The New Rules of Music Snobbery

Hulu’s High Fidelity reboot captures the end of elitist condescension and the rise of fervent eclecticism.

illustration with music note
Oliver Munday

Twenty-five years after Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity psychoanalyzed fussy record-store clerks, and 20 years after the movie adaptation made John Cusack their avatar, the once-inescapable and now-obscure archetype of the music snob is being reissued. Hulu’s charming High Fidelity reboot stars Zoë Kravitz in a 10-episode riff on the ways that music culture—and the preposterously learned, list-making taste cops intrinsic to it—has changed in the era of AirPods. The first law of post-snob snobbery: Speak before you Shazam.

A telling early scene in the old High Fidelity saw Barry, the bombastic employee of Cusack’s Rob, repel a would-be customer searching for Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” Barry decreed the single “sentimental, tacky crap,” saying the middle-aged man who asked for it “offended me with his terrible taste.” The equivalent moment in the 2020 version arrives when Cherise, the Barry-update played with delicious verve by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, calls out an iced-coffee-drinking bro who has strolled into the Brooklyn record store owned by Kravitz’s Robin. He holds up his phone to ID the song that’s playing. “You do know there’s an actual person standing right here in front of you?” Cherise says before launching into a semi-castigating, semi-flirtatious sermon that irritates its target so much, he leaves. She isn’t out to shame the Shazamer so much as to connect with him. “The problem with these kids,” Cherise yells afterward, “is that the generation has completely fucked off.”

A less perceptive reboot would simply have made Ed Sheeran the new sentimental, tacky crap, but Hulu has gone beyond grafting contemporary references onto Hornby’s tale of 30-somethings who are more adept at sequencing mixtapes than at maintaining healthy relationships. The series captures a fundamental reorientation in listening these days: Elitist condescension about musical preferences isn’t cool anymore, but maybe—die-hard fans fear—obsessing and connecting over music are no longer cool either. Barry-types once used their taste to prop themselves above the less erudite, mainstream-minded listeners they mocked. Cherise, by contrast, just wants to chat about a song—and the consumer, cozy in a private digital bubble, decidedly does not.

The much-discussed “death of the snob” in the internet era explains part of the shift on display. Even though some High Fidelity–style shops catering to vinyl collectors have survived the extinction of big-box retailers, streaming and downloads have chipped away at the super-listener’s pretexts for arrogance: special knowledge (entire discographies are now explorable with a click), special access (few B sides can hide from Google), and curatorial chops (algorithms can DJ your life). Cloistered listening has become more common, as Spotify and the omnipresent earbud turn an entire art form into an on-demand, all-you-can-stream personal utility. Meanwhile, many of the remaining gatekeepers have mellowed into “poptimists” who say Taylor Swift and Radiohead can be equally worthy of praise and exegesis. Ideals of inclusivity—not exactly a trademark of the straight-white-male audiophiles of the original High Fidelity—have driven that change.

The 2020 record store’s denizens—two women of color and a gay white man—seem to realize that hierarchical edicts are out. Certainly the staff is nicer than the old guard was. Barry and Rob squabbled so acridly that they nearly came to blows; their descendants banter with noticeable sensitivity and esprit de corps. Outsiders, in fact, are surprised at how agreeable the crew is. One guy Robin goes on a date with, upon learning that she owns a record store, asks if she’ll walk out on him for enjoying Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.” Robin, as it happens, loves the song, though she’s iffy on its album, Rumours. The tension and humor of the scene then turn on whether she’s too voluble in her analysis of a band she was expected to disdain. Intensity, rather than pretension, defines her. She’s a geek more than a snob.

Not that these characters aren’t snobs in other cultural arenas. Generally they hate the superficial: overpriced coffee shops, selfie-taking influencers, and other lifestyle-as-branding trends. Cherise never says it, but you can guess that she worries the Shazamer will simply add the song—which she’d no doubt fastidiously selected—to some chill-out playlist, rather than engage more deeply. Such anxieties fit with a commonly heard refrain from today’s artists and critics that streaming devalues music economically and spiritually. Robin even seems a bit smug about her store’s obsolescence. “Half the neighborhood thinks we’re washed-up relics,” she says. “The other half thinks we’re nostalgic hipsters. They’re both kind of right.”

So how are we to think about the key motto—“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like”—referenced in all three versions of High Fidelity? Hornby’s aphorism might sound outdated in the era of identity politics, when Twitter’s brawls over art can make independent aesthetic judgments seem secondary to proudly lining up with one’s tribe. Hulu’s High Fidelity does, refreshingly, correct the exclusionary spirit that went with the original’s lack of diversity. Yet crucially, the series retains the assurance that music preferences reflect something individual, ineffable, soul-deep, and in need of sharing. Kravitz’s Robin—a brooding biracial and bisexual space cadet enamored of the Beastie Boys, Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book, and the folk singer Nick Drake—eludes any image neatly tied to race, gender, or sexuality. In one hilarious subplot that highlights taste as an idiosyncratic proxy for identity, Cherise posts a flyer looking for bandmates in sync with her ideal sound: “Think Brian Eno producing Beyoncé fronting Soul Coughing but with Daniel Ash on guitar.”

Such fervent eclecticism is countercultural in any era, because by definition it flouts paradigms. Here it represents another way in which the new High Fidelity audiophiles feel they have, as Cherise puts it at one point, “opted out” of their own algorithm-obedient generation. But they’re not quite the oddballs they think they are. Genre boundaries have been melting in popular music lately, and the quest for self-definition through sound is no niche practice. As I write this, my social feeds are full of people sharing their personalized Spotify report on their most-listened-to songs of the year. Some users are LOLing at the quirkiness of their habits (one friend’s top five artists of 2019 included ultra-glossy contemporary country, hard-edged underground rap, and the Barenaked Ladies). Others cheekily revel in the stereotypes it turns out they’ve fallen into (“so gay,” texts someone whose No. 1 was Carly Rae Jepsen). I’m not seeing a lot of mockery; I am seeing a lot of curiosity, amusement, and discussion. The tools of High Fidelity’s rankers and curators have been democratized, and of course not everyone is going to use them for esoteric adventures. If you’ve got a problem with that, you might be a snob.