Warning: spoilers ahead for High Fidelity on Hulu.
At the beginning of the second episode of Hulu’s High Fidelity, a gender-flipped remake of the book and movie, there’s a conversation about Michael Jackson that is guaranteed to blow up the Insta comments of its star, Zoë Kravitz, for at least a week. In the scene, Rob (Kravitz), a record store owner, is called by her employees Cherise (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and Simon (David H. Holmes) to settle a debate: Should they sell a customer a copy of Jackson’s 1979 masterwork, Off the Wall, in spite of all the allegations of child abuse against him (his estate denies them)? They all look perturbed that she wants to buy it at all, despite there being a copy on vinyl in the store, and Rob declines to sell it, at first.
When the customer says okay and turns to leave, Rob waivers, she says because of the amazing horn charts on the album that were orchestrated by producer Quincy Jones. Cherise asks if she’s serious — MJ gets a pass? Rob calls her out for still listening to Kanye West, calling him “a dude who raps in a MAGA hat.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Cherise asks. “Having shitty politics and a second grade understanding of American history is a tiny bit different than being a goddam child molester.” The customer, a blonde woman, jumps in to add an “allegedly” — for the second time, to the disbelief of everyone in the store.
Rob bows out and Simon and Cherise play rock, paper, scissors to decide if they sell the record. In the very next scene, Rob is back to making her mixtape and we slip down a memory wormhole of David Bowie’s music — something she discussed with her ex-boyfriend Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir) on the night they first said I love you to each other. What doesn’t come up are any complicated feelings either character may have about Bowie allegedly having sex with groupies who were underaged in the ‘70s. It’s a jarring moment if you know about Bowie’s history and it raises an interesting question. How do we decide who gets canceled in music?
What makes that a difficult question is not the degrees of right and wrong, or how long ago something happened. It’s hard because, like Rob and Mac, music and the people who make it don’t just flit in and out of our lives. We have an emotional, and sometimes visceral, reaction to it. It becomes a part of our memories. There are those songs that will forever remind you of old friends, and songs that stir up visceral memories from key moments in life. The songs make you cry, dance, smile, and even soothe you when you’re down and dispirited. So when the person who created that lyric or chorus does something bad, you aren’t just condemning them and moving on with it — you are, in effect, pushed to punish yourself, too, in way, by not allowing yourself to listen to their music.
At the end of the day, there is no one answer for who you cancel and how that looks.
Should you stream the music of or buy tickets to see performers whose behavior goes against your moral code? Probably not. Do you have the time to research every musician and see what their history is? You should probably be making it, if you care about taking a stand. For me, I can’t listen to Bowie anymore — it makes me cringe, even though he spent far more of his life being an upstanding old married guy than another kind of rock star. But I don’t cringe in quite the same way when I hear songs from Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Iggy Pop, or any of the other ‘60s and ‘70s guys who were allegedly doing the same thing (and some much more out in the open). I think it’s because my expectations for them are lower. I don’t feel as personally invested so it’s a big meh. But once you hear the details of what people say Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Jimmy Page, or Ryan Adams did it’s hard to ignore them — or to listen to their music in the same way again.
For Rob, it’s too hard to let go of Bowie and this cherished memory while she works through her top five heartbreaks. And it goes deeper than that moment — we learn in future episodes that she’s been a Bowie fan her whole life. It’s unclear if the show’s writers just don’t know this information or just don’t care, but for the non-Robs watching it who do know, it’s a jarring moment, a different kind of heartbreak all on its own.
High Fidelity is streaming now on Hulu.