Cosby Sweaters: Reevaluating High Fidelity

A culturally significant moment occurs in Stephen Frears's 2000 adaptation of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel, High Fidelity when oh-so earnest, and not yet famous, Jack Black transcends his character, Barry, to make an astute statement about Rob Gordon's (John Cusack) wardrobe. In a film filled with immensely quotable dialogue and tons of Black diatribes, his speed fire "That's the worst fucking sweater I've ever seen. It's a Cosby sweater. A Cosby Sweater. Does Laura let you leave the house like that?" stands out. The Cosby Sweater has become a cultural high-water mark that is remembered by most who lived through the '80s, as well as most who caught the epochal television show in reruns in the decades since.

Little touches, like this reference to non-music cultural ephemera, such as the Cosby sweater, humanize characters who are often the epitome of the worst record consumers and snobbish music dilettantes. These are folks who mercilessly taunt those who do not live up to their expectations, refuse to sell certain records to those not cool enough, and even chastise their best friends for making poor decisions about music. They are what many of us hardcore record collectors refuse to believe we are. At least, we hope the general public doesn't see us like this anyway. Rob Gordon claims, "It's not what you're like, it's what you like" at one point in the film. This statement is generally shallow, but it holds some merit.

To be culturally relevant, one must know the latest information about the right things. Most of these characters understand pop culture better than their own lives or their woeful relationships. Like the stereotypical comic book nerd or gamer, the music snob tends to place themselves into a ghetto. The over-the-top bombastic Barry, everyman Dick (Todd Louiso), and lovelorn, misdirected Rob are all struggling in life, so they cling to what they know best. Yet their knowledge of cultural ephemera doesn't really help them. The Cosby sweater symbolizes this struggle as much as anything, an impure cultural totem that Barry clings to, even as he attacks Rob. The film is filled with great music, much different from that of the original novel, which was equally good in a more anglocentric and dated way, that really captures the time period for rock snobs and independent music fans, remaining classicist, but adding new classics to the mix. Sometimes, though, it is too knowing, and too precious. Like Tarantino's films, the dialogue can be cloying, but it hits more than it misses, truly capturing a time and an era.

Obsessive music fans are still like these characters, and might always be, bringing up little known records and proclaiming their knowledge to those who have little interest. In fact, a Cosby sweater will remain a Cosby sweater, just like the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me," which opens the film will perpetually remain an epic jam. People will be people. High Fidelity captures this, and created a few stars in the process. It has become a cult classic, which I would never have imagined possible when I saw it in a near empty theater that didn't even have a movie poster for the film. It remains a redemptive and enjoyable film, one that paints its subjects as insufferable at times, yet full of great humanity at others.


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