“Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable, or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” Good question. I’ve asked it myself for years; John Cusack phrases it neatly in the first minute of High Fidelity. But then he would, because on the surface (clothes, haircut, obsession) John Cusack’s character Rob and me have a lot in common. Now, I’ve never come up with an answer to that question in a half-decade of trying. Cusack and High Fidelity don’t answer it either – in fact they duck it entirely, for the simple reason that all appearances to the contrary High Fidelity as a film has nothing to do with pop music.

We’ll get to why, but first here’s a hypothetical answer to Cusack’s question. If people (Hi Fi‘s biggest lie is that it’s just men) who love music turn out to be immature, faithless, and commitment-shy, the reason why maybe doesn’t lie in their nerdish but harmless collector-mentality, but somewhere deeper in pop music and what it does to you. You could say pop fandom is immature, is about infatuation and novelty – playing a song a hundred times straight, always looking for the new thrill – but that’s not quite it either, because it’s also about keeping the faith when your best band starts crapping out, about learning to love difficult records and keeping your favourites favourite for years on end.

So a simple map of pop-behaviour and relationship-behaviour doesn’t tell us very much. And if you bristled at the word ‘about’ in that last paragraph and said to yourself, “Pop music isn’t ‘about’ any such thing”, good for you, because there’s some central mystery to loving pop which makes those kind of definition-games repulsive. But what if that very mystery, the transcendent and wonderful thing that happens to you when The Song is playing, is also the thing that’s causing Cusack’s character (and me and maybe you too) to be such a flop as a loving human being?

To listen to pop songs and have that mystery thing happen, for me, is to erase myself, to wipe out my past and my future and just wallow in the recorded now. That’s escapist, because it’s deleting my current situation as it exists, but it’s also heightening that situation by projecting it onto whatever song will do the job. Let’s say, right now, “Smile” by The Fall: primitive cheesewire guitar riffs, tautness aggression and drive. The person that exists when the song’s playing, the person that’s performing and living the song, isn’t me (who can’t play guitar for shit) or anyone in the band (who recorded it 17 years ago, who have no presence here). It’s a kind of gestalt created out of my state-of-mind and the state-of-mind the song’s capturing, and it dies when the song ends. And listening to pop music this is what I do: like the body-jumping cybervillains in The Matrix, I launch myself and the people I know into the singers, characters, situations and sounds I find in songs. I become them and they become me.

What I’m thinking is that this kind of peak listening might – might – mean that pop music is writing cheques on my life that it can’t cash. If listening to pop music means turning your life into pop songs, then that might lead you to living like your life was a pop song, like cause and consequence didn’t exist and all that mattered was the situation, the moment. A pop song plays and the singer says “I love you” and he means it like crazy, and then the song ends and it’s like that “I love you” had never been. There’s a new song now and that song means what it’s saying, too. But if you say that kind of thing for real it’s not like a pop song, your “I love you” lingers, spills over from Track 1 to Track 2, the mix bleeds together, you can’t keep the moment going forever and people get hurt. Pop songs never lie, but they can’t tell the whole truth either: what matters isn’t that you mean what you say but that you’re going to mean it. Will you still love me tomorrow?

Now all this stuff is in High Fidelity somewhere deep down, and there are flashes of it on the surface too – when Rob goes puppy-eyed over a new woman and offers to make her a mixtape, it’s a neat, nasty and truthful way of dramatising his fantasy-life faithlessness. But really the film never follows through on that opening question, doesn’t doesn’t make the connections between Rob the man and Rob the fan. In all honesty it can’t make those connections, because Rob isn’t a pop fan.

I went into High Fidelity expecting it to be a sharp film about pop which might well get clogged down in relationship suet. What I saw was a film which was funny, uncomfortably accurate about relationships and rather poor when it came to music. Rob doesn’t talk about music much – even when he’s remembering his past relationships he doesn’t talk about it. He doesn’t talk about how he came to love music or what stuff he really likes, let alone why he likes it. His girlfriend Laura may have left him, but during their break-up they never have a conversation in which that time-honoured phrase “all your fucking records” is uttered. When he does play or talk about pop, it’s music the audience will recognise, which from a soundtrack-shifting point-of-view works but in terms of what actual record shop workers play is nonsense. In short, Rob seems less like a music obsessive and more like a character in some sub-Kafka short story who’s woken up one morning to find his house full of shelf upon shelf of records.

In a way this is just as well – when the plot of High Fidelity touches on music it’s absurd. I’ve worked in probably the rudest record shop in one of the rudest cities on Earth, and if any employee tried to pull the kind of shit that Jack Black does, he’d have got a boot up his arse faster than you could say Lou Reed. Even allowing for that, the last half-hour’s storyline is insane. No record shop owner ever has liked skate-metal, or ever will, let alone enough to offer to put out a record (which in the grand tradition of fictional records in films, is complete shit) in said genre by two shoplifters. We’re then expected to believe that Rob’s girlfriend organises a promo launch for this completely unknown record (without telling him), and that scores of people turn up and dance to its completely undanceable music, and finally that all these hipster elitist bastards go wild for what is in essence a Jack Black-fronted wedding band. This sort of fantasyland stuff might work in a two-hanky Drew Barrymore movie, but in a film selling itself on its cutting observational comedy it goes down like a bad dose of salts.

The reason High Fidelity goes so wrong (and the reason it’s a good film anyway) is that neither original author Nick Hornby or John Cusack care much about music. Music is a useful hook for the movie, and makes for a decent background as Hornby pokes around in the collective male psyche, but Rob’s passion might as well have been trains or trading cards. The music is never an impediment, or even a distraction to Rob’s getting a life: it’s just what he does. That makes him a more likeable character and Hi Fi highly watchable, but it makes the film a missed opportunity. There is a great book to be written and even a great film to be made about pop music: this isn’t bad, but isn’t it.