The Music and the MiseryHulu’s New “High Fidelity” Upends a Male Classic

Zoë Kravitz as Robyn in High Fidelity (Photo credit: Phillip Caruso/Hulu)

In what’s arguably the best episode of Hulu’s new series High Fidelity, record-shop owner Robyn “Rob” Brooks (Zoë Kravitz) is summoned to the sprawling home of a woman who is selling a record collection that’s the stuff of any music geek’s dreams—first pressings, rare imports, original picture sleeves, the works. Noreen, the woman selling it, is an artist played by Parker Posey, so you already know things are soon to become an amazing and possibly wacky adventure, and they soon do: As Rob discovers one vinyl gem after the other, Noreen announces that she will only sell the enormous collection in its entirety, for the sum of $20. It belongs to her cheating husband, and selling it is an act of revenge in the guise of conceptual art. The prospect of literally selling out a fellow record collector gnaws at Rob’s conscience: Does Noreen’s husband deserve such a brutal comeuppance? Does anyone?

She and her one-night-stand–turned–maybe boyfriend, Clyde (Jake Lacy), decide to do some recon on the husband, tracking him down at the Carlyle Hotel’s famous Bemelman’s Bar and luring him into some light music talk, which he’s happy to do—with Clyde, anyway. Tim, the husband (played by Jeffrey Nordling, who has evidently found a niche portraying asshole collectors: He’s also Renata’s model train–collecting spouse, Gordon, on Big Little Lies) ignores Rob’s repeated attempts to weigh in, even when Clyde verbally signals her expertise and his own lack of it. Eventually, Rob gets Tim’s attention by catching him in a factual misstatement; predictably, he chafes at being corrected by a woman, and says to Clyde: “Quite a little firecracker you’ve got there… trust me, it gets old,” a comment not at all subtle given that his much younger girlfriend is sitting right next to him, utterly silent. But despite clear evidence that Noreen’s husband ranks high on a list of d-bags who don’t deserve their impeccable stash of vinyl, Rob can’t bring herself to pull the trigger.

The episode, titled “Uptown,” was adapted and expanded from a scene cut from the 2000 High Fidelity, which was itself based on Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel about a morose record-shop owner, Rob (played in the film by John Cusack), mourning a breakup in the only way he knows how—by organizing his history of heartbreak in the form of a top-five list to figure out where things went wrong. Hulu’s adaptation flips the gender (and shifts the race) of the brooding figure at its center, but otherwise pulls liberally from both the movie and the book. And “Uptown” goes a long way toward illustrating where—and why—it both succeeds and fails.

High Fidelity was always a witty, exquisitely self-aware portrait of men who confuse playlists with personality. Rob and his employees, Barry (Jack Black) and Dick (Todd Louiso), act as avatars for a long history of men colonizing music fandom as a space free from women where they can use their knowledge of obscure B-sides to shore up their own insecurities and jockey for position with other men. The intra-male competition that might among different men be worked out in a pickup basketball game turns Rob’s store, Championship Vinyl, into a musty Thunderdome where winning means stumping your rivals with esoteric references, and the question “How can it be bullshit to state a preference?” is the equivalent of bringing a bendy straw to a knife fight.


This is not to say that people of other genders do not hold strong opinions on the five best Side 2 Song 1 of 1976. But, historically, any claim by women to the same knowledge held by record-store guys has been roundly ignored or discounted because it doesn’t come from other men. On paper, Kravitz’s Rob could have gone the predictable route of the “cool girl” whose tolerance for the bluster of male record geeks made her an object of love or lust; in the show’s reality, she’s a self-involved mess who, after a broken engagement to an apparently flawless British man named Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir) has spent a year wearing down the patience of her friends and family.

The comedy and the pathos of the Robs at the center of both the book and the film lay in their slowly dawning realization that music, the only way they could communicate, was suddenly insufficient in a world where fellow adults use their words. Their breakups and attempts to reconnect with old girlfriends were meant as windows into the minds of men who have managed to reach adulthood without fully registering women as humans who exist outside of their fantasies. The life-and-love philosophy articulated by previous Robs—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—was not meant to make audiences see Rob as alluring or smart; rather, it was a giant neon arrow warning CAUTION: STUNTED MAN-BOY AHEAD. The line is repeated in the Hulu series, too, but it doesn’t quite translate when Kravitz’s Rob says it because women music fans—especially if they’re Black—have never had the luxury of separating what they like from what they are like.

Her interaction with Noreen’s husband at Bemelman’s bar is instructive: Rob eventually communicates what she likes, which is talking about music and being precise about the release date of Wings Over America. But as soon as that happens, what she is like—namely, a woman with the temerity to know more than a record-store guy, and to say so—becomes all that he sees. The new High Fidelity answers the question of whether this record-store woman has a record-store guy’s reflexive, uninterrogated vision of herself as a kind of musical savior to her love interests—constructing mixtapes or playlists for their musical edification, explaining why you can’t love both Marvin Gaye and Art Garfunkel: she doesn’t. In “Uptown,” Rob digs through Tim’s collection as Clyde—a rock-climbing, Dave Matthews–loving bro—looks on, but rather than lording her vast store of minutiae over him, she’s sharing her delight in what she finds. Her reluctance to be a party to Noreen’s revenge plan is frustrating to watch (you own a flailing record shop in an age of streaming! buy the damn records!) but speaks to the internalized sexism that’s often a result of being the only girl in the room, simultaneously invisible and all too conspicuous—something High Fidelity often squanders the chance to explore.

The show’s various nods to what makes the experience of a female Rob different from her predecessors are fun and canny, though: It’s Blondie’s Debbie Harry, rather than Bruce Springsteen, whom a lovesick Rob conjures up to dispense sage words of advice; Stevie Wonder’s “I Believe,” used as the movie’s closer to celebrate Rob’s tentative steps into romantic maturity, is here repurposed for a scene of Rob’s coworker Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) quietly working toward her own career as a performer. And Rob’s preoccupation with curating the perfect playlist isn’t a performative courtship ritual meant to show off her unimpeachable taste, but the soundtrack to the new, specific heartbreak of finding out her ex has returned to New York with his new fiancé.

Women music fans—especially if they’re Black—have never had the luxury of separating what they like from what they are like.

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It also changes the dynamic of the workplace, where Rob is employer, friend, and trivia combatant to Cherise and Simon (David Holmes). Both characters follow the basic contours of the book and film’s record-guy archetypes—one pale, quiet, and precise, the other a bomb cyclone of unfiltered enthusiasm that swings wildly between condescension and longing—but they’re scripted more fully here, each interesting on their own but fizzing with chemistry as a trio with Rob. Admittedly, it would be difficult in 2020 to justify a focus on three white, male self-styled gatekeepers of “real” music (particularly in the show’s setting, the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights), but recasting Dick and Barry as a gay man and a plus-size Black woman also makes the point, often hilariously, that music snobbery is annoying no matter who you are.

The show successfully updates some of the movie’s jokes—Barry refusing to sell Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” on aesthetic grounds becomes Cherise refusing to sell Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall on, well, child-molesting grounds. It also offers up an easter egg or two—for instance, the bar Rob and her coworkers retire to is DeSalle’s; in the film, musician Marie DeSalle is played by Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet. But it is worth asking whether a show about a group of young, diverse, music-loving Brooklyn residents benefits from the narrative parameters of a book and movie whose DNA is straight, white men. That’s not a knock on either: High Fidelity remains one of my (top 20, all-time) favorite books in part because of Nick Hornby’s deft, good-natured willingness to lampoon the record shop as a sacred male space of esoteric knowledge and one-upmanship while sheepishly acknowledging himself as kin.

But it’s precisely this that makes High Fidelity often feel like a missed opportunity to use its gender-swapping of the Rob character to explore the gendered cultural narratives enshrined in both book and movie. The male Rob, after all, is simple to read: He’s jealous that his longtime girlfriend has grown up without him and deals with it by retreating into the solipsism of his record collection. Female Rob, meanwhile, remains opaque until the very end of the season, even after we learn much more about what led to her messy breakup with Mac: For all her bouts of playlist-making mania, there’s little evidence that Rob depends on music to be her proxy for the difficult decisions of love and adulthood, and there’s no question that gender plays a part in this difference. High Fidelity is an update that feels timely while remaining true to much of its source materials’ ultimately softhearted optimism. The series hasn’t yet been renewed for a second season, but the prospect that it’ll expand its narrative beyond that of its predecessors is just as hopeful. And maybe we’ll finally find out what became of Noreen and that killer record collection.  

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by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.