Baby Got Going: Longing and Leaving in High Fidelity

Jack Black and John Cusack in High Fidelity artwork
illustration by Tom Ralston

The Chicago of High Fidelity (2000) is the one I wanted to live in back when I was young and stuck in the suburbs. In my mind, I could follow its graffiti-lined, wheat-pasted streets, to get beyond the cul-de-sacs of tidy family homes that felt so clean and so stifling to me back then.  I still see that Chicago as the El rumbles behind thirtysomething Rob Gordon (John Cusack), who walks in his Gen-X uniform (long leather jacket, Adidas sneakers) to Championship Vinyl, the record store he owns. I see it inside the store, among the red wooden bins of albums, the posters for shows at the Metro and Double Door that line the walls, and the avocado green counter that looks like it was salvaged from Goodwill. Rob tells the camera, “I get by because of the people who make a special effort to shop here: mostly young men who spend most of their time looking for deleted Smiths singles, and original—not re-released, underlined—Zappa albums.” This in no way described me, but I kept watching and wanting anyway.

High Fidelity focuses on Rob’s relationship with Laura (Iben Hjejle), a punk-rocker-turned-lawyer, who has just broken up with him. As the kind of guy who expresses himself through “other people’s poetry,” Rob narrates in second person, often through Top Five lists that echo High Fidelity’s source material, the novel by Nick Hornby set in 1980s-era London. The lists echo the format of the BBC’s longstanding Desert Island Discs radio show, which invites celebrity guests to discuss eight songs they would bring to a desert island, conversations that, at their best, open music’s direct line to emotion. In Rob’s case, the songs mostly lead back to longing, the same place High Fidelity leads me.

Rob’s list of all-time, top five breakups and the related backstories drive the first half of the movie—a passive-aggressive effort to prove Laura won’t even make the list. His #3 pick, Charlie (Catherine Zeta-Jones), embodied a persona I wanted for myself around the time the movie came out in 2000, when I was in high school. According to Rob, “She talked a lot, and when she talked she said remarkably interesting things about music, books, film, and politics.” As he says this, the scene flashes back to a group of twentysomethings drinking black coffee from diner mugs, surrounded by tables with bottle caps pinned to the rims and walls painted with vintage clown murals—unmistakably inside the Earwax Café, a staple of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood at the time of filming. Charlie wears an artsy t-shirt and black jeans. She dissects Gene Simmons’s performance presence with impassioned arm gestures, then commands Rob to kiss her neck. This all happens against a soundtrack of Chicago musician Liz Phair’s “Baby Got Going” from Whitechocolatespacegg, an album I loved deeply back then; I never even remembered it being in the film, maybe because it was left off the soundtrack, as if it were good enough to mention but not to listen to. 

The camera follows Rob and Charlie up a winding staircase to her studio on the top floor of a quintessential u-shaped, “Chicago courtyard” apartment building I imagined living inside. Rob narrates, “I felt like a fraud. I felt like one of those people who suddenly shaved their heads and said they’d always been punks.” In this scene, in the two characters, I recognize my younger self: my desire to formulate articulate, confident opinions, right there beside my fear of being found out as a wannabe critic from suburbia. Most of all, I see my longing to inhabit the world of the film.

“What came first, the music or the misery?” Watching High Fidelity again, twenty-odd years later, my question shifted. Which came first: my vision for my future self, or the movie’s vision? Now, the film feels like a map of directives and places that guided my aspirations for a particular life that I never found but still hold on to.


To grow up in suburbia is to be innately tied to a city. I could hear the trains to Chicago from my bedroom window. The station was a ten-minute walk from our house, the city a 45 minute ride away. My father was a creative director in an advertising firm off Michigan Avenue in the city. When I was in fourth grade, he started bringing me to Take Our Daughters to Work Day and we’d commute together. We sat on the second level of the silver Metra cars so I could stare through the green-tinted windows while my clothes absorbed the astringent smell of the freshly-wiped-down pleather seats. I spent the ride imagining what it would feel like when I was alone, en route to my own life. One year, when I was in middle school, my father pulled a Chicago Reader from a bank of newspaper boxes that spanned the Union Station entrance. You might like this, he said, as we headed into the office. 

I kept that copy of the paper propped up against the base of my bulletin board for years afterwards; the sections were thick, divided into Features and Arts that I worked my way through one by one. I still had that paper in high school, when I veered into the Venues section, looking for places to go in Chicago beyond the Magnificent Mile. I wasn’t old enough to get into most places the Reader called out, but I started making lists, fantasizing what it would be like to go and talk and drink and flirt in the venues with the most evocative names. The Double Door. The Rainbo Club. The Earwax Café. 

