On HIGH FIDELITY And The Narcissistic Pursuit of Empathy Through Pop Culture
"I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films - these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the fuckin' truth."
Entertainment isn't just how we've grown to connect with other people, to identify friend from foe, to discover our soulmates, to judge or embrace one another - it's also how we've come to identify with ourselves. We search for ourselves in movies and song lyrics and in the pages of books, we seek to empathize with fictional characters and find the truth in them, but we're also seeking someone to empathize with us. It's a basic narcissistic quality, and that narcissism is prevalent in High Fidelity, from John Cusack's selfishly broken-hearted, me-me-me Rob Gordon to Jack Black's obnoxious and self-righteous Barry, to Todd Louiso's gentle Dick - even he seeks to identify himself and others through song.
As I've written about before and as Rob so eloquently expresses in the film, there is an art to curating a personal mixtape, whether you do so through movies or music or both. A particular song can remind you of a specific time, person, place, or feeling the same way a movie can. They are both incidental and purposeful in their importance to our lives - a song that just happened to be playing on the radio when you had your first kiss, or the record you put on when you got home from your first date, or the movie you took that date to see. These things matter.
We seek lyrics and movie quotes that define our existence, ripping them out of their own context for our personal gain. We co-opt the emotional experiences of others to establish who we are and what we're about. We curate our lives from a mixtape of mixed media.
Following his break-up, Rob retraces his emotional development and his relationship history through his personal catalogue of records, taking emotional inventory through a tangible inventory of sound. Heartbreak leads to self-reflection, a slippery slope of narcissism and self-indulgence and grieving. Rob steps back to examine his romantic past, to see where he keeps going wrong, but he'll never find the answer he wants - people change; our tastes change as we grow older, our preferences for people, places, and things evolve. Humans are in a constant state of individual, personal evolution, and there's a fracture that occurs when two people in a relationship don't evolve at the same pace or in the same direction. That fracture becomes a fault and keeps growing until it's a canyon, and to paraphrase The Clash, you can stay or you can go.
High Fidelity explores the way we superficially connect and the inherent selfishness of human beings - the biggest cause for argument in any relationship is when the other person simply won't behave the way you'd like them to. Our preferences overlap on a venn diagram, but it's important to maintain individuality, to assert that there are things that our significant others don't like, just as there are things they enjoy that we do not. Differences should be embraced, but in a culture that increasingly identifies itself but individually and collectively by entertainment, those differences are not so easily embraced.
In a brief moment of clarity Rob concedes that he lost Laura because he could never fully commit - he always had one foot out the door, believing that there were so many other options out there that he couldn't be bothered to tether himself to just one. Although High Fidelity was released 15 years ago before the online dating boom, it's this self-important thinking that has led to the unfortunate realities of our current dating culture - and Rob's despair over his inability to pull every string in any relationship is the sort of selfish thinking that breeds a culture in which men believe - subconsciously or not - that they wield all the decisive power.
But High Fidelity isn't merely about identity by way of entertainment or our narcissism, it also offers a commentary on the self-styled critic - we have so many opinions about the works of others, but what are we contributing to the pop culture we're so eager to deconstruct, digest, and spit out? Rob soon realizes that the basic differences between himself and Laura are essential for engendering growth. Just as a song or a film influences his life, so can an actual person - when we look past the superficial to the the complexities of individual people, we can empathize with them just as easily as we can identify with a song lyric about heartbreak or joy. If we try. Not only do we evolve within relationships, but relationships influence our personal evolution - we are different because of them, and each heartache should be felt with pride.
The differences between Rob and Laura - or Rob and any of his other ex-girlfriends - define the relationship just as much as their similar tastes. And those differences can yield positive change and personal growth, if they are embraced and allowed. People are just as influential to our lives as any piece of entertainment we perceive as meaningful - they can shape our tastes by sharing something new, they can alter our world view with their own life experiences, and when they leave we are changed. Just as we identify a particular song or film by a moment in our life or an important person we shared that moment with, we can identify specific moments and feelings by the person we were with. We search for ourselves in lyrics from songs or a character or quote in a film, but we can seek ourselves in pieces of other people, too. It's just easier when a band or a director lays it all out for us - but nothing worth having was ever easy.
Some things only matter if you let them.