Example #1: Early in high school, my friends and I used to smuggle canned beer and Camel Lights into this dingy pool hall south of downtown Buffalo. Every time we were there, Pink Floyd’s “Money” blared from jukebox speakers at least one time. To this day, I can never hear that song without thinking of chain smoking or sipping on warm cans of Red Dog.
Example #2: When I was in the 10th grade, I hit a key 18-foot jump shot from the left wing in a local basketball battle against rival Orchard Park, which gave me a starring role in my own personal version of Hoosiers. As I type these words, I can still mentally take myself to the spot on the hardwood, hear the delirious roar of the crowd around me.
My point in detailing this historical connection is that, before picking up Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity for the first time in 2000, I’d never inhaled a book like I inhaled, say, The Clash’s The Clash; I never had encountered a literary protagonist I related with the same way I related with John Cusack’s Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything. In Hornby’s story, I found conversations I’ve had, odd philosophical musings I’ve been tortured or entertained by. In Hornby’s Rob, I saw a character who broke people down by their pop culture tastes, a practice I’ve (rightly or wrongly) engaged in since high school. Put both of those aforementioned points together and you have a relationship between me and this work. It’s a relationship between reader and novel to designate a social classification of me, something Hornby’s Rob does with other individuals throughout High Fidelity. He uses pop culture tastes to identify people, as well as himself and his own feelings. In his actions and in this novel’s narrative, I see much of myself, as I will detail in the following pages. If life is to be understood as an art form, I’d like to compare some of the thoughts and events formed throughout my own existence to the pop culture-infused trials and trivializations of Rob.
Near the beginning of this novel (page 25), Rob introduces a theory I’ve considered so many times in so many instances, spinning any number of songs by U2, Buffalo Tom, Bob Dylan, The Guess Who, Dinosaur Jr., Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, etc. “People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives” (25).
This is obviously a “what came first, the chicken or the egg” argument, but it’s one many people, romanced by the storylines of films and lyrics of songs, have probably had with themselves. I’m no different. In late grammar school and early high school, I looked for girls who invoked an Andrew McCarthy-in-Pretty-In-Pink-like gaze out of me; I wanted to feel the same kind of yearn for a girl Bruce Springsteen oozed in “I’m On Fire.” Unrealistic at 14 and 15 years old? Absolutely, but it didn’t stop me from becoming a mix tape-making machine, crafting balanced playlists and borrowing the thoughts of rock legends to express my innermost feelings for girl A, B or C. The problem with relying on the interpreted lyrics and arrangements of drunken frontmen and drug-addled guitarists was that, ultimately, they never came back properly reciprocated. The Edge’s swirling guitar solo in “All I Want Is You” provides (for some) a chance for that movie-like embrace with a lover, when the world stands still as two individuals chosen by pure fate touch lips and fade off into ecstasy. But, this isn’t reality; not mine, anyway. One of my most detrimental feelings of rejection, still burned into the depths of my memory, came with that song as a soundtrack. A beautiful cross-town cheerleader who I’d tenaciously pursued with every romantic trick in the book turned me down cold at a local garage party as Bono wailed from a small picnic radio. Though I still love that song, it always evokes that pain of adolescent rejection, tormenting me more than an unsecured revolver or violent film ever could.
Later on in this novel, Rob notes his aforementioned habit of classifying people by their pop culture tastes, something he discusses routinely with his lone employees at Championship Vinyl, musical introvert Dick and the bombastic and extroverted Barry. “A while back, when Dick and Barry and I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like, Barry proposed the idea of a questionnaire for prospective partners, a two- or three-page multiple-choice document that covered all the music/film/TV/book bases. It was intended a) to dispense with awkward conversation, and b) to prevent a chap from leaping into bed with someone who might, at a later date, have every Julio Iglesias record ever made” (117).
In this, he is indicating the ability to make final judgments about an individual by simply being informed of their pop culture tastes. Is this fair? Probably not, but I’ve done this with women my entire life. In high school, college, and even today, I’m frightened by any female who indulges in Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Tori Amos, or the almighty solo antics of Morrissey. This particular fandom has always indicated a certain darkness in a woman I didn’t want to encounter in a relationship, as well as a love of being bathed in depression and emotional longing. Also, and most importantly, it would indicate the given female had a propensity to be incredibly unstable. So, with this in mind, I’ve always checked girls’ record collections as soon as possible once a few dates were in the books. If they owned anything by these artists, I scrammed. If they didn’t, I continued along—until they expressed their love for Amos’s Under the Pink.
Then, there were the romantic connections formed through a specific artist, songs that single-handedly brought me together with a girl. Of course, Rob notes this as well. “See, records have helped me fall in love, no question. I hear something new, with a chord change that melts my guts, and before I know it I’m looking for someone, and before I know it I’ve found her. I fell in love with Rosie the simultaneous orgasm woman after I’d fallen in love with a Cowboy Junkies song: I played it and played it and played it, and it made me dreamy, and I needed someone to dream about, and I found her, and . . . well, there was trouble” (170).
I entered into my enduring fascination with Otis Redding in ‘97, right around the time I was headlong into the most serious relationship of my life (up to that point) with my college girlfriend. For over three years, Otis provided the soundtrack to many cold southern New York nights, his impassioned wails and moans warming a barricaded couple in their college dorm rooms. “These Arms of Mine” and “Pain In My Heart” were two songs capable of making a man cry—both from happiness and absolute sadness. When I started to absorb Redding’s lyrics and the enviable passion which poured from every smoky vocal, I wanted someone to share him with. Luckily, I had this girl, and the bond was formed. Unfortunately, when we broke up years later, she took Otis with her. I couldn’t listen to him without thinking of her, thinking about how it was her eyes I looked into when Redding’s passion pulsated through stereo speakers. Thankfully, after a significant time of mourning and ill-fated attempts to replace him with Wilson Pickett or Sam Cooke, I went back to Otis about six years ago. Though a relationship forged through his music had to end, I couldn’t let the man’s entire catalogue escape me as well.
In these last three examples from High Fidelity, Hornby’s Rob notes one’s connection to others or alienation from those parties through love of pop culture. Sometimes, as in the first excerpt, songs or films and their messages can emotionally hobble you, inspire you with a message before eventually deflating you when the interpretation of that message is not shared by a love interest. Other times, as in the second, similar enthusiasm toward a given piece of work can unite or restrain two people—who may be otherwise compatible. Finally, the third example shows how art can ignite simultaneous love affairs: one with the one present when this art is discovered, and the other with the artist. Later in High Fidelity, Rob talks about the affect music can have on an individual’s own choices outside of companionship, on decisions inspired by lyrics of what to do with oneself in a life full of uncontrollable variables. “In Bruce Springsteen songs, you can either stay and rot, or you can escape and burn. That’s OK; he’s a songwriter, after all, and he needs simple choices like that in his songs. But nobody ever writes about how it is possible to escape and rot—how escapes can go off at half-cock, how you can leave the suburbs for the city but end up living a limp suburban life anyway. That’s what happened to me; that’s what happens to most people” (136).
Nothing has inspired me to write more than the simple feeling a good song can ignite, the chill that rifles down my spine during a line or guitar lick. Lyrics scribbled by Lennon or Dylan, Strummer or Springsteen have always bounced through my head since I first played a record on a turntable in elementary school. I remember having a friend over to listen to The Beatles’ nonsense that was “I Am The Walrus”, just begging the kid to listen to how rhythmic Lennon’s absurdity was, how phrases that had no rational reason to paired together connected so seamlessly to form a spooky and uplifting stomp of a song. One day, I wanted to evoke that sort of enthusiasm through my own writing, and I assumed it would be as easy as grabbing paper and a pencil, jotting down what I knew. But, to put one good piece together, to truly connect, it’s not as easy as pressing “play” on a Discman. When you start writing, inspired by a song or a line or a short story, you can’t wait to get to the New York ending, the feeling that rips through your body when you know you’ve penned something worth reading. The problem is that, like Rob notes, it’s not that simple. Most wide-eyed idealists who perform music or write novels or escape the suburbs for the freewheeling cities to find some advertised freedom inevitably end up crushed. When I started to write my first novel, Running with Buffalo, I was excited and, ironically, inspired to begin by Springsteen’s “Night” off Born to Run. After some 25 edits and over 100 rejection letters from publishers and agents, I was exhausted, depleted.
Life, and finding even a modicum of professional success within it, is anything but simple—or scripted.