When I was seventeen, I went to the corner of North Honore Street and Milwaukee Avenue, in search of Championship Vinyl. I knew the name was borrowed from the novel, but I still thought the scenes inside might have been filmed on location, at a like-minded business nearby. But, the fictional record store turned out to be merely that—pure fiction, fabricated as a set. A green turret overhang that housed apartments assured me I was in the right place, even though the storefront below was vacant, its windows covered with black-painted plywood. But I didn’t mind. This was in 2001, before the internet was useful for such things as tracking down locations from movies. Successfully taking the El’s blue line and finding the store’s intersection was its own victory; the journey led me to Wicker Park and eventually the Earwax Café. 

Home to a working-class Polish community for most of the twentieth century, as well as to Mexican and Puerto Rican residents in the 1950s and 60s, Wicker Park has a familiar backstory – flooded by an influx of creatives beginning in the 70s.  By the late 90s, people were already talking about how the transformed neighborhood “wasn’t cool anymore.” They pointed to rising rents and the closures of the area’s longtime businesses, as well as news that MTV’s The Real World would soon be filming there. Some people blamed High Fidelity for bringing attention to the area. I didn’t know any of this when I went searching for a nonexistent store.

I recognized some of the coolness I was looking for in Wicker Park in the three music-obsessed men who worked behind the counter of Championship Vinyl: Rob, Barry (Jack Black), and Dick (Todd Louiso). They mirrored three college guys who presided over the music section of my local Borders store. In High Fidelity, Laura calls Rob “the critic, the professional appreciator.” I craved such a title for myself when I started a music reviews column for the school newspaper; I saw working in a music store as the natural next step towards some vague vision I had of adulthood.  

By the time I was seventeen, record shops were being consumed and consolidated into larger chains. I applied at the now-defunct Borders in my suburb, but I only ever got a call back from the café, where I worked my senior year. The three guys from the music section would come by for cappuccinos and talk to me through the steam of the espresso machine as I pulled their shots. Sometimes, they thrilled me with a recommendation from some obscure corner of punk music I’d never heard of; other times, they argued between themselves about the top albums of the year, grabbed their coffees and wandered back to their section, never asking me for my list.

In some ways, it was a relief to only be schooled, never asked what I thought; it was easy to be liked if I exerted a flirty thirst for knowledge rather than offering up my opinions. I could guess the albums I should talk about –Radiohead’s Amnesiac and Ryan Adams’s Gold. But I worried they would see through me. Speak too much, and the music guys would detect my affinity for Aimee Mann’s “mediocre” repertoire; or I might let slip that I put mainstream radio tracks by Janet Jackson and Destiny’s Child on my CD mixes—songs I understood then as being for solo rides in my car, not serious discussion, no matter how many times I listened to them. 


Rob’s monologue about the music and the misery also drifts into a less-remembered subquery: “Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” When I was young this phrasing confounded me, because what I knew to be “pop music”—namely, Top 40 songs from the previous twenty or so years—was not what Rob seemed to be talking about. It implied that much of what I listened to wasn’t even good enough to be considered pop music. In Hornby’s novel, the Beatles are revered, but in the film, they’re mentioned with disdain, their pop too pedestrian to qualify for a top five list. 

In a memorable scene, a customer comes into the store searching for a Stevie Wonder album from the 1980s. Barry informs him he cannot buy it there; in the film, Jack Black’s delivery of the rationale oozes scorn: “Well, it’s sentimental, tacky crap, that’s why not. Do we look like the kind of store that sells ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’? Go to the mall.” The scene haunts me to this day. Every time I bring a record to the register to pay at a local shop, my heart quickens. I don’t expect a Jack-Black-level outburst from the guy (usually it is still a guy) behind the counter, but I still fear his judgment of my taste. As outlandish as the “I Just Called to Say I Love You” scene is, its humor resides in the truth it holds— there is something real about the dynamic between the white-male-afficionado Barry represents and the customers whose motivations for loving an album fall outside of that narrow perspective.

High Fidelity’s depiction of exclusion is complicated, given that it’s a defining characteristic for Rob, Barry, and Dick. “You’re totally elitist. You feel like the underappreciated scholars, so you shit on the people who know less than you,” says Louis (Alex Désert), friend of the Championship Vinyl guys and one of the few Black characters in the film (this brief scene is his only appearance). The record store guys get called assholes, bigots, self-centered, and the like, by themselves and others; you’re not supposed to want to be like them. And yet, for years I did. I followed rules they spouted for the flow of a mixtape (“You’ve got to start off with a killer…Then you’ve got to take it up a notch, but you don’t want to blow your wad”). I believed “I Just Called to Say I Love You” was a bad song, even though I liked it. Following their guidelines felt like a path to prove I, too, could become a professional appreciator. Unlike media portrayals of femininity and its ties to perfectionism, these guys got to be undeniably flawed and still succeed, which had its own appeal. But, the misogyny that underlies—and at times blatantly surfaces from— the version of masculinity they perform is more difficult to excuse. For example, in one scene, Rob rants about how men are the proper owners of women’s breasts and had an easier time back when the female orgasm wasn’t a necessary outcome of sex. 

More concerning for me is the portrayal of Caroline (Natasha Gregson Wagner), a music writer for the Chicago Reader, who is portrayed more like a groupie than one of the city’s preeminent critics. In a scene in Championship Vinyl, she asks Rob about the music that’s playing in the store. Rob affirms her guess—yes, it is the new Stereolab record, and yes, he knows it’s good. She then tells him how she used to love his DJ sets at the Double Door. He smiles, looks away, smiles again. When he finds out she writes for the Reader, he looks directly at her, points his finger, and raps the counter between them: “I read your column, it’s great. You really know what you’re talking about.” Maybe I’m taking the hint of surprise in Rob’s tone and the pronounced affirmation of his own knowledge too personally on Caroline’s behalf. Maybe she reminds me too much of the person I was at Borders, and the person I still become at the record store counter, forever eager to please those guys—a person I’ve tried to push out of myself in the time since but who I know is still there somewhere, forever inside of me.

In the late 2000s, I moved to Seattle for graduate school. I never did work for the Reader, but, while writing a personal art blog, an editor at a Northwest alt-weekly invited me to write reviews for the paper.  This is it. I’ve made it. I thought this for the first and only time with concrete conviction. The dream inevitably did not last long. Alt-weeklies were already on the decline by then. This particular paper ceased hiring freelancers a few years after I started writing for them. Then, the editor I worked with left and was replaced by a guy who never responded to my emails. This was all around the same time many of the places in Chicago that I emblemized when I was younger started to close and the neighborhood became increasingly full of chain stores; the Earwax Café is now a Doc Martens store. A part of me is angry and bitter, just like Rob, not for the loss of a person but the loss of a place and the vision for myself bound up in it. Maybe I’m taking it out on High Fidelity, as a reminder of what that vision once looked like, and of rules that I sometimes  still hear in my head—rules that once held me back; rules that I fear sometimes still do. Not only are there the mixtape lessons and the elevation of one taste over another, but the rules of the larger sort: who works behind the record counter. Who writes the music column. Who gets to ask the questions and who gets to answer them.


The 2020 Hulu series remake of High Fidelity reimagines Championship Vinyl without heteronormative white men as the music rule-makers. It stars Zoë Kravitz, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and David H. Holmes. Musicians I understood as pop artists in the late 1990s pointedly adorn the walls of this store, now in Crown Heights, Brooklyn: Tina Turner, the Notorious B.I.G., Liz Phair. Critical reviews were mixed; some suggested it’s better to scrap problematic originals than it is to charge queer-, BIPOC- and female-led casts with revising them. 

Still, there’s a part of me that would like to see the revised Chicago version of High Fidelity, not for the plot so much as the places—to know where they might have taken me and another self who might have emerged from that alternative universe. John Cusack co-wrote the 2000 adaptation with screenwriters D.V. DeVincentis and Steve Pink, all of whom were from Chicago. They crafted a selective version of the city and its music scene from their experiences. I recently read that Liz Phair was almost cast for the part of Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet), a singer-songwriter who ends up in a one-night stand with Rob. I cannot imagine anyone else playing the role with the laissez-faire assuredness that Bonet conjures in such stark relief against Rob’s insecurity. 

I would have wanted to see Liz Phair’s version of Chicago.

To some extent, it already exists, as the Rainbo Club.  Phair’s cover for her 1993 album Exile in Guyville was shot in the photobooth of the Rainbo Club, a bar that’s been around since the 1930s, less than a mile from Championship Vinyl’s intersection. It’s easy to imagine this factoid becoming insider knowledge the record store guys use to one-up each other. The dive, still there to this day, quietly appears in the film in slices: the burlesque bar, the red booths, the wood-paneled walls. It’s also the place, towards the end of the movie, where Rob proposes to Laura over a beer and she laughs in his face. I watched this scene when I was younger and wanted Laura to just say yes, already; Rob admitted he was done with his fantasies, after all. Now, I adore Laura’s refusal, her sarcasm, her unrelenting jabs that put Rob in his place.  Even though she declines his proposal, she thanks him for it before she leaves the bar. Maybe this is the best way to leave High Fidelity, too—to have a laugh at its expense, to thank it, and to get back to work. Unlike Rob, I hold onto the longing; it reminds me where I’m going.