“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”
No, Rob. You’re miserable because you’re an asshole with all of the personal growth potential of a shrinky dink, and you listen to pop music because you’re an obsessive misanthrope.
Rob Gordon (or Fleming, depending on whether you’re referencing the book or the movie – I’m going mostly off of the latter here) is not a good person. He’s angry, bitter, condescending to even those he considers his best friends, and endlessly self-destructive. Most of all, he’s a terrible partner. Rob, upon being told by Laura that she’s breaking up with him, turns the narrative away from her, from her concerns, and makes it all about himself. He goes on exactly the kind of shitty, solipsistic bender that I’ve known more than a few men my age (myself included) to go on: the quest to figure out just why, exactly, his failings as a lover are. As if there is a magic button in himself that he can press and suddenly repair all his damage, all his baggage. High Fidelity is the story of one man, rejected by a woman, and how that rejection threatens the validity of his goddamn existence.
Rob is also a stalker. That should not be taken lightly. He harasses Laura, calls her endlessly, and hangs around outside the apartment she’s staying in. These are things that stalkers do (the attempts by romantic comedies to normalize, even aggrandize this isn’t very helpful, either) He fantasizes about doing extreme violence to Ian, Laura’s new paramour. Not to mention the self-righteous freak out he has about Laura’s abortion, where his first response is to harangue her for not affording him the opportunity to comment on what should be entirely her choice, instead of, you know, asking how she’s handling it. And we’re supposed to root for the guy.
Early on in the movie, Rob, in desperation, asks what would have made Laura happy. She responds, “Make yourself happy.” Which Rob then spends most of the remainder of the movie trying desperately to avoid doing. And what does he finally do to do so? He makes a list of dream jobs that ultimately results in him deciding to stick with his current position, High King Shit Talker at the Super Cool Music Boys Club. He starts a record label. “Creating” something, in the movie’s own parlance, using the most technical of definitions. We spend two hours with this dingus, and the grand sum of his personal growth is “I need a slightly better job.” Nothing about his misanthropy, nothing about his lack of self-improvement, his shitty habits and outlook. Everything just sort of melts into place, in the kind of pat resolution that, you know, never actually occurs.
The eventual reconciliation between Rob and Laura is also, to be frank, bullshit. It’s only spurred by the emotional shock of her father’s death, and the fact that she can’t, at the moment, summon up the emotional energy to keep fighting him anymore. We’re supposed to believe that Rob receives a meaningful epiphany about his fear of commitment, when that’s never been his problem. His problem is that every woman he’d ever been with became a story in his head rather than a person in her own right. Every woman he’s ever loved is just the name of a song in the soundtrack of his life. It’s not that he was always looking for the next addition to the tracklist; it’s that he reduced them to grooves in wax, set there to give him the growth he couldn’t nurture in himself. And the same thing happens with Laura – she’s the one who all but forces him to embrace his new role as small-time mogul, drags him kicking and screaming into a semblance of emotional development. All the while reinforcing the notion that the onus of male personal growth falls onto the partner.
I liked this movie. I liked the book. Loved both, in fact, in my younger days. Number one on both my respective lists, with a bullet. I even idolized Rob for a few years, thinking that his diet-Coke brand of misanthropy, chain-smoking habit, and all-consuming fetish for cataloging and dissecting pop music was cool, clever, even charming. But only now, with the benefit of time and distance, can I see that Rob’s gilded veneer is just a cover for the fact that he is an emotional manchild. He’s using music as a tool, as a weapon even, to plaster over his lack of ability to grow as a person.
The final revelation of the movie is that he can finally imagine a mixtape full of songs that Laura might like (once again showing that the only way he can communicate his emotions is through the words of others). Congratulations, Rob. You learned empathy. A basic human emotion, and it only took you until your mid 30’s to figure out. But realizing that other people have rich inner experiences of their very own, and maybe those differ from your own, is only the beginning. Making a mixtape for someone is easy. Being a supportive, loving partner is hard work.
There’s a point to all this. I swear. But first I want you to take seven minutes out of your life and watch the following video.
“Here’s the thing. So the thing about songs, when you’re a young, I want to say male songwriter, you think it’s very romantic if your narrator would like maybe to hurt somebody to prove how desperately in love he is. That’s pathetic.”
Saint John, ladies and gentlemen. I used to love this song, too. But yeah. It’s about a guy who shows up on a woman’s doorstep with a gun in his hand, and everything turns out all right. Again – the fragility of the male ego is such that fantasies that begin with the violent, vengeful intentions end in getting the girl. “Maybe if I show her how much I’m willing to harm someone, either myself or her, she’ll love me again.”
I wish I could say that I don’t know that fragility firsthand. But I do. When I was in my early 20’s, in college, I had a bad breakup. I’ll spare you all the lurid details, as they are ultimately irrelevant and I don’t want to fall into the solipsistic trap that I’m railing against above. What is relevant, however, was how I responded. I never showed up on her door with a gun, thank Jesus, but I did show up on her door when I shouldn’t have. More than once. Unhinged, immature, barely out of my teens, I lost myself in music. It began to take on a different tenor; every somber song about heartbreak and loss was imbued with the excess emotional energy of stunted maturity and rage at my own powerlessness. And while the ability to imprint a story onto every track is one of my favorite things about music, it is not a replacement for the ability to cope with your own feelings. It’s not a replacement for learning how to respect the feelings of others. It didn’t help me communicate with my ex; it didn’t give me the ability to empathize with her, see things from her perspective. It just set up a series of obsessive fantasies, wherein I could use albums and songs to shunt away the possibility of emotional growth. “Maybe if I could find the right song, the right series of songs, that express how exactly I feel, the full desperate longing in my heart, maybe she’d love me again.”
Spoiler: she did not.
And this is why Rob Gordon is a shitty role model for men (or, indeed, anyone). You can’t lose yourself in your own story so much that you lose sight of the fact that there are other stories going on. You can’t love a mixtape. You have to love a person. And people are messy, difficult creatures. You can’t rewind them, you can’t fast forward to the good bits. And you can’t pause them. Their lives, all of the collective Lauras’ lives, are going on whether you’re listening or not.