’s always interesting to watch a movie through a different lens and I think High Fidelity holds up really well. I’ll be interested to know what you think the 21st or 31st time around

  2. There are so many songs that I like that I can’t really defend or explain why they’re good but they’re indelibly connected to a romance or a crush and the song’s quality is amplified.

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