Back in the 1980s, when I was a senior in college, I had a classmate. Let’s call him Ray. Ray was popular with women, mainly for two reasons. He looked so much like the young Paul McCartney that girls would occasionally slip up and call him “Paul” instead of “Ray.” Ray also had the best record collection at Rutgers University. His dorm room looked like a record store. If there was an obscure English punk band, he had a poster up on his wall. If a local band put out a demo tape, somehow he got hold of it. Ray was a one-man counter-culture. While every frat boy or pseudo-frat-boy was listening to Springsteen or U2 , Ray was listening to Depeche Mode, Echo and the Bunneymen, Joy Division, or Robin Hitchcock and the Egyptians. Ray was an Irish American, but he had a Anglophile’s taste in alternative music.
Ray was the first person I thought about as I watched John Cusack’s performance in Steven Frears’ 2000 film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity. Not only does John Cusack’s Rob Gordon look a bit like a the 30-something Paul McCartney. He reminds me a little bit of a grown up version of Ray from college, although “grown up” might not be the best word to describe him. Rob, who owns an independent record store in Chicago, like Ray, is popular with women. But since he’s no longer a 20-year-old college undergraduate, being able to talk a girl into a date on short notice doesn’t mean quite as much as it used to. High Fidelity opens with Rob getting dumped by Laura, his live in girlfriend. Laura, a tall, elegant blond lawyer played by the Danish actress Iben Hjejle has outgrown him. Rob was fine when she dyed her hair pink, but now she’s ready to move on. Laura also has her eye on “Ian,” a yuppie played by Tim Robbins who, at first glance, seems a lot more promising as husband material than an underachieving Paul McCartney lookalike who owns a record store. Rob, who’s better at attracting women than in holding onto them, and, more importantly, who’s feeling his age, starts to examine his past. What went wrong?
What went wrong is probably not what Rob, Laura, or even Steve Fears and Nick Hornby think went wrong, but first things first.
High Fidelity has a happy ending. Rob, even before the age of Facebook, manages to track down and make contact with just about every girl or woman he’s dated since junior high-school. None of them live up to his nostalgic memory. Whether or not Rob lives up to theirs is left unexplored. Laura, in turn, realizes that Ian is no Rob. Tim Robins is no John Cusack, and they start to drift back together. Rob has been a shitty boyfriend. He’s borrowed money he’s never paid back. He’s cheated on her. He’s occasionally clueless about the state of her emotions. But emotional ties once made and cultivated over the course of two years aren’t so easily severed. Laura’s father dies. He’s always liked Rob, and the shock of losing a parent convinces Laura that she doesn’t want to suffer the loss of yet another connection to the past. It’s not exactly the perfect reason to get married but Laura, and, in turn Rob, who’s ready to put his womanizing ways behind him, finally realize that the perfect is the enemy of the good. They look into each other’s eyes and see, in each other, the last chance for happiness. It’s now or never. It’s time to shit or get off the pot.
So what went wrong, and why won’t Rob and Laura live happily ever after?
When Laura thought she was dumping Rob because she had outgrown him, she was only half right. When she convinced herself to take him back, she was only half wrong. After Rob “discovers” an obscure local punk band, and starts his own label to distribute their music, Laura is convinced that he’s changed. You’re no longer just a critic, she remarks. You’re a creator, a man who’s bringing something new into the world. Rob and Laura may, in fact, live to celebrate their 50th anniversary, but it won’t be that easy.
Rob, who owns a record store, seems to have very little interest in music. The running joke is that his two employees, the nebbishy Dick, and the obnoxious, overbearing Barry care about music too much. They’re little boys. Rob is the grownup because he defines himself, not by what music he listens to, but by what woman he’s dating. Rob’s very identity depends on being attractive to women. High Fidelity, a movie released in 2000 and based on a novel written in 1995, testifies to how astonishingly fast the world moves in the digital age. It’s 2015, and Rob’s record store went out of business a long time ago. Rob and Laura’s kids, if they have them, all have iPods. None of them listen to alternative rock. It’s either Beyonce or Taylor Swift. Vinyl, CDs, independent record labels, and punk rock might are ancient history.
But the real change didn’t come in 2003 with the iPod or in 1992 with the Internet. It came in the 1970s and 1980s, with the transformation of the industrial economy into the consumer economy. Like my old college house-mate Ray, young Rob (and we can assume Rob had more interest in music when he opened his record store than he does at the beginning of the movie) made himself cool by becoming a good consumer, having a sense of style. He knew where to see the new bands. He knew how to dress. He know what was popular, and what would be popular. He could date women — like Charlie Nicholson played by Catherine Zeta Jones – who were far above his station in life, not because he landed a good job at 23 and built up a big stock portfolio, but because he had amassed what, for lack of a better word, we’ll call “cultural capital.” But cultural capital in the age of Facebook and Twitter isn’t what it was back in the 1980s. It takes more than just knowing who the newest trendy bands from the UK are. Anybody in 2015 who knows how to use Google has infinitely more information, and cultural capital, then Ray did in 1988 or Rob Gordon did in 1995. And it doesn’t make you cool.
Laura, who thinks Rob’s outgrown his identity as a consumer and a womanizer might be right. But it might also be wishful thinking. Only time will tell. I wonder sometimes what ever happened to Ray. I’ve never Googled his name or stalked him on Facebook. His name is so common it’s probably more trouble than it’s worth. But if I can find him, I can probably make an educated guess about how Rob and Laura ended up. Are you out there Ray? Are you reading this? Have you cyberstalked me? If so, leave a comment. I’d love to get back in touch.