Why Fidelity?

Last week, one of the amalgam of Andys who make my Facebook page such a pleasure to visit (see last week’s post) put up a post “listing 15 movies that will always stay with me, and tagging the shit out of 15 people to do the same.”

I’ve got one. Quick — top five most Hornby-esque blog topics!

[Are you the sort of saddo who makes top five lists? Are you the type of cool guy who doesn’t make top five lists? Sign up for more personal apoplectic.me tiny letter distributions here.]

I was one of those 15 people, and by yesterday I had a list of two dozen films to whittle down. It was in the back of my mind that this might make a blog post. You know, with a quick reflection on what it is that makes lists of things so appealing to people.

Oh god, I’ve made a terrible mistake.

So of course I googled “nick hornby high fidelity why we make lists,” because

all along the [story of High Fidelity, the protagonist’s] internal monologue summarizes and evaluates his past. His constant exhumation of his romantic biography cannot be separated from his connoisseurship of rock. Rob’s experiences, both erotic and audio, social and private, become filtered and ordered through a grid familiar to the pop fanatic: the top-five list.

So says Barry Faulk in Love, Lists and Class in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (Cultural Critique, No. 66, University of Minnesota Press). I read High Fidelity for the first time in Philadelphia in 1996, having brought it from my home in Edinburgh. What fun! It showcased the quality of Hornby’s writing, as well as his companionable voice. I’ll never forget Hornby, a former schoolteacher, having the Union Square Barnes & Noble audience eating out of his hand on the book tour for How To Be Good some years later.

High Fidelity was set in a place very recognisable to this exiled indie kid — in my head, Championship Vinyl was the Avalanche Records on West Nicolson Street around the corner from Edinburgh University’s Old College, where I had bought My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and ordered a hard-to-find copy of The Birthday Party’s Prayers On Fire.

“A complex, sophisticated, and arcane world of rock appreciation replete with touchstones for fans and listeners.”

So why does High Fidelity join London Fields in my “top five list of books that I enjoyed at an impressionable age but won’t be going back to”? Partly because Nick leveraged it into a side job as a rock critic that gave him the juice to get an op-ed into the New York Times. And that op-ed recommended that I go see the ploddingly authentic Philly band, Marah, at the old Brooklyn venue Southpaw.

What’s going on behind me?
Nothing, I can assure you.

But the main reason is Barry Faulk. If you’re the sort of person who read High Fidelity and gave it a second thought, you should check out Love, Lists and Class. It’s short. And if you’re the sort of person who read High Fidelity and gave it a second thought, you probably will, right?

According to Barry’s analysis, whereby

High Fidelity participates in the archivist, curatorial moment of rock’s middle age — a reactive, conservative codification of rock into something to rank, evaluate, and historicize

the narrator’s achievement is to commodify pop music in order to survive within “the imperatives of a harsher phase of the capitalist economy.” And get laid. The true hero of High Fidelity is the assistant clerk, Barry (natch). As the leader of Sonic Death Monkey, Barry is on a mission to take the dissonant fight to the squares. But depending on whether you’re reading the novel or watching the film,

[p]art of the surprise of the book (and the pleasure viewers derive from Jack Black’s spot-on Marvin Gaye cover at the close of High Fidelity the film) results from the reassurance that Barry as singer can in fact croon and seduce and not merely assault an audience.

Barf, man.

Seriously, check out the essay if you like that sort of thing. What struck me most, though, is the backward-looking nature of list-making that Faulk describes.

[L]ists… fix a specific relation between art and history, privileging past over present. Giving the past an upper hand can be fatal to experimental, innovational activity in the arts and in life.

So I put my 24 movies in a little compartment in my brain, and started a new one; not of films I’ve seen, but of films I want to see. Some Derek Jarman. Hunger, by Steve McQueen. Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Some more Shane Meadows. But most of all, something I haven’t heard of yet.

(c) Ray Dean
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3 thoughts on “Why Fidelity?

  1. Top Five Comments I’d Like to Make in Response to This Blog Post:

    1. Jack Black was overrated in High Fidelity. In fact, he was quite annoying for most of the movie. He didn’t play the character in the novel – he just played Jack Black the motor-mouthed asshole. I would have loved to see an unknown actor with real acting chops steal scenes from Jon Cusack (and everyone else) in that role.

    2. Janie Jones was named as one of Cusack’s Top 5 “Side One, Track One” choices. I’m such a huge rock geek (and list geek), that I wanted someone in the movie to point out that the song was only side one, track one on the original UK version of the album. The USA re-issue lead off with Clash City Rockers, which is a much better song in my opinion.

    3. “[L]ists… fix a specific relation between art and history, privileging past over present. Giving the past an upper hand can be fatal to experimental, innovational activity in the arts and in life.” Hell yes they do, and that’s partly why I like them. I always liked history, and I love categorizing things to no end. Call me conservative, reactionary, anti-innovation, whatever (anything but Republican or Tory). I’m fine with that, at my current age, when it comes to music.

    4. My contrary self, when present at a Nick Hornby book signing in Austin TX in 1998, insisted on asking questions about Fever Pitch, Arsenal, and football in general, when everyone else (all Americans) wanted to talk about High Fidelity and music. I still feel bad, in some small way, that Arsenal hasn’t yet won the Champions League – not because I like Arsenal, but for how Nick must feel about it. Is this a healthy form of empathy? I hope so.

    5. Top 5 Reasons to Vote Yes on the Question of Independence for Scotland:
    a. David Cameron
    b. Piers Morgan
    c. John Terry (and Ashley Cole, and Wayne Rooney, and Frank Lampard, ad infinitum)
    d. Liam and Noel Gallagher
    e. The rotting bones of Margaret Thatcher

    1. Hey, Marcelo! Thanks for the comment — stirring some deeper thought….

      1. In my mind, Gary was and is a skinny runt. I wonder if his physique was described in the book? I’d have enjoyed Ewen Bremner (Spud, the theatrical version of Renton) as Gary. Then, I’d enjoy Ewen Bremner in anything.
      2. They’re both ace. Oddly, when CDs were becoming the in thing, the most available version of “The Clash” in the UK mostly followed the US tracklisting.
      (Whenever Longsufferinggirlfriendoftheblogbeth and I disagree on the pronunciation of “garage”, I sing “We’re a garage band/Ah-ah-ah/We come from Garageland.” See? Doesn’t work.)
      3. Well, y’know, I’ve been listening to Dylan and Kate Bush this week, so…. And I’m dead keen to hear the new Robert Plant. But is that because Bob and Kate were moved to create something new? And Percy’s new effort sounds like the opposite of How The West Was Won? Would any of this stuff be as accessible without people like the awesome Alexis Petridis using their skills to make a dollar? Probably not. Maybe this post ends up being more about the creative impulse than anything else? I dunno, yet.
      4. Ha! That’s kinda what happened at Union Square: I asked him about the (then in its 1,582nd year) Viera transfer saga. Understandably, he wasn’t up for engaging. So I hope Danny Welbeck falls over his own shorts.
      5. Correct! The late-emerging love-bombing from down south looks like it could have been orchestrated by the yes campaign.

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