Imperfect Yet Liberated, Hulu’s High Fidelity Is Worth The Watch

A few weeks ago, I returned to my record store after a busy morning of very unsexy but totally essential record store errands. Change from the bank, shoring up a plumber to fix the broken toilet, shifting bought records to another area for processing, and picking up lunch. My life and business partner Travis looked at me and says, “You missed a really fun new customer.” Damn, I think, I hate it when I’m running errands and this happens. As he retells it, a person we’ll call K had binged the Hulu reboot of High Fidelity and decided to see if our town still had record stores. To “her pleasant surprise” Travis recounted, it did. He smiled in the details of the purchase and the general joy K seemed to experience in our record store.

Until this point, I had been reticent to embrace the show. One, I do not love the film adaptation of Nick Hornsby’s High Fidelity. Re-watching even part of it feels like having to re-live a time period where femme clerks at a record store were unicorns and gatekeeping was cool. Two, coming home from a long day of working at a record store does not make one want to decompress with a show about long days working at a record store. Three, I had read reviews, several written by women, who viewed the show as “unnecessary,” another empty Hollywood gender-switch, and even worse, a “morally suspect” revision where women had been cast to redeem the stories of men. If I didn’t find it grating, it seemed sure to break my heart.

K’s engagement with Travis and our store though had left me curious. Humans do not tend to modify their behaviors. K, however, disrupted her patterns seeking out a brick and mortar record store after watching a show about them. I decided that if another human had watched this show and took to the effort to come into my store, then I should give it a chance. Plus, my good friend and regular Monday employee Jamie had promised me the Shazam joke in the first episode would not disappoint. I can still hear him laughing just thinking about that joke. 

Turns out, there is much to love about the series. I feared it would weigh me down, but it just lifted me up. 

The super nerd in me certainly cringed several times throughout the series. The first-person narrative feels overly narcissistic, a crutch held over from the earlier version. The stacks of records piled high in Rob’s apartment or the lazy way she tosses them on the turntable make me want to go into her living room, pour her a glass of wine, and have a loving take-care-of-your-records-come-to-Jesus moment. And for the love of Sylvester, PLEASE put that misplaced Manhattan Transfer record in front of the Camper Van Beethoven marker back next to the Madonna section where it belongs. The record is directly in front of the check-out counter for three full episodes— you all are killing me. 

I kept watching through inconsistencies because these characters felt kindred, the exact opposite of how I felt watching the original film. Rob (Zoe Kravitz), Simon (David H. Holmes), and Cherise (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) were people I wanted to spend time with rather than run from. The music felt fresh, attended too with great care, and offered a kind of sonic parity. The show is not perfect, but I was having fun and more importantly, I somehow felt like I was being seen.

The music will set you free

I spent the first half of the series enamored with the way music was used to narrate these voices. The obsessive listing as a trope is still there, but the soundtrack choices and chosen signifiers suggest a new take on the old narrative. ESG’s “My Love For You” cements Rob’s agency during a sexy intoxicated fling with a “nice” man she’s just met. That beat, those voices, let us know she’s in control of this moment if not in control of what’s in her fridge or to be honest, the rest of her life. Darondo’s “Didn’t I” and “I’m Lonely” bookend the rise and fall of Rob’s relationship with Mac, number 5 on her heartbreak list and the main relationship focus of the series. Those songs, so vulnerable, are important because they simultaneously capture a very specific kind of joy and pain. Ann Peebles “I Can’t Stand the Rain” spins on Rob’s turntable, as she sits silent and alone and lost, rain tapping outside her apartment window. The music is thick, textured and makes space for alternative music icons to take center stage.

The many album covers of High Fidelity

Physical albums and ephemera do additional work to set scenes, point us towards character’s politics and preferences and offer kinship for a new audience of music-oriented viewers. A poster of Prince prominently located behind her desk is coupled with a copy of Grace Jones’ iconic Nightclubbing. In an episode devoted to Simon’s past heartbreaks, Blood Orange’s (Dev Hynes) first album is the only visible front-facing record in the room and located intimately near his bed. When Cherise schools a customer on the classics, she cites The Talking Head’s Stop Making Sense, but the record on top of the stack, that we must assume we missed Cherise talking about mere minutes before we entered the scene, is Anita Baker’s Giving You The Best That I Got.   

This is a Championship Vinyl that I want to visit. It supports black artists, it prioritizes eclecticism, it voices a love of disco and pop. The Beatles are clearly labeled in the bins– but they are surrounded by Big Freedia, Frankie Cosmos, Ani DiFranco, Funkadelic, and Liz Phair. Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde is still name-dropped as a classic, but now coupled with “Blonde or Blonde on Blonde” subtly and rightly adding Frank Ocean into the canon.

Representation matters, even when it’s imperfect.

This democratization of music, in a television format that takes room to veer from the original script, and a diverse cast of complex characters makes High Fidelity more than a simple Hollywood gender-switch. 

There is a phenomenal episode, “Uptown,” written by E.T. Feigenbaum and Kravitz that tackles the mansplaining and invisibility women experience regularly in the music industry. Quite frankly, these moments have been such a systemic occurrence in my professional life it’s too traumatic to watch again but if you choose to watch nothing else, watch this episode. This is a woman’s experience and a boon to the High Fidelity narrative. 

My favorite episode is the one that follows, “Weird and Warm.”  Weird and Warm (directed by Natasha Lyon and written by Celeste Hughey) is the only episode both directed and written by women in the first season. What I adore about this particular episode is how it re-invents the store AND the people who work there and begins to tear apart how this iteration of High Fidelity can stay true to the original narrative and offer a necessary and important intervention into record store and music industry discourse.

The record store is busy disrupting the antiquated fledgling status thus far framing Championship Vinyl. This level of activity in the year 2020 on a Saturday in Crown Heights with seemingly thoughtful consumers suggests that Championship Vinyl is doing just fine. They might even be kinda killing it. Simon is introducing a happy, nerdy full-of-joy white guy, to William Onyeabor. “I always wished that Sly was more like Fela but still like Sly ya know?” says the customer. “Yeah,” Simon shakes his head in nonchalant agreement “I know.” The data filled dialogue once used by gatekeepers of record stores past gets flipped. There’s no ego, there’s no competition, just the joy of discovering something new.

Rob and Cherise are even more central to the expanding narrative. One minute Cherise is teasing her boss/friend about her love interests, another Rob is perpetually telling Cherise to go back to work or get serious about her music, and then in a split second the two, once in tension, hit a harmonic stride toward the door to chase after a pair of young shoplifters. The scene, scored to Stiff Little Fingers‘ “Alternative Ulster,” is my absolute favorite of the series. I won’t ruin it for you, just watch it. It is irreverent and hilarious. It is committed, the women full of love for each other and the store whether they realize it or not, and it demonstrates how record store relationships actually work. 

We also get to tour Electric Ladyland studios in this episode in a beautiful gender-bending arrangement of power where Rob’s critique becomes central to a recording session with her on again off again artist beau. Jack Antonoff, who plays himself, goes out to for Falafel and then waxes poetic about how good it is since Rob has managed to get what he needed from the artist. It’s simple and perfect. The authority of the studio is shared and collaborative, the gendered labor of food provisions re-distributed. 

These humans, beautiful, brown, queer and kind are the faces and voices we need more of in record stores. These narrative disruptions make more room for them and me and the thousands of store employees and music consumers that did not fit into High Fidelity’s original packaging. That’s a gift.

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Lisa Foster
Lisa Foster runs the award-winning independent record store, Guestroom Records, in Louisville, KY with her partner Travis Searle and serves as a marketing consultant for sister Guestroom Records stores in Oklahoma City and Norman, OK. Foster is a vinyl DJ, a freelance writer, a published scholar, and a perpetual soap-box talker on a broad range of topics at the intersection of music, industry, politics, and culture. She will ALWAYS have a treat for your dog at her store, two if it’s a Shih Tzu or an old pup of any genre, and is eternally grateful to records and the folx who love them for bringing her home.

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