As much as I enjoyed the first few episodes of High Fidelity, the new Hulu series based on Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel and the 2000 film that followed, I didn’t fully grasp how necessary it was until the fifth episode. In a scene toward the middle of “Uptown,” Rob, the crate-digging record-shop owner played by Zoë Kravitz, and her kinda-maybe suitor, Clyde (Jake Lacy), get into a conversation with a middle-aged guy named Tim who is just as obsessed with music as Rob is. For reasons that don’t need to be spoiled here, Rob and Clyde have just met Tim and are trying to assess his character. They initially conclude that he’s cool.
But the more he talks, the more Rob has her doubts. Tim starts going on and on about rock history but directs his words at Clyde, completely ignoring Rob, who, unlike Clyde, actually has something to contribute. When Tim mentions the live Paul McCartney and Wings album Wings Over America and says it came out in 1984, Rob interjects. Tim is wrong, she says. It was 1976.
Tim — who, in a perfect bit of casting, is portrayed by Jeffrey Nordling, the same actor you may recognize as Gordon from Big Little Lies — cocks his head and smirks at her. “You a big McCartney fan?,” he asks, in a tone that drips with enough condescension to leave a puddle of assumed superiority in its wake. Rob casually responds, “Big enough to know when that album came out, which was 1976.” (Reader, in case this isn’t obvious, that album totally came out in 1976.) She goes on to describe the triple live album in great detail, offering her opinion on its vocal overdubs, and noting how solid its live version of “Maybe I’m Amazed” is. She clearly knows what she’s talking about. Tim still won’t admit he’s wrong.
This was the moment I felt fully seen in a way I hadn’t in the previous incarnations of High Fidelity. And it was the moment that cemented how vital it was to reboot this show with a black woman in the role originally written for a white British dude.
I have been Rob in that Wings Over America conversation — maybe not in a specific disagreement about the release date of a McCartney album, but I have been her in similar conversations about music, in which a guy expressed either doubt or surprise that I know or care so much about the Beastie Boys or U2. This kind of thing has happened in other pop-cultural contexts, too. I have had the works of Quentin Tarantino mansplained to me for nearly three decades in just about every form of communication that exists: verbally, on a first date in 1995; via email, from readers who are certain they know better than I do because I am a “feminist”; and on Twitter, as recently as a few months ago, when I dared to publicly express my thoughts about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. And don’t get me started on the way women are condescended to during conversations about sports. At a recent Super Bowl party, when a female friend and I happened to be the only two people watching the first quarter of the Chiefs-49ers game, a guy entered the room and noted it was nice that we “girls” were so interested in the game. That’s just a taste of my personal experience, and it’s worth noting that a woman of color like Rob would be even more likely to receive this kind of judgment, perhaps with an extra dose of superiority.
While plenty of men see women as equals and can have wonderful, lively conversations about anything with them, it’s still astonishing how frequently guys presume to be the de facto experts on certain subjects. Sports is probably the No. 1 area in which those misguided stereotypes still hold, but if we’re ranking things — and we’re talking about High Fidelity here, so obviously we are — music has to be No. 2.
Within the music industry itself, things are still lopsided in terms of gender. The “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” report, released annually by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and based on Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end charts between 2012 and 2019, found that only 21.7 percent of popular artists, 12.5 percent of songwriters, and a mere 2.6 percent of producers are women. As NPR reported last month, less than 8 percent of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have been women. Read album reviews in pretty much any major media outlet and you’re more likely to see a man’s byline than a woman’s.
The culture around us has reinforced the notion that music and the appreciation of it are a man’s domain. Think of the 1982 movie Diner, in which Daniel Stern’s Shrevie gets into a screaming match with his wife, Beth (Ellen Barkin), because she had the audacity to play a record but not put it back in the exact proper spot based on his organizational system. “It’s just music,” she tells him, after he explodes when she says she neither knows who Charlie Parker is nor that his album should be filed under jazz. “It’s not that big of a deal.”
“You never ask me what’s on the flip side of the record,” Shrevie says, after he proves to Beth that he can name the B side on any 45 in his collection.
“No, because I don’t give a shit,” she responds. “Shrevie, who cares about what’s on the flip side of a record?”
“I do!,” he counters.
Music really matters to Shrevie, but to his wife, it’s just something she likes listening to and nothing more. This is the bias, conscious or unconscious, that is still often brought to conversations about music. Women like it and may even know a little about it, but men are the ones who truly care about it. They’re the ones who really get it.
For the record (no pun … well, maybe a little pun intended), that bias is present in certain aspects of the first two versions of High Fidelity, too. In Hornby’s novel and the movie starring John Cusack, Dick and Barry, the employees at Rob’s record shop, are guys who spend most of their time trying to one-up each other’s musical tastes or insult the customers for theirs. In the novel, Dick’s new girlfriend, Anna, is presented as a woman who likes pop music but needs to be properly educated by Dick. “Anna’s a Simple Minds fan,” Dick tells Rob upon introducing her them. “But I think she’s beginning to understand why she shouldn’t be.” In a slight twist for the movie, Annaugh (Sara Gilbert) is a Green Day fan, and Dick teaches her about bands that influenced them. He seems impressed when she already knows the Clash had a major impact on Billie Joe Armstrong and his bandmates. A woman who knows of the Clash and how they affected the pop-punk that followed? Wow, all things are truly possible!
In the book and in the movie, Rob sleeps with Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet), a musician whom he deems out of his league. But she is less a peer or someone who can teach him a few things about songwriting than she is an object of fantasy. Marie has slept with rock stars, which, by the transitive property of music-fan sex, means Rob has slept with rock stars too. This is a huge turn-on for him.
Despite these less than enlightened details, though, I loved both High Fidelity the book — for real, it is one of my favorite novels of all time — and the movie because I saw something of myself in Rob. Like me, he loves music. Like me, he is a meticulous mixtape- and playlist-maker. Like me, he fixates a lot on his past. When I read that famous line in the book, repeated in the Hulu series, about how “what really matters is what you like, not what you are like,” I did a full Meryl Streep Yes! GIF. I mean, obviously, that’s bullshit, and Rob eventually acknowledges that what you’re like is really important. But the idea that the pop culture that speaks to you is intertwined with your identity, a notion so commonly understood that it’s passé in 2020, was an exciting thing to see admitted out in the open back in the mid-1990s when Hornby’s novel was published. This was around the time when the characters in Reality Bites were playing drinking games that required them to name episodes of Good Times and when the aforementioned Mr. Tarantino turned one of his early scenes in Pulp Fiction into a lengthy explanation of how pilot season works. Even if the creators of some of these works weren’t Gen-Xers — Hornby is a boomer, and Tarantino is too, though just barely — it was clear they understood how young people at the time related to one another. Gen X’s love language was pop culture, and every time a book or a film or a TV show spoke it, it sounded like poetry to me.
But that love language also tended to be spoken and interpreted most often by men. I remember actively thinking as a young writer that I wanted to be the female Nick Hornby, while at the same time being uncertain that such a thing was possible. I didn’t think there was space for me to write the kinds of things he did. Fast-forward a few decades and here we are, looking at a High Fidelity TV show in which Rob is quite literally the daughter of Marie De Salle (Bonet is Kravitz’s mother in real life) and it’s possible for this Rob, who is also sexually fluid, to have the same concerns that Hornby Rob and Cusack Rob possessed. She’s just as self-involved and noncommittal and just as obsessed with music and creating playlists that build and crescendo at exactly the right moments.
Some critics have dinged this new High Fidelity for being too repetitive of the original. As I said in my review, I think it diverges in enough ways that make it feel different. But as I’ve digested the series, I’ve realized the similarities are what actually make the gender flipping so powerful. Not only is Rob now a woman, but in this incarnation, two of the three Championship Vinyl employees are also women. That’s a better ratio than in any of the music-industry jobs cited in that Annenberg study. Those two women care about rock, hip-hop, and pop and discuss them with as much fervor as the men did in the novel and the movie. Some of the dialogue is even the same, because guess what: It’s totally believable and normal that a woman would think and express herself the way a man might.
Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is as passionate and loud about her musical opinions as Jack Black’s Barry was, and at no point does she have to tone it down or cede the floor to anybody. Simon (David H. Holmes), the Hulu series’s version of Dick, also starts dating someone new, as the earlier character had with Anna/Annaugh. But Simon is gay, so that someone is a guy, and while he doesn’t seem to be as well versed in music as Simon or his friends are, he isn’t talked down to because of that. And unlike in the original High Fidelity, when a man like Tim talks down to, or just plain past, a woman because he figures she doesn’t care, to the degree that he basically erases her existence, he’s shown to be what he is: an asshole. In this High Fidelity, the interests and behavior of many of the women dovetail with those of the men, and the show makes a point of calling out how absurd it is when men are oblivious to that overlap.
What’s lovely about Kravitz’s Rob is that she doesn’t seem plagued by a compulsion to impose her preferences on others. Yes, she wears a Beastie Boys shirt pretty frequently, and all the top-five list-making she does and the playlists she sends to others are ways of announcing her tastes. But when she speaks to the camera or explains what makes a particular track so exceptional, it doesn’t feel as if she’s trying to force us to agree with her. Even in arguments with Cherise and Simon, she expresses herself but doesn’t insist on proving she’s right. That was Rob’s problem in the original High Fidelity. The things he liked were so unhealthily embedded in his notion of self that someone’s rejecting his taste meant they were rejecting him. It takes him the whole novel to finally learn that he’s wrong, that making a playlist for his girlfriend, Laura, isn’t about forcing her to mirror his musical sensibilities; it’s about giving her something to listen to that she will love as much as he loves what comes out of his own headphones. I would never have thought about it in these terms in 1995, but High Fidelity isn’t just a book about a guy learning to appreciate the woman he loves; it’s about a man being cured of his toxic masculinity.
The new Rob doesn’t have that issue. I mean, she does have issues: She can be judgmental at times, and she really wants other people to listen to and like the music she likes. But if you like an artist or a song that she doesn’t, at least in this first season, it doesn’t seem to irk her as much as it irked Rob 1.0. She cares deeply about what’s on the flip side of the record, but she won’t shun you if you don’t care as much. She is, in a way, the kind of female Nick Hornby I always knew existed. Finally, there is room for her